Review of “Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief” by James M. McPherson

This book is in many ways a “mirror image” of McPherson’s book on Lincoln as Commander in Chief of the Union Army (Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief).


As with the book on Lincoln, McPherson organizes the book around five functions performed or overseen by Davis in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief: the formulation of policy, national strategy, military strategy, operations, and tactics.

McPherson calls Davis’s operational preference an “offensive-defensive” strategy, which the author defines as an effort “to seize opportunities to take the offensive and force the enemy to sue for peace.” Of Davis’s generals, only Stonewall Jackson (who died early on however, from complications of friendly fire) and Robert E. Lee had much interest in the “offensive” part of the equation. Joseph E. Johnston had an attitude matching George McClellan’s in the North; neither of those generals seemed interested in fighting, much less defending. [As an interesting aside not included in the book, after the war, Johnston became friends with both Grant and Sherman. He served as a pallbearer for Grant’s funeral, and also served, in very inclement weather, as a pallbearer for Sherman’s funeral, dying of pneumonia he subsequently contracted. One might say that in a way, Sherman finally killed Johnston.]

General Joseph E. Johnston

General Joseph E. Johnston

Davis was much more involved than Lincoln in the minutia of planning battles. He had graduated from West Point, and actually would have preferred to be out in the field. But Lincoln’s efforts at self-education had made Lincoln into a brilliant strategist, in spite of his lack of formal education or battle experience to match that of Davis. Nevertheless, knowledge and insight helped neither Commander in Chief. Just as Lincoln experienced, Davis’s suggestions, requests, and even direct orders were often ignored. Also like Lincoln, Davis was constrained from replacing these recalcitrant generals by political pressures and/or the lack of suitable replacements.

Unlike Lincoln, Davis rarely employed tact in dealing with commanders he didn’t like, and as a result, many of them ended up loathing him. In addition, Davis had a personality that was described as – to take one example of a detractor’s evaluation – “conceited, hypocritical, sniveling, canting, malicious, ambitious…” Others similarly excoriated him for being haughty, disagreeable, peevish and egotistical. McPherson largely dismisses these assessments of Davis, pointing out his many painful medical conditions, which may have explained Davis’s behavior, but certainly doesn’t render it null.

My primary objection to this book is that McPherson makes it sound as if the main criterion differentiating Lincoln and Davis is the fact that Lincoln commanded a winning army, and Davis did not. I have to say that this tone sort of gave me the creeps.

“Champion Prize Envelope – Lincoln & Davis in 5 Rounds. 1st Round,” J. H. Tingley, New York, NY, 1861 (Gilder Lehrman Collection)

“Champion Prize Envelope – Lincoln & Davis in 5 Rounds. 1st Round,” J. H. Tingley, New York, NY, 1861 (Gilder Lehrman Collection)

Davis was absolutely and irrationally rabid about the “fact” (as he saw it) that whites were meant to rule, and that “property” was meant to serve. Lincoln was a corrupt abomination in Davis’s view for wanting to free the slaves, thereby making “slaves” of white Southerners. (If this sounds totally psychotic, there are many quotes by Davis in this slim volume that sound as if he is certifiably insane.) Did this impact Davis’s decisions as a leader? I contend that it did, and should have been addressed.

Take, for example, how Davis insisted that keeping the right to slavery intact was worth fighting for, even if every single home and city were destroyed by fire. Or consider the 1862 passage of the so-called Twenty Negro Law, according to which one able-bodied white male could be exempted from the draft for every twenty slaves on a plantation. This law, which benefitted the small rich white planter minority and alienated the more numerous white men who had no recourse but to fight and send their sons to die, was passed out of necessity to protect slavery. If the whites were all off to fight and no one was left at home but weak old men, women, and children, it was hard to maintain control. Slaves began to run away to the Union lines and/or put up more resistance to the authority of those left on the plantations. Yet manpower was desperately needed, and the additional spur to desert among those not offered exemptions was crippling. In this way, Davis’s priorities parallel those of Hitler, who allowed his deranged obsessions to guide his policies and strategies repeatedly, such as the way he took away much-needed trains from his army so that he could push through the transport of Jews to extermination camps.

McPherson also makes very little of the fact that many of the policies inspiring Davis’s rants against Lincoln were policies adopted by Davis as the war progressed. (To McPherson, this was just part of the natural evolution of war. Perhaps it is, but it doesn’t gainsay the hypocrisy and irrationality of Davis, whose venom towards Lincoln only increased as he found he needed to take similar measures.) Davis even, near the war’s end, advocated arming slaves. (When Lincoln began recruiting former slaves into the army, Davis declared it to be “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man…”) In Davis’s first message to his congress, he derided the North for their continuing efforts to impair the security of property in slaves and “thus rendering the property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless, and thereby annihilating in effect property worth thousands of millions of dollars.”

