Sunday, October 18, 2015

Embattled Rebel by James M. McPherson

President Jefferson Davis
Embattled Rebel - Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson is an examination of President Jefferson Davis' performance as leader of the Confederate military forces. McPherson explains that he attempts "to describe and analyze Davis's conception and execution of his duty as commander in chief on its own terms and merits, without reference to Lincoln." After his research, McPherson became "less inimical [hostile or unfriendly] toward Davis than I [he] expected when he began this project."

Davis was vilified by his own generals and political rivals. McPherson
believes that Davis' fragile heath might account for the "Jekyll and Hyde descriptions of his personality." McPherson said that Davis "articulated the principal policy of the Confederacy with clarity and force: the quest for independent nationhood." Davis also supported slavery as "the core institution of the Confederate policy." Mr. McPherson concludes that "no other chief executive in American history exercised such hands-on influence in the shaping of military strategy."  As chief architect of Confederate strategy, Davis must absorb the blame for the failure strategy to achieve its goal.

Joseph Johnston
McPherson presents a statement by Davis that should quiet the arguments about the reason the South wanted its freedom. Davis argued that Republicans advocated "a persistent and organized system of hostile measures against the rights of the owners of slaves in the Southern States" and this policy would result in "annihilating in effect property worth thousands of millions of dollars" and "rendering the property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless."

Davis' plan to protect slave-owner assets produced a military strategy of perimeter defense. Key to this approach was the rapid movement of troops via interior lines. However, it is one thing to articulate a strategy and quite another to execute it. This failure ultimately lies with the senior officer corps. Davis, like Lincoln, was plagued by generals who would not fight (Johnston and McClellan), arrogant officers (Beauregard and McClellan), petty rivalries between officers, incompetent officers, and disobedient military leaders. Davis was further burden by having 30% of his generals his own political appointees.

P. G. T. Beauregard
Davis never seemed to be able or willing to address these issues which festered throughout the war. McPherson's biography clearly illustrates these points.  Ultimately, Davis proclaimed that in trying to protect the whole country, the Confederacy had "attempted more than it had power successfully to achieve." As McPherson chronicles the events and produces the evidence, this reader found little in the way of restoring Davis' reputation. However, I will allow readers to form their own decisions about Davis as Commander in Chief.

McPherson defends Davis by saying he was "the best man for the job" and "no clear evidence exists" that his fellow Confederates were wrong. The author also points out that the Confederates appeared to "on the cusp of success on at least three occasions." However, Davis' major fault was his choices of generals and his relationship with them rather than strategy. This was a fatal flaw because the generals were the instrument of his strategy and Davis' failures here meant that his strategy and perhaps any strategy was doomed to failure.