From the dean of Civil War historians and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom, a powerful new reckoning with Jefferson Davis as military commander of the Confederacy
History has not been kind to Jefferson Davis. His cause went down in disastrous defeat and left the South impoverished for generations. If that cause had succeeded, it would have torn the United States in two and preserved the institution of slavery. Many Americans in Davis's own time and in later generations considered him an incompetent leader, if not a traitor. Not so, argues James M. McPherson. In Embattled Rebel, McPherson shows us that Davis might have been on the wrong side of history, but it is too easy to diminish him because of his cause's failure. In order to understand the Civil War and its outcome, it is essential to give Davis his due as a military leader and as the president of an aspiring Confederate nation.
Davis did not make it easy on himself. His subordinates and enemies alike considered him difficult, egotistical, and cold. He was gravely ill throughout much of the war, often working from home and even from his sickbed. Nonetheless, McPherson argues, Davis shaped and articulated the principal policy of the Confederacy with clarity and force: the quest for independent nationhood. Although he had not been a fire-breathing secessionist, once he committed himself to a Confederate nation he never deviated from this goal. In a sense, Davis was the last Confederate left standing in 1865.
As president of the Confederacy, Davis devoted most of his waking hours to military strategy and operations, along with Commander Robert E. Lee, and delegated the economic and diplomatic functions of strategy to his subordinates. Davis was present on several battlefields with Lee and even took part in some tactical planning; indeed, their close relationship stands as one of the great military-civilian partnerships in history.
©2014 James M. McPherson (P)2014 Penguin Audio
I am an avid eclectic reader.
Civil War scholar and Pulitzer winning (“Battle Cry of Freedom” 1988) author James M McPherson has taken a fresh look at a subject with whom he is eminently familiar: the life and times of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. With open minds in short supply these days the author takes a big risk in challenging past postulations. Many still consider Davis a traitor.
McPherson has methodically, without emotions written this short book. It is obvious he has conducted an enormous amount of research in preparation to write this story of Davis. This is not a biography in the traditional since as details of Davis’s life before Secession and his fate during Reconstruction are not covered.
McPherson claims Davis was not an inept leader as many historians have claimed. Davis was a graduate of West Point and had served in the Mexican War. The author states that the south also had problems with its Generals. He compared the tentative George B. McClellan to the backpedaling Joseph E. Johnston. While he documents that Davis made his share of mistakes and was an impolitic politician, McPherson concludes that Davis devised a credible strategy for fight the war. The South’s material and manpower handicaps are well known, but McPherson list other obstacles such as the Southerners were anything but united. The “States Rights” mantra often inhibited coordinated military tactics. The author covers the 1862 threat by Arkansas to secede from the Confederacy and in 1863 North Carolina’s leaders favored negotiations. On top of this Rebel soldiers deserted in droves.
McPherson’s overall evaluation of Davis is fair-minded. He criticizes Davis but also points out some favorable points. The book’s worth a read particularly for those interested in the Civil war. Robert Fass did a good job narrating the book.
Jefferson Davis is a captivating figure. I have often wondered how I would feel about him if the South had won the war. I bought this book because I wanted to get a feel for Davis like I have for Lincoln; to see his personality and his relationships. I was a little disappointed in this book precisely because it largely ignores those aspects of his life. I need to curb my disappointment a little however, because it is clear that this was not the intention of the author. This book only covers Jefferson Davis as commander in chief, there is no biography about his life before or after the war. Neither does it delve into pressures outside of his office during the war; the death of his five year old son only gets a sentence and his wife is rarely mentioned. I didn't feel like there was a lot in this book that wasn't in battle cry of freedom, or other more general books about the civil war.
That said, I still enjoyed the book, and I would recommend it to anyone who knows little about the civil war, and is looking for a view of it from the South's perspective.
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