1861 Newspaper Cartoon:  Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis are shown as boxers . In the caption, Horace Greeley asks: Why don’t you go in Abe? What’s the use o’ waiting for an openin’ any longer?” Lincoln replies to the bald Greeley: Keep Cool and let yer hair grow Horace! I know wot I’m about. I want to tire him out!”

1861 Newspaper Cartoon: Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis are shown as boxers . In the caption, Horace Greeley asks: Why don’t you go in Abe? What’s the use o’ waiting for an openin’ any longer?” Lincoln replies to the bald Greeley: Keep Cool and let yer hair grow Horace! I know wot I’m about. I want to tire him out!”

If one accesses this speech of Davis’s online, one can read how he further demonstrates his divorce from reality as he continues:

In the meantime, under the mild and genial climate of the Southern States and the increasing care and attention for the well-being and comfort of the laboring class, dictated alike by interest and humanity, the African slaves had augmented in number from about 600,000, at the date of the adoption of the constitutional compact, to upward of 4,000,000. In moral and social condition they had been elevated from brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers, and supplied not only with bodily comforts but with careful religious instruction. Under the supervision of a superior race their labor had been so directed as not only to allow a gradual and marked amelioration of their own condition….”

Needless to say, in Davis’s world, there was no violence involved in keeping slaves “docile.” He makes no mention of how much difficulty the planation owners had experienced keeping the slaves in place once the war started, which would hardly have been necessarily if what he said were true, or even how it turned out that the numbers of slave were so augmented without any more slave trade. This process must have been part of the “bodily comforts” to which he alludes….

As for the desperate consideration in 1865 of arming slaves, the mentality espoused by Davis led one editor in Alabama to opine that “We can make them fight better than the Yankees are able to do. Masters and overseers can marshal them for battle by the same authority and habit of obedience with which they are marshaled to labor.”

McPherson reports these ravings, but doesn’t comment on them. As he noted in his Introduction, “I have sought to transcend my convictions and to understand [Jefferson Davis] as as a product of his time and circumstances.” But there were plenty of people, even in the same time and circumstances, who did not suffer from the same delusions as did Davis. McPherson also offers no analysis of how a large portion of the South could be consumed by mass psychosis and monstrous barbarism toward people they shackled, raped, beat, and abused, and whose children, who were often the product of these rapes, were then also used as slaves. I believe such a study would have been much more useful as a historical look at what drove Jefferson Davis and those who supported him, and would have furthermore illuminated the reasoning behind some of Davis’s decisions.

McPherson credits Davis with inspiring Confederate persistence, but at the same time allows that as the war went on, there was growing disaffection with the job Davis was doing. Again, McPherson totally ignores the fact that the doggedness of the Rebels may have been due more to their own hard-core racism and desire to keep slavery in place (free labor and free sex being difficult to part with for many).

Finally, McPherson touches only briefly on Davis’s involvement with efforts of Confederates hiding in Canada to destabilize the Lincoln government. He does not mention at all the allegations that Davis approved plans to assassinate Lincoln. Given Davis’s involvement in every little aspect of the Confederate struggle, it would be surprising had he not in some way at least have been aware of these efforts.

In any event, it is probable that none of Davis’s strategies – no matter how good or ill-advised – could survive the combination of the Grant/Sherman juggernaut and the crippling lack of infrastructure and resources (including quite importantly, food) that plagued the South.

Cartoon showing Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis surrounded by Union generals. Library of Congress

Cartoon showing Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis surrounded by Union generals. Library of Congress

Evaluation: This examination of how Jefferson Davis fulfilled his role as a wartime Commander-in-Chief seems to be missing context. Jefferson Davis was not only the commander of a force opposing that of the loyal states in the Union. He was also a rabid racist, whose rantings are reminiscent of Hitler’s in their insanely savage and malignant insistence that some human beings are not humans at all, and that if maintaining that demented delusion meant the destruction of all the land and homes of the South, it was worth it to him, just as Hitler was willing to let his own people die to uphold his similarly insane vision.

I do not agree with McPherson that the main sticking point in comparing what Davis did to what Lincoln did was the fact that Lincoln won and the South did not, and I deplore McPherson’s decision to structure his analysis in this way. No one would claim that the main difference between Franklin Roosevelt and Hitler was that Roosevelt won and Hitler lost. To explain away Davis’s psychosis as being just a “product of his time and circumstances” is to deny the very essence of what drove Davis, and why he made the decisions he did. It is also a shocking moral lapse.

Shortly after this book was published, we went to a book talk featuring McPherson. I asked him how he would rate Davis as a president. He seemed rather annoyed or at least defensive on Davis’s behalf, pointing out that Lincoln would inevitably rate higher just because he was on the winning side. I don’t agree at all. Lincoln would rate higher even if he lost.

Rating: 3/5

A Note on the Audio Production:

Narrator Robert Fass does a quite competent job.

Published unabridged on 5 CDs (5 1/2 listening hours) by Penguin Audio, 2014

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