'Embattled Rebel' suggests that Jefferson Davis had plenty of help when it came to losing the Civil War

Pulitzer-winning historian James M. McPherson determines that Confederate President Jefferson Davis devised a credible strategy for fighting the war.

Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief, by James M. McPherson, Penguin Group, 320 pp.

Open minds are in short supply today, so it is refreshing that Civil War scholar and Pulitzer-winning author James M. McPherson has taken a fresh look at a subject with which is he eminently familiar: the life and times of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. With more than a dozen books about America’s greatest crucible to his credit, the 78-year-old author is still challenging past postulations.

In Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief, McPherson conducts his review methodically, without emotion, like an intellectual Sgt. Joe Friday. Polemics are not part of the mix. In the introduction, however, the author does concede that his sympathies lie with Lincoln and his cause, and that he believes that Davis’s war doomed the South to generations of suffering and decline. But he confesses, too, that he found himself “becoming less inimical toward Davis than I expected when I began this project.”

Jefferson Davis, McPherson determines, wasn’t as inept a leader as he previously had thought – and as many of his Confederate colleagues and historians have charged. If the war he prosecuted to the bitterest of ends was lost, Davis had plenty of help. Much has been made of the troubles that President Abraham Lincoln had with his generals, particularly early in the war, but the South was afflicted with tarnished brass, too. If there was a qualitative difference between the generalship of the tentative George B. McClellan and the backpedaling Joseph E. Johnston, it was exceedingly small.

In his Coda, or conclusion, McPherson raises the intriguing argument (but then quickly discounts it) that Johnston may actually have been on to something. By avoiding the enemy and ceding territory while keeping his army intact, the general was following the strategy that another insurgent, George Washington, employed with success against the British in the Revolutionary War.   

While he documents that Davis made his share of mistakes and could be a most impolitic politician, McPherson concludes that he also devised a credible strategy for fighting the war, transitioning from a politically driven “dispersal defense” of the entire Confederate land base early on to a more assertive “offensive-defensive” approach that involved invasions of the North. There were times when it looked as if aggressive Confederate campaigns might succeed in convincing the North to relent. If they had it would have been quite an upset.

The South’s material and manpower handicaps are well known, but this book illuminates other obstacles the rebellion faced. Southerners were anything but united. Not all, Davis included, had been rabid secessionists in 1861, and the rebels’ “states rights” mantra often inhibited coordinated military tactics. In 1862 Arkansas threatened to secede from the Confederacy, and in 1863 North Carolina’s leaders favored negotiations. Rebel soldiers, most of whom never imagined such a lengthy and terrible conflict, deserted in droves.

In addition, the virulent partisanship that had led to disunion was infectious and did not respect the Mason-Dixon Line. Davis frequently came under savage attack. For example, midway through the conflict the Richmond Examiner editorialized: “Had the people dreamed that Mr. Davis would carry all his chronic antipathies, his bitter prejudices, his puerile partialities into the presidential chair, they would never have allowed him to fill it.”

On the other hand, Davis was no slouch himself when it came to fulminating. He called the “dirty Yankee invaders” a “traditionless and homeless race,” and asked one audience: “If the question was proposed to you whether you would combine with hyenas or Yankees, I trust every Virginian would say give us the hyenas.”

While Davis may well have been a more effective a leader than is commonly believed, it remains exceeding hard to be anything but inimical towards him after reading this book. The facts are compelling. Like Ahab chasing the white whale, Davis almost singlehandedly kept the war going after all hope had vanished. An inventory conducted by the Confederate Secretary of War in February 1865 found the cupboard was unequivocally bare, but Davis would not relent. One is left wondering how many people died between February 1 and May 10, 1865, when the fleeing Confederate President was captured in Georgia.

The man who professed to be fighting for freedom, honor, and civilization held 113 human beings in bondage, “property” alone that made him the equivalent of a multi-millionaire today. By the end of his war to preserve slavery, Davis and many of his fellow insurgents were ready to offer slaves their freedom if they would fight for the Lost Cause.

One Confederate Senator raised this perceptive objection to the plan: “If slaves will make good soldiers – our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” Of course, by that time freedmen already were proving their mettle in the Union Army.

David Holahan is a regular Monitor contributor.

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