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.

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