Jefferson Davis, by Clement Eaton
Jefferson Davis is a mysterious man with regards to the Civil War. It is not that he seems a hard man to understand himself–like many political leaders he struggled with his physical health and in dealing with criticism and he received offices that he was ill-suited for–but it is hard to figure how it was that he was chosen as president as the Confederacy in the first place. The mystery is not so much the man himself but his context. An able and conservative defender of Southern rights, he found himself preparing for a military office as general but was chosen as the civil leader of a state in rebellion whose understandable actions to win that war ended up finding him continual criticism from those whose desire to be free from the North did not always overcome their desire to be free of rule and restraint altogether. It is hard to make rebellious people into a successful nation, especially when they rebel in advance of the long train of abuses that give one the holy fire of divine justice that sustained the American Revolution, for example. This biography focuses, understandably, on the Civil War years but allows the reader to get a sense of Davis as a man and that is a worthwhile achievement even if one’s sympathies for the subject are limited.
This book is almost 300 pages long and is divided into 26 chapters. The author begins with a discussion of Davis’ Kentucky and Mississippi upbringing and the influence of the frontier on Davis’ life and thinking (1), his time as a West Point cadet and frontier soldier (2), as well as the women in Davis’ life (3). There is a discussion of slavery on the Davis plantations (4), Davis’ time as a young politician (5), his service in the Mexican-American War (6), and his role as the champion of Southern rights (7), as well as a power in the Pierce administration (8). The author discusses Davis as an aristocrat among Southern politicians (9), as a Southern imperialist (10), looks at the split of Democrats in 1860 (11), and discusses Davis’ attempts to brake the momentum of secession (12). After that comes his election to the Confederate presidency (13), his first decisions (14), the disasters of early 1862 (15), the saving of the capital and the offensives that followed (16), and his role in diplomacy (17), as well as the fateful year of 1863 (18). After this there are a few chapters that deal with topical matters, including his dealings with the Trans-Mississippi West (19), his neglect of the home front (20), his conflicts with Congress (21), his handling of rebellious governors (22), the problem of morale (23), and Davis as a war leader (24). The book then ends with a discussion of the collapse of the Confederacy (25) and Davis’ postwar life (26), after which there are notes, a bibliography, and an index.
What sort of issues does one have to deal with when it comes to dealing fairly with Jefferson Davis? Well, we have slavery and its economic profitability to the slaveowners of the South, for one. For another, we have the question of how the government should deal with traitors and rebels, a rather relevant problem in our contemporary world. This is a worthwhile book in large part because one can see the author wrestling with issues that are relevant in the world and in being at least somewhat credible in critiquing Jefferson Davis for his failures. The failures of Jefferson Davis, his inability to deal with resentment and his wonderful talent for making enemies, were not personal failures of his own alone. After all, they alienated potential supporters of the Confederacy he led, and turned people who were devoted to the interests of the South into those whose criticism helped sap morale and reduce the effectiveness of the regime of the Confederacy itself. And those of us who are by no means friends of the rebels can be glad that it was led by someone who was not up to the task, and can perhaps be more kind to him than the friends of the Confederacy are who blame him for its defeat.