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Book Review: Embattled Rebel

By (October 1, 2014) One Comment

embattled rebel coverEmbattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief

by James McPherson

The Penguin Press, 2014

The dean of American Civil War historians, James McPherson, takes as the subject of his new book Jefferson Davis, the traitor from Kentucky who took upon himself the title of President of the Confederacy during the war. Davis has had a whole shelf of biographies in the last 150 years, but a certain amount of high profile burnish accompanies one written by McPherson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1989 book Battle Cry of Freedom. McPherson has written over a dozen books in his career, and it’s perhaps for this reason that Embattled Rebel is both consummately readable and just a bit weary-sounding, informing us right at the outset, for instance, that comparing Davis with Abraham Lincoln is “like trying to compare apples and oranges.”

Davis’s story is as familiar as it is unedifying, and there isn’t much McPherson can do with it, although that’s hardly a good reason for him to do as little as he does. As the book’s subtitle mentions, Davis was the commander-in-chief of a large and at least temporarily solvent multi-state government, one that, as McPherson correctly points out, fielded armies led by professional soldiers. He led that government for the entire course of an extremely bloody war, taking virtually all its decisions personally across his own desk in Richmond. Even those who rank him as one of the most pathetic and contemptible figures in American history will probably consider the 250 pages McPherson gives him here a little skimpy.

He can’t get around the fact that almost all of Davis’s own contemporaries likewise considered him pathetic and contemptible. His fellow politicians, his subordinates, and his generals all found him bizarrely vain, brittle, pointlessly pig-headed, and, the most common term, cold. McPherson dutifully reports all these contemporary impressions, but like most Davis biographers over the years, he undertakes a defense of his subject:

To be sure, there was some substance underlying the stereotypes of Davis’s disagreeable personality. He did not suffer fools gladly, and he let them know it. He did not practice the skillful politician’s art of telling others what they wanted to hear. He did not flatter their egos and he sometimes asserted his own.

Which is mere dodging, a shame of a thing for a seasoned historian to try. The attacks against Jefferson Davis weren’t “stereotypes,” they were first-hand accounts; it’s not that he didn’t suffer fools gladly (which we’re supposed to consider praiseworthy, of course), it’s that he himself was a fool and very nearly always categorized as fools men who were more intelligent than he was; it’s not that he didn’t flatter the egos of others, it’s that he went out of his way to knuckle those egos; it’s not that he sometimes asserted his own opinions, it’s that he never shut up. To his credit, once he’s done with his wordplay, McPherson acknowledges some of this:

He did not hesitate to criticize others but was often thin-skinned about their criticisms of him. Davis could be austere, humorless, and tediously argumentative. He sometimes misinterpreted disagreement as personal hostility.

In his prosecution of the war itself, Davis was once again a funhouse-mirror distortion of Abraham Lincoln. He favored an entire gallery of boobies and nonentities in government positions, busied himself in all manner of matters better left to trained experts, and fought constantly with one of his best generals, Joseph Johnston. And about his harmonious relationship with his most famous general, Robert E. Lee, McPherson has some interesting things to say – but also some baffling things, including a maddeningly complacent concluding coda about the victors writing the history books:

… while the Lincoln-Grant team eventually won the war, this does not mean that the Davis-Lee team was responsible for losing it. For in the final analysis, the salient truth about the American Civil War is not that the Confederacy lost but that the Union won.

As mentioned – and as evidenced in that little quote – Embattled Rebel is an often-lazy book; that the Union won the war instead of the Confederacy is not a truth but simply a fact, and since Davis was the Confederacy’s commander-in-chief and Lee was, by the end, personally in charge of all the military forces of the slave-ocracy, by definition, they were responsible for losing the war. Davis need not have broken his oath and turned his back on his Congress and his country; he need not have antagonized his officials and generals in the middle of a war; and he need not have protracted the death-throes of his turncoat government after its fate was sealed. Another man might not have done any of those things; what historical purpose is served by trying to soften this man’s many failings?

Ever the charmer, Davis was fond of saying “the only way to make spaniels civil is to whip them.” Such a person deserves very different book from the one our master historian gives him here.

One Comment »

  • Mark Curran says:

    Davis story is WHAT? Oh, you mean the myth, like Lee’s myth, is well known.

    I hoped McPherson would stop his silly perpetuation of the fraud that Davis was an honorable man, but he did not. He was a sociopath.

    Did McPherson write one candid word, about Davis role in the killing sprees in Kansas, carried out by David Rice Atchison? Atchison’s speech was written down at the time, and is housed to this day in Kansas.

    You can find it yourself if you quit reading BS biographies and use original sources.

    How about starting where Davis started — the killing fields of Kansas, where Davis sent Atchison, a US Senator at the time sent, to terrorize and kill folks who dared to speak openly against slavery.

    Oh you didn’t know that? No kidding?

    For some reason, we have adopted the Orwellian double speak about KS — “the trouble in Kansas” and ‘Border Wars”.

    How about killing fields by men hired by Jeff Davis?

