Book Review: Embattled Rebel

Embattled Rebel:  Jefferson Davis And Commander In Chief, by James M. McPherson

You know an author has taken a difficult task for himself when in the acknowledgements he apologies to his wife, who “tolerated [his] preoccupation with Jefferson Davis, who is not her favorite historical character.  But she recognizes that we cannot understand the Civil War and its meaning without coming to grips with the Confederate as well as the Union commander in chief (254).”  James McPherson is open about his hostility to the cause of the Confederacy, a hostility I share [1].  Yet despite his pretty clear anti-Confederate bias, McPherson manages to write at his usual standard of excellence and manages to make a compelling case that while Jefferson Davis did not (obviously) win the Civil War for the Confederacy, neither was he an incompetent who sabotaged an otherwise successful cause.  This book is a fair one, and it paints Jefferson Davis as probably the best man for the job of commander in chief of the Confederacy that could have been found among the available options.  Sometimes in the land of the blind, a one-eyed man truly is the best option for ruler.  That this does not speak well of the excellence of the political class of the late antebellum South does not make any less sound as a position.

In terms of its contents, the book takes a chronological approach through Jefferson Davis’ life as president of the Confederacy.  There is a little bit of introduction that discusses his martial ambitions and a bit of discussion at the end about Davis’ two year stint in prison waiting for a treason trial that never happened, but the book is focused on the Civil War and McPherson manages to write 250 pages on his focused account, starting with his preparations for a long war in 1861, then looks at the Confederacy’s winter of discontent with the beginnings of territorial loss in 1861-1862, spends a couple of chapters examining how gigantic the war became, the dark clouds after the defeats at the end of 1862, the struggle to take initiative sought by many Confederates (including Davis and Lee), the absolute need to beat Sherman, and the last resort of trying to arm slaves to save a slaveholding republic.  After that there were no options left, no territory left, no soldiers left, and no nation left.  I don’t feel sorry about that in the least, but it is not as if Davis didn’t do his best even for a bad cause.

Some might fault McPherson for the attention he pays to Davis with regards to military affairs, but according to the author himself, Davis’ presidency focused on five categories of activities:  policy, national strategy, military strategy, operations, and tactics.  Given that the main task of the Confederacy was to win its independence through force of arms, it is understandable that Davis and that the author would focus on this aspect of leadership.  Aside from one mistaken caption on a map that gets the date of the battle of First Bull Run wrong, the book is clean and free of distracting typos.  All told, in reading this book I found myself feeling a strong degree of empathy with a man whose career and political worldview I happen to loath.  Davis was an austere, serious-minded, frequently ill person whose headaches and intestinal troubles gave him a frequently waspish and irritable temper, and his difficulties in getting along with the hotheaded Southern egoists around him, many of whom were fierce with their pens, gave him a lasting and unearned reputation as an insufferably arrogant person lacking in charm and personal graciousness.  I can certainly empathize with those struggles.  And any author that can give me cause to have empathy for Jefferson Davis is doing a very good job.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Review: Embattled Rebel

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Hallowed Ground | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: How The South Could Have Won The Civil War | Edge Induced Cohesion

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