James McPherson has done it yet
again: published an insightful, fair, and very readable book on the
Civil War. This time his subject is the wartime presidency of
Jefferson Davis, a man whose reputation over the years has had more
ups and downs then a stretch along the Appalachian Trial. In his
introduction McPherson acknowledges the challenges of writing about
a person who has occasionally been portrayed as a tragic hero, but
more often has been a target for scathing criticism.
It is reassuring when an author
discloses early on his potential biases which he seeks to overcome.
Perhaps unnecessarily McPherson tells us that “My sympathies lie
with the Union side in the Civil War”, not that we would expect any
Neo-Confederate nonsense from a serious scholar like him. McPherson
is also careful not to be unduly influenced by some of Davis’s
disagreeable personal characteristics, a temptation which many Davis
contemporaries and subsequent biographers have been unable to
resist. Another pitfall which McPherson detours around is a
comparison between Lincoln’s and Davis’s leadership to which the
“apples to oranges” cliché was never more true.
While in no way minimizing Davis’s
deficiencies as a Commander-in Chief (ground well plowed by others),
McPherson writes convincingly of Davis’s honesty, intelligence, and
indefatigable dedication to the quest for an independent Confederate
nation based on racial slavery. He also points out the personal ax
grinding of Davis’s critics whose egos outstripped their talents.
Recognizing that Davis has often come across as a remote and almost
muffled historical figure, McPherson brings to life a man who
suffered more than his share of personal tragedy plus a variety of
physical ailments which guaranteed daily suffering. And yet Davis
soldiered on for over four years never wavering during the war and
subjecting himself to capture rather than surrender at the end.
As the title suggests, this book
does not address Davis’s life before and after the Civil War which
still leaves plenty of material to cover and McPherson does so in
less than 300 pages in his characteristic concise yet somehow
thorough style. When asked by friends wanting to get started on
reading about the Civil War, I always recommend—as I’m sure many of
you do—McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
published in 1988. There
are no doubt fewer interested in Jefferson Davis, but for those who
are you can enthusiastically recommend Embattled Rebel, one book
where Jefferson Davis gets a fair shake.
Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Civil War
by James M. McPherson
Penguin Books (paperback), 320 pages; hardcover originally published in 2014 as Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief
the publisher: History has not been kind to Jefferson Davis.
Many Americans of his own time and in later generations considered
him an incompetent leader, not to mention a traitor. Not so, argues
James M. McPherson. In Embattled Rebel, McPherson shows us that
Davis might have been on the wrong side of history, but that it is
too easy to diminish him because of his cause’s failure. Gravely ill
throughout much of the Civil War, Davis nevertheless shaped and
articulated the principal policy of the Confederacy—the quest for
independent nationhood—with clarity and force. He exercised a
tenacious hands-on influence in the shaping of military strategy,
and his close relationship with Robert E. Lee was one of the most
effective military-civilian partnerships in history.
Lucid and concise, Embattled Rebel
presents a fresh perspective on the Civil War as seen from the desk
of the South’s commander in chief.
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