Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief

In This Review

Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief
By James M. McPherson
The Penguin Press HC, 2014
320 pp. $32.95

McPherson, one of the most distinguished and eloquent historians of the Civil War, portrays Confederate President Jefferson Davis as a flawed man whose choices did little to improve the long odds that the Confederacy faced in its bid for secession. Davis, a West Point graduate who fought in the Mexican-American War and later served as U.S. secretary of war, tried to micromanage the Confederate war effort but had little success. He maintained a model civil-military partnership with Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Army of Northern Virginia, the Confederacy’s main army in the east, but his relationships with most of his other commanders were poisoned by mistrust. Davis never developed an effective vision for how the Confederacy could win the war and never found a workable strategy for how to defend Confederate territory west of the Appalachians. Nevertheless, McPherson is kinder to his subject than many of Davis’ contemporary critics were, and he argues convincingly that most of Davis’ major strategic decisions were sound. There was never much chance that the Confederacy would win the war; in McPherson’s account, Davis’ biggest strategic blunder was to accept the offer to become its president in the first place.

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