Confederates

By Tillinghast, Richard | New Criterion, March 2015 | Go to article overview

Confederates


Tillinghast, Richard, New Criterion


James M. McPherson

Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief.

Penguin, 301 pages, $32.95

S. C. Gwynne

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson.

Scribner, 672 pages, $35

James M. McPherson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his 1988 Battle Cry of Freedom, has now published Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief. This is neither McPherson's finest book nor the best published treatment of Jefferson Davis. For my money, the best understanding of Davis may be pieced together from Shelby Foote's three-volume epic, The Civil War: A Narrative. Still, there is much to be gleaned from McPherson's book. He narrates the major events of the war, neatly summarizing Davis's role in the failed Confederacy. And his book is surprisingly sympathetic toward the man on whose shoulders fell the thankless task of trying to make a go of an impossible undertaking.

This sympathetic attitude is not shared by the historian Steven Hahn, who reviewed McPherson's book for The New York Times Book Review. McPherson should not, according to Professor Hahn, have dignified Davis by treating him as the president of a rival nation and the Southern equivalent of Abraham Lincoln. (Yet Southerners did, and in a more pacific and even humorous way, still do regard themselves as a distinct people in a distinct region of the United States.) Davis should have been hanged for treason, according to Hahn.

But if Lincoln's aim was to rid the country of traitors, he would have had to hang about five million other Southerners. That would have taken a lot of rope. Lincoln's attitude was less punitive, more conciliatory than Professor Hahn's. Of course Lincoln's views changed during the course of the war. In his inaugural address in 1861 he stated, "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." In the midst of victory celebrations on the night of the Confederate surrender, he asked the band to play "Dixie."

Davis seemed at the time a brilliant choice for the job. During the Mexican War, the West Point graduate distinguished himself at the battle of Buena Vista, forming his men into a V-shaped phalanx with himself at the apex, armed with a rifle. Wounded, he continued to fight even when one of his boots filled up with blood. He served as U.S. Senator from Mississippi, Secretary of War in the Franklin Pierce administration, and the chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs. But his acumen earned only sarcasm from Ulysses S. Grant, who wrote 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."

Though history sees him as a scion of the planter class, Jefferson Davis was born in a log cabin in Kentucky, as Shelby Foote puts it, "within a year and a hundred miles of the man whose election had brought on the present furor," Abraham Lincoln. The differences in the two men's careers illustrate how social mobility worked in mid-nineteenth-century America. Davis's father owned slaves, but the senior Davis worked a farm, not a plantation, laboring in the fields beside the people his son would later call, chillingly, "a species of property." Fortunes were made overnight in the cotton-and-slavery South, and Davis's older brother Joseph soon became, again in Foote's words, "what his father had never been--a planter, with a planter's views, a planter's way of life." While the older brother made a fortune from cotton and slaves, the younger embarked on a brilliant career in the army and public life.

Joseph gave his younger brother an 800-acre plantation and fourteen slaves as a wedding present. For those whose views on slavery are formed by movies like 12 Tears a Slave, it may come as a surprise that this plantation, Brierfield, had a black overseer, one James Pemberton. …

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