Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief, by James M. McPherson *****

embattledrebelThis was my first biography of Jefferson Davis. I have studied and taught about the American Civil War for decades, and read biographies and memoirs of and by some of the other principals in this conflict; I have avoided biographies and memoirs of Southern generals and politicians that smacked of nostalgic yearning for that Lost Cause. I would swear some of their authors would cheerfully go back to the enslavement of people of color given half a chance, the way they carry on. In any case, when I found this gem recently released by one of my favorite historians who has proven his scholarship trustworthy, I knew I had to read it. Sadly, I didn’t get the ARC when I requested it; hey, it happens! But my spouse popped through the door with a copy of it and I was in business at last. It was well worth his time and effort. James M. McPherson won the Pulitzer for Battle Cry of Freedom, the best single volume treatment of the Civil War I have read. He didn’t disappoint this time either.

If you read this biography, don’t skip the introduction. All of the details that follow are succinctly outlined in interesting and readable form; in fact, I read it before I read the book, and then I read it again afterward.

The book is punctuated by photographs of commanding generals in excellent resolution when read on an e-reader. I was also pleased to see that the maps could be zoomed to where I could generally tell what was on them when I held the e-reader near the light. This is a huge improvement over earlier history texts produced digitally. I used to suggest to those reading military history that they spring for a paper copy so that they could read these, which are often key to understanding what is being said. This time if you buy the book digitally, it will serve just fine.

The thing I was most curious about was whether it was true that Davis was insane by the time the war ended, and that the proceedings were mostly left to Robert E. Lee. Whereas Lee made his own decision to surrender to Grant, Davis, though undoubtedly in denial and out of touch with the reality of Northern conquest, was not insane nor near death, as the terrible textbook I was assigned to use with my teenagers had it. Happily, I noted that the sections on the Civil War had a number of other incorrect entries, and so I greatly limited my use of that book. Now I am really glad I did. Davis didn’t want the presidential nod, but he got it and took it; in fact, when he died many years later, he was entirely unrepentant. McPherson believes he was a strong politician who did a creditable job with a damnable task; Lincoln was a better president, but the Confederacy did not lose the war because of Davis’s failures. It was almost surely going to lose anyway.

Prior to reading this biography, I had believed that the south held on for as long as it did because its military leaders were stronger than those of the Union. This actually isn’t saying much about Confederate leadership.Union General McClellan cost both sides a lot of years and bloodshed that didn’t have to happen. It isn’t so much that the South had amazing generals; it was more that the Union had nobody who was both dedicated and proven. In fact, says McPherson, the Confederate military was practically tearing itself apart through gossip, infighting, and rivalry. Jefferson probably was guilty of promoting his friends beyond their level of competency; yet the cabals and gamesmanship practiced by those assigned to answer to General Bragg were at best a morale-draining waste of time, and at worst may have cost the Confederacy some battles. And the now-venerated Robert E. Lee was castigated in the Southern press for the number of Confederate soldiers who didn’t walk away from his battles. He was dubbed “the king of spades” for the graves that had been dug.

One Confederate general I had wondered about was John Bell Hood. My impression of him, I admit, was that he was a bad-ass general. He never seemed afraid to attack, even with one leg and one arm gone. Who does that? Still up there on his horse; “Charge!”  But this was one more hole in my scholarship that McPherson quickly filled. Hood would fight unwinnable battles. He destroyed an army during the last-ditch effort to save the Confederacy, losing a full fifty percent of the tens of thousands of men he led into just one fight, and most of the rest of them soon thereafter. The “reserves” consisted of old men; children too young to sign up initially; and those proud wealthy souls who had originally paid someone else to fight on their behalf. (I can imagine how well the latter took orders!)

I was familiar with a lot of the primary information provided here and was therefore free to focus on, and enjoy, the details. One new bit of amusing minutiae was that Southern women saved “the contents of chamber pots to be leached for nitrate to produce gunpowder”. Those of you more familiar with chemistry will know whether the women were lined up with their number one or number two. For me, it was a stitch to envision all those fine ladies dressed up in their hoops and bonnets standing in the potty-donation line!

I was particularly interested in what McPherson had to say about guerilla warfare. Lincoln was intent upon making it as easy as possible for the Confederate states to rejoin the Union. Some of us, had we been present, would have made a strong case for executing Davis and some other leaders—particularly those in South Carolina who started the whole mess—for treason. And some who were in Washington DC at the time made that case, too; but the decision was for quick, peaceful reunion. One reason for this was the concern that rebels made bitter by the price of losing the war might take to the hills and wreck endless havoc upon the offices of government and the economy long after the war had officially ended. But guerilla actions during the period when the Confederate government was in place and holding out for official recognition would have been unwise. Says McPherson:

Guerrilla actions as the main strategy are most appropriate for a rebel force trying to
capture the institutions of government, not defend them. And a slave society that
practices guerrilla warfare is playing with fire, for it opens up opportunities for the
slaves to carry out their own guerrilla actions against the regime.

But what of Beauregard? What about General Johnston and General Johnston? (Of course, there were two.) Bedford Forrest? What was the deal with Kentucky? Ah, there’s so much more to discuss.

I write really long reviews. If you are still with me by the end of this one, your interest is sufficient to go out and get this wonderful book. I don’t recommend it for those unfamiliar with the Civil War; for that, you ought to read Battle Cry of Freedom first. But once the basics are in your tool kit, you will find this biography accessible, interesting, and rewarding. Go for it!


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