Jefferson Davis' Administration of the Pen; Writings of Rebel President

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 7, 2003 | Go to article overview

Jefferson Davis' Administration of the Pen; Writings of Rebel President


Byline: , SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Americans who read about the Civil War will be pleased by the appearance of this new volume of Jefferson Davis' writings, which con-

tains letters as well as some key speeches and messages to his generals. Some of these items will be familiar to knowledgeable readers, but about a dozen are taken from manuscript collections and have not been published at least in recent decades.

The editor, a professor of history at Louisiana State University, wrote a notable biography of the Confederate president two years ago. For the new book, William J. Cooper had to be, as he says, "harshly selective" in reducing the written record of a man's long life to one middle-sized volume.

As he notes, Lynda Crist, distinguished scholar at Rice University, has so far published 11 volumes of Davis' papers, yet these reach only to May 1865. The ex-president continued to live, and write, for two decades after the U.S. government released him from captivity in 1867. Davis was 73 when he published his two-volume history of the Confederacy in 1881, and the next to last piece that Mr. Cooper has chosen is a lengthy, thoughtful letter Davis wrote shortly before his death at 81.

Mr. Cooper's introduction to this new volume makes clear his generally sympathetic approach toward Davis, which was reflected in his biography. His statement that "Although not all Americans joined his embrace of slavery, few dissented from his belief in the supremacy of the white race" is true so far as it goes; Abraham Lincoln himself said he thought blacks inferior; but Mr. Cooper slides past the basic fact that many Americans (including Lincoln) were already strongly opposed to slavery in the prewar decades when Davis, grandson of a Northerner, was becoming a large slave owner in Mississippi.

Perhaps if Mr. Cooper had provided a longer introduction some things would have become clearer.

Davis made his name as a regimental commander in the Mexican War. Mr. Cooper publishes the text of his report on the battle of Buena Vista but does not note that Col. Davis saved the day for Gen. Zachary Taylor, who was elected president in 1848 on the strength of his war record. Later, Davis became secretary of war during the Franklin Pierce presidency. Mr. Cooper's volume includes the secretary's 1856 annual report, with its discussion of the Minie rifle that Davis acquired for the Army and which would do devastating damage to Confederate ranks a few years later.

As secretary, Davis also reports on the Army's successful introduction of the camel for use in the West, based (though Davis does not say so) on the recommendation of George Perkins Marsh, a Vermont abolitionist who saw the camel's capabilities while he served as U.S. minister to Turkey. What we do not learn from Mr. Cooper's volume is that Davis also expanded the Army's size, though in 1861 several European countries with smaller populations had far larger armies than the 16,000 officers and men then under the U.S. flag.

When Davis became president of the Confederacy, he faced, as did his Northern opponent, the dual problem of raising a large army and finding fit officers to command it. As Davis admitted to the governor of South Carolina, two days after his inauguration as president, the South was poorly prepared for war.

Mr. Cooper, however, is perhaps disingenuous in saying that "Davis would adopt whatever measures he thought necessary to achieve victory, including the first national conscription law in American history. …

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