The Commander of Civil War History

Christopher Berkey/The New York Times/Redux
James M. McPherson giving a tour of Shiloh National Military Park, Tennessee, 2008

By early April 1865, the Confederacy was in free fall. William Tecumseh Sherman had cut a swath of destruction through Georgia and the Carolinas. On April 2, Ulysses S. Grant broke Robert E. Lee’s line at Petersburg, Virginia. The next day Grant took Richmond, the Confederate capital. Abraham Lincoln arrived there on April 4 and was greeted by jubilant crowds of emancipated blacks.

Meanwhile, Jefferson Davis, the gaunt, austere president of the Confederacy, had joined the evacuation of Richmond and had fled to Danville, Virginia. But he had not lost faith in his cause. Davis issued a proclamation to the Southern people that stated confidently, “Nothing is now needed to render our triumph certain, but the exhibition of our own unquenchable resolve. Let us but will it, and we are free.”

It was a desperate rallying call by a leader who would not accept defeat. Five days after Davis made it, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House. But Davis continued to cherish the Confederacy’s ideals. Fifteen years after the war ended, he wrote that “African servitude” in the South had been “the mildest and most humane of all institutions to which the name ‘slavery’ has ever been applied.”1

Such ideas are so mistaken that it might seem that Davis should be dismissed as deluded. James McPherson invites us to adopt a more nuanced view in Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief. McPherson calls the Southern cause “tragically wrong” but adds, “I have sought to transcend my convictions and to understand Jefferson Davis as a product of his time and circumstances.” Davis emerges in McPherson’s portrait as a hands-on military leader who, despite several painful chronic illnesses, kept close watch on his generals, devised battle plans, and sometimes risked his life by visiting the front lines.

With his background as a West Point graduate and a successful colonel in the Mexican War, Davis at the start of the Civil War was far more deeply versed in military matters than his rival, Lincoln, who had no combat experience and who had to learn about war strategy on the go. That the North won the war had little to do with ineptitude on Davis’s part. His choice of such generals as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson made good sense, as did his “offensive-defensive” strategy, which involved concentrating his troops and attacking the enemy at key moments—a strategy that, as McPherson explains, Davis was forced to abandon through much of the war in favor of a more dispersed, defensive position. The North’s superior troop numbers, industrial strength, and firepower did not guarantee the South’s defeat. Outmanned and outgunned forces can sometimes stand up to stronger powers, as shown by the American Revolution or the Vietnam War.

But one wonders…

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