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Embattled Rebel
Cover of Embattled Rebel
Embattled Rebel
Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief
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From the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom, a powerful new reckoning with Jefferson Davis as military commander of the Confederacy
"The best concise book we have on the subject... McPherson is... our most distinguished scholar of the Civil War era." —The New York Times Book Review


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.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
From the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom, a powerful new reckoning with Jefferson Davis as military commander of the Confederacy
"The best concise book we have on the subject... McPherson is... our most distinguished scholar of the Civil War era." —The New York Times Book Review


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.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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    INTRODUCTION

    History has not been kind to Jefferson Davis. As president of the Confederate States of America, he led a cause that went down to a disastrous defeat and left the South in poverty for generations. If that cause had succeeded, it would have broken the United States in two and preserved slavery in the South for untold years. Many Americans of his own time and in later generations considered him a traitor. Some of his Confederate compatriots turned against Davis and blamed him for sins of ineptitude that lost the war. Several of Davis’s adversaries on the Union side agreed with this assessment. Writing twenty years after the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant claimed that “Davis had an exalted opinion of his own military genius. . . . On several occasions during the war he came to the relief of the Union army by means of his superior military genius.” A number of historians have concurred with this harsh judgment. On the centennial anniversary of the Civil War, David M. Potter famously declared that as commander in chief, Davis compiled “a record of personal failure significant enough to have had a bearing on the course of the war. . . . If the Union and Confederacy had exchanged presidents with one another, the Confederacy might have won its independence.”1

    Comparisons of Abraham Lincoln and Davis as commanders in chief usually favor Lincoln, though rarely to the extent suggested by Potter. The one undeniable truth in such comparisons is that Lincoln’s side won the war. But that fact does not necessarily mean that Davis was responsible for losing it. Many factors help explain the ultimate Union victory, including the North’s greater population and resources, a stronger economy, a powerful navy, resourceful military leadership, and battlefield victories that blunted Confederate momentum at key points and prolonged the conflict until the weak economic infrastructure that underpinned the Southern war effort collapsed. Lincoln’s evolving skills as commander in chief may also help explain Northern victory. I have written about that subject elsewhere.2 But whether Lincoln was superior to Davis in this respect is impossible to say in the categorical manner stated by David Potter. Comparing Lincoln and Davis as commanders in chief is like trying to compare apples and oranges. They confronted different challenges with different resources and personnel. In the chapters that follow I have tried to avoid the temptation to compare the two leaders. I attempt to describe and analyze Davis’s conception and execution of his duty as commander in chief on its own terms and merits, without reference to Lincoln.

    Full disclosure is necessary. My sympathies lie with the Union side in the Civil War. The Confederacy fought to break up the United States and to sustain slavery. I consider those goals tragically wrong. Yet I have sought to transcend my convictions and to understand Jefferson Davis as a product of his time and circumstances. After spending many research hours with both Lincoln and Davis, I must also confess that I find Lincoln more congenial, interesting, and admirable. That is another reason to avoid comparisons between the two men in a book about Davis as commander in chief. I wish not to be influenced by personal likes or dislikes. But in fact I found myself becoming less inimical toward Davis than I expected when I began this project. He comes off better than some of his fellow Confederates of large ego and small talents who were among his chief critics. I had perhaps been too much influenced by the negative depictions of Davis’s personality that...

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    June 30, 2014
    In 1865, Confederate Ordnance Chief Josiah Gorgas lamented the leadership of President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis, wondering “where could we get a better or a wiser man?” Pulitzer Prize– and Lincoln Prize–winner McPherson (Tried by War) refuses to answer such a question, but his examination of Davis as a military commander suggests that perhaps there was not one. Davis has had many harsh critics over the years, an inevitable fate for a leader who “went down to a disastrous defeat and left the South in poverty for generations.” McPherson, however, presents Davis in a relatively sympathetic manner as he explores the Confederate president’s accomplishments and undertakings. McPherson places Davis’s actions, which are delivered in chronological order and garnished with a dose of opinion, in the larger contexts of the war, his health and personal life, his politics, and his relationships with other major historical players. Despite the biography’s dry, yet light presentation and relatively singular focus, Davis is most redeemed not by justifications for his decisions, but through an empathetic, simple understanding of his motives: namely, an admirable (if in hindsight horribly misguided) passion for the Confederacy. Maps & illus.

