Thousands of books have been written about Abraham Lincoln, but comparatively few have been written about his Confederate counterpart Jefferson Davis. Davis and his role in the American Civil War will never get the same attention as Lincoln, but he does deserve much more shelf space in the library of Civil War literature that he has been given.
Professor James M. McPherson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his book “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” has added a volume to the shelf of books about Jefferson Davis with “Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief.”
Davis, when compared to Lincoln, is very nearly eclipsed by him. To his credit, Professor McPherson explains in his introduction to “Embattled Rebel” that comparing Jefferson Davis to Abraham Lincoln is like comparing apples to oranges; they both had different challenges and different resources and personnel to deal with them; therefore he has intentionally resisted the temptation to compare the two Commanders in Chief.
“Embattled Rebel” is not a biography of Jefferson Davis, nor was it intended to be. It is rather a chronological narrative of his role as Commander in Chief of the Confederate Army during the Civil War, and that is the entirety of its primary focus. Very little biographical information is discussed, nor is the politics of the Confederate government greatly discussed by the professor.
McPherson gives a somewhat sympathetic view of Jefferson Davis, pointing out that many of his health issues may have contributed to his mediocre performance as the Confederacy’s Commander in Chief. That being said, McPherson is completely forthcoming that his relationships with the generals he commanded was lackluster at best. If his playing of favorites with some of his generals and displaying outright hostility to others did not lead to the failure of the Confederacy to gain its independence, it surely did not help it.
Davis’ insistence on micromanaging all aspects of the war, as well his refusal to delegate authority, as Professor McPherson also points out, negatively impacted his health, therefore inflaming his unstable temperament.
Some discussion is given to Davis’ strategy of a total defense of all of the Confederacy’s territory, thereby spreading out and weakening the Confederacy’s military forces, as opposed to a concentration of the Confederacy’s military, as opposed to a Fabian strategy of yielding territory to the enemy army, luring it in until it is vulnerable to be attacked and defeated. The strategy of an offensive defense is also discussed by Professor McPherson, including Lee’s two northward attacks at Antietam and Gettysburg, drawing the Federal Army away from the South and into the North.
“Embattled Rebel” is a fast read, well written in an easily read style. It is adequately researched, and cover’s its topic well enough. No new information appears between its covers, but Professor McPherson’s views are insightful. Well schooled students of the Civil War might find this book a bit of a rehash, but it is an excellent place to start for those who may not know much about Jefferson Davis and the role he played during the war.
ISBN 978-1594204975, The Penguin Press HC, © 2014, Hardcover, 320 pages, Photographs & Maps, End Notes & Index. $32.95. To purchase this book click HERE.