A Review of Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Civil War by James M. McPherson

By Patrick Bray
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2016, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This review was originally published in The Charger in January 2016.

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 Trail. 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 the potential biases that 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’ 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’ leadership, to which the “apples to oranges” cliché was never more true.

While in no way minimizing Davis’ deficiencies as a commander in chief (ground well plowed by others), McPherson writes convincingly of Davis’ 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’ 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’ life before and after the Civil War. But even without those parts of Davis’ life, there is still 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 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.

From 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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