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from July 15, 2014
    A seasoned Civil War historian examines the beleaguered president of the Confederacy.Did Jefferson Davis (1807/1808-1889) get a bum rap? Pulitzer Prize and two-time Lincoln Prize winner McPherson (History, Emeritus/Princeton Univ.;War on the Waters: The Union & Confederate Navies, 1861-1865, 2012, etc.) reveals the degree of vitriol unleashed against the president of the Confederacy from fellow Southerners who accused him of arrogance and malice due to the fact that he could not marshal the wherewithal to win the war. Indeed, the author shows how Davis constantly had to work against the recalcitrance of generals with an exalted opinion of their own worth-e.g., P.G.T. Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston-as well as an ill-fated adoption of a politically motivated "dispersed defense" of troops around the perimeter of the Confederacy, rather than a more effective concentration of force. Unanimously elected as president of the Confederacy in 1861 as the South's most accomplished military commander-he was a graduate of West Point, veteran of the Mexican-American War and served as secretary of war for President Franklin Pierce-Davis, despite horrendous ill health, made the most stirring articulation for Southern secession as a safeguard against the destruction of states' "property in slaves" and continued to rally drooping public opinion even after Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox. Davis tended to get buried in paperwork, however, while public opinion was with the generals who had defied his command or failed to act-Johnston allowed Vicksburg to fall and "seemed prepared to yield" Richmond and Atlanta rather than fight to the finish-and against the generals Davis favored, such as Braxton Bragg and John C. Pemberton. Moreover, Davis faced an undeniable manpower crisis in the form of "epidemic" desertions and absences without leave. McPherson concludes that Davis, a disciplined, loyal commander, "was more sinned against than sinning."A fair-handed treatment from a towering historian and sterling writer.

    COPYRIGHT(2014) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    September 1, 2014

    Could someone other than Jefferson Davis have done a better job of serving an embattled Confederacy? Many of his contemporaries on the home front and in the firing line thought so, and this perception has served to tarnish Davis's reputation for effectiveness from Fort Sumter to Appomattox, and thereafter in Civil War historiography. However, in this brilliantly nuanced biography, McPherson (Tried by War) insists that the Rebel chief executive was no mere presidential paper-pusher, detailing how Davis visited active battlegrounds and worked tirelessly against vainglorious generals such as P.G.T. Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston while cooperating with others he favored such as Robert E. Lee and John C. Pemberton. Davis is especially commended for his opposition to Southern governors' demands for the stationing of scarce manpower along the Confederacy's extensive perimeter instead of his preference for localized troop concentrations in force. Further, the reader is reminded that Davis, despite persistently poor health, was an energetic and steadfast advocate for Confederate nationhood, the war, and slavery even subsequent to Lee's surrender. VERDICT A thoroughly objective dissection of one of the most enigmatic figures of the Lost Cause. Maps and illustrations are a great asset. Highly recommended for Civil War and military historians, students of Southern biographies, lay readers, and all libraries. [See Prepub Alert, 4/7/14.]--John Carver Edwards, Univ. of Georgia Libs., Cleveland

    Copyright 2014 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Library Journal

    Starred review from September 1, 2014

    Could someone other than Jefferson Davis have done a better job of serving an embattled Confederacy? Many of his contemporaries on the home front and in the firing line thought so, and this perception has served to tarnish Davis's reputation for effectiveness from Fort Sumter to Appomattox, and thereafter in Civil War historiography. However, in this brilliantly nuanced biography, McPherson (Tried by War) insists that the Rebel chief executive was no mere presidential paper-pusher, detailing how Davis visited active battlegrounds and worked tirelessly against vainglorious generals such as P.G.T. Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston while cooperating with others he favored such as Robert E. Lee and John C. Pemberton. Davis is especially commended for his opposition to Southern governors' demands for the stationing of scarce manpower along the Confederacy's extensive perimeter instead of his preference for localized troop concentrations in force. Further, the reader is reminded that Davis, despite persistently poor health, was an energetic and steadfast advocate for Confederate nationhood, the war, and slavery even subsequent to Lee's surrender. VERDICT A thoroughly objective dissection of one of the most enigmatic figures of the Lost Cause. Maps and illustrations are a great asset. Highly recommended for Civil War and military historians, students of Southern biographies, lay readers, and all libraries. [See Prepub Alert, 4/7/14.]--John Carver Edwards, Univ. of Georgia Libs., Cleveland

    Copyright 2014 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Library Journal

    May 1, 2014

    Had the South won the Civil War, the country would have been sundered and the awful institution of slavery maintained; its losing left the region isolated and poor. Either way, Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, does not look good. Here, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom aims to put Davis in a different light as an exemplary military commander.

    Copyright 2014 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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