Was Jefferson Davis the Reason the Confederacy Lost the War?

By Dick Crews
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2004, All Rights Reserved

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis would have described himself as a loyal American. His heroes were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, James Madison, and Zachary Taylor. All these American heroes were Presidents, Southerners, and slave owners.

His heroes founded the country and wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. If these men didn’t have any problem with slavery, why was it an issue, he asked?

Jefferson Davis served his country well. He graduated from West Point, served in the Mexican War, ran for Congress and won, ran for governor of Mississippi and lost, but was then appointed a United States Senator from Mississippi.

He married well. His first wife, Sarah Knox Taylor, was the daughter of President Zachary Taylor. Wow, how much more American can you get than by marrying the President’s daughter?

Zachary Taylor, like many fathers in the military, did not want his daughter to marry an Army officer. Taylor was also unhappy that Davis had not followed his suggestions during a court-martial in which Davis was a member.

Taylor initially refused to allow his daughter to see Davis. Davis became so angry that he told his friends that he was going to challenge the General to a duel. Luckily, Davis’s friends convinced him that a duel with a superior officer was not a good idea. This, however, clearly illustrated the temper that was to cause Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy so much trouble in the war years.

Unfortunately, Sarah died three months after the wedding. Davis spent the next ten years as a bachelor. Then he met and married Varina Howell. She was 19 years younger than Davis. She was also was from an aristocratic up-bringing as her grandfather was a former governor of New Jersey.

Jefferson Davis and his second wife, Varina

Politically, Jefferson Davis did not favor Mississippi seceding from the Union. He held his Senate seat until he received the telegraph that Mississippi had voted to secede.

Davis also had little interest in becoming President of the Confederate states who were meeting in Montgomery, Alabama. He declined to attend and was very surprised when he was unanimously elected President. He really wanted to be appointed commander of the Confederate Army.

Jefferson Davis did, however, accept the Presidency and moved to Montgomery, Alabama, a dusty little town of 9,000 people, half of whom were black. Jefferson Davis did not take care in appointing his vice president and cabinet members. He concentrated on appointments representing different states and not on ability. His approval of Alexander Stephens as Vice President was his biggest blunder. Stephens spent the entire war blaming Davis for every problem the South confronted. In fact, Davis spent much of the war shuffling and reshuffling his cabinet. Davis, who’s health was never good, spent the war micromanaging the government and never relied on his cabinet.

Alexander Stephens

Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, did reshuffle his cabinet early in his administration but after that, let his cabinet members do their work without much interference. Jefferson Davis’s worst nightmare was Vice President Alexander Stephens.

Davis also had General P.G.T. Beauregard who was a southern George B. McClellan. Beauregard thought he should have been appointed President of the Confederacy after the first battle of Bull Run. He filed a report three months after the battle saying he could have taken Washington following his victory at Bull Run but was ordered by Jefferson Davis not to do so.

Davis, who did not issue any such orders, was furious. He should have fired Beauregard but showed another of his weak qualities which hurt the South: his inability to actually get rid of a poor or lying general. By the end of the war Generals Beauregard, Bragg, Pemberton, and Joseph Johnston were still Army Generals even though they had failed in the field or actively worked against Davis.

Clearly, the biggest problem Jefferson Davis had was developing a strategy for the war. The South of course didn’t have to win the war; a draw would be fine. Davis was always mulling the problem on whether to try to defend the entire country which he felt was necessary politically. However, militarily, the South needed to concentrate their limited forces to effectively oppose the much larger Union Army.

The Union on the other hand started with Winfield Scott’s Anaconda plan until Ulysses S. Grant took over in early 1864. Grant made the Union strategy smash-mouth against the Confederate Army and total war against Southern farms, factories, and civilian population.

In the meantime the Confederate government went from defending the entire Southern border to military concentration (as at the battle of Chickamauga) then back to defending as much of the South as possible. Because Jefferson Davis never made a clear policy his generals like Robert E. Lee and Braxton Bragg developed a strategy that served their ideas.

Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederacy’s largest army, was touring southern Pennsylvania while Davis’s home town of Vicksburg, Mississippi, including 31,000 Confederate troops surrendered to the Union Army. P.G.T. Beauregard thought he should be appointed Confederate President for life. Robert E. Lee developed his own ideas on how to win the war.

General Braxton Bragg, who got to see first-hand how concentrating the Southern army at Chickamauga produced victories, sent General Longstreet and the First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia away because he didn’t like Longstreet.

Jefferson Davis journeyed to see Bragg’s army in Tennessee as other generals in Bragg’s command were demanding Bragg be replaced. Davis did not replace Bragg nor did he leave him a strategy to fight the war.

The result was a crushing defeat at the hands of Ulysses Grant and the Union Army at Chattanooga, a defeat that set the stage for the fall of Atlanta and the elimination of the Confederate Army of Tennessee.

It’s easy to point out Jefferson Davis’s mistakes and weaknesses, as we could for Abraham Lincoln. So let’s give him some credit. He started with no country, no army, and no government. Also after eights months the capital was moved to Richmond.

The Confederate government raised, equipped, and fed an Army of 860,000 men – a huge number for the time. Although the lack of supplies to the Confederate army is well-known, no battle was ever lost by the lack of rifles or bullets. The Confederate Army gave the Union Army all it could handle for four years even though the Northern population was four times that of the South.

People at the time did not lay single blame on Jefferson Davis for losing the war. He drew enthusiastic crowds during a speaking tour of the South in the 1880’s. He, like Longstreet, suffers today from the myth of Robert E. Lee. The myth says Lee never made any mistakes so someone has to be blamed. Jefferson Davis and Longstreet are convenient people on whom to place that blame. However, Robert E. Lee himself said about Davis, “ I know of no man who could have done better.”

We started with the question, “Was Jefferson Davis, the reason the Confederacy lost the Civil War?”

Jefferson Davis made serious mistakes, the most critical of which was not providing his generals a strategy to win the war. However, Lincoln also made serious blunders. Ah, but the North could afford to make serious mistakes and the South could not. Both sides made serious mistakes and guess who won.