    Take a gander sometime at the Crimes Against Kansas speech — maybe you heard of it? Sumner listed the violence, and mentioned Atchison, and was promptly beaten almost to death on the Senate floor, not by a Senator, but by a US Rep and slave owner who immediately became a celebrity.

    The killings grew worse — much much worse, as the next day ironically, when Atchison also made a speech, this one bragging about what he would do in the next hours — kill anyone who resisted in Lawrence. His speech was to to his Texas men (he had just met them, according to the speech), about killing and terrorizing to spread slavery.

    That speech should be in every text book in the USA. It’s the best history lesson you never got.

    The Sumner speech is mild compared to it, because Atchison is urging his men to kill, and candidly boasting of who is paying them, and why they are killing.

    To spread slavery –but even more, to kill and silence all opposition to slavery.

    Atchison speech is as important as the Gettysburg address, because it’s starts the open and paid killings, and literally started the Civil War.

    I know — you think the Civil War started in 1861. Not really. Atchison declares the war started RIGHT THEN, in 1856. He tells his men this is war, and the “administration” wants this war, as does the “South”. Seven times during the speech he refers to the source of this war — the SOUTH and the present administration, the goal of which is to spread slavery not just to Kansas, but to the Pacific.

    Keep this in mind –Atchison brags of it.

    REmember too, he is the guy who, with Stephn A Douglas, got the Kansas Nebraska Act passed, for the “love of principle” that local folks determine local policy. In other words, if local people want it, they can have slavery.

    Actually, that was not true. Virtually no one in KS wanted slavery, as events and votes showed. Kansas voters rejected slavery overwhelmingly when finally they were allowed to vote.

    But Atchison, with Stephen A Douglass help, tried to force slavery down the throats of KS whites, killing as needed.

    Read the speech. Atchison hates the US, he says, and rides under the red and white flag denoting the South’s wish to make war in Kansas and kill every abolitionist dog that resists.

    More importantly, it was Jeff Davis who sent him, and named him General of Law and Order in Kansas, and paid for the Texas killers. That’s what they were, killers. Davis defended Atchison’s actions, as did Stephen A Douglas at the time. Only Davis defended them for the rest of his life.

    Atchison’s speech isn’t the only documented evidence of the killings — paid for by Sec of War Davis at the time, and backed by Pierce. There are newspaper letters from Atchison’s supporters making it clear they would continue the killings.

    What on earth prevents McPhereson, or anyone else, from delving into Davis role in the KS killing sprees? Furthermore, when the killings did not have the desired effect –because KS whites dared to fight back anyway, they didn’t all run off as hoped — Davis had to turn to plan B. The Dred Scott decision.

    The Scott decision came AFTER the killing sprees didn’t work, by the way, and justified, in Davis mind, the forced spread of slavery into Kansas no matter what the people of Kansas voted or wanted. There was no local “organic” support of slavery in Kansas, the killers Davis and Atchison hired were from Missouri and TExas. In fact, in 1860 census, there were only two slaves in the entire territory. It was only the machinations by Davis and Atchison, helped by Stephen A Douglas as Chairman of House and Senate Committee on Kansas, that facilitated the money and official cover for the killing sprees.

    In other words- Davis, as Sec of War, paid Texas men to invade Kansas, and they were led by David Rice Atchison. Read his speech. Apparently this is too great a task for the McPherson, but he should have opened with the speech. A US Senator, leaves the US Senate after passing the Kansas Nebraska Bill, goes to Kansas to kill and terrorize — and Charles Sumner is beaten almost to death for mentioning it and other crimes in Kansas, and you don’t mention that? WHy is that?

    Here is a clue — you won’t be attacked by mentioning the name Atchison anymore. Sumner was attacked, is that the hang up here?

    Davis insistance that blacks are not human beings — another little tid bit left out of McPheresons books, at least in a blunt way. Did you know that 9 times in the Dred Scott decision blacks are called inferior beings? SO inferior, that they were not persons, but PROPERTY. And as such, according to Davis, via Dred Scott decision, the federal government must protect slavery.

    Slavery, claimed Davis idiotically and Orwellian like, was timid, and needed protection. Guess who the protection was? Atchison was the protection. Sent to KS, with paid killers, to “protect” slavery that didn’t even exist organically. There were 2 slaves and 1700 killers there to “protect” them? Orwell much?

    Furthermore, why not mention the overwhelming votes against slavery? Too much trouble to mention that? KS whites votes 90% and more against slavery, and were eventually accepted as a free state, when finally Stephen A Douglas (Atchison’s friend ) was not in a position to sabotage KS entry into US, as he had done for years.

    So spare me this nonsense about Davis biography is well known. No, the BS myths just get repeated. Here is a clue, try to use original sources, and the speech bragging about killing to spread slavery, under the support of Jeff Davis, would be a keen place to start.

    Finally, McPHerson could have stopped the BS about Davis capture — he not only was in a dress per his wife and nephews writings, but he told his wife to get herself killed (read her book). Davis was big on others fighting to the death, but when he was in danger, he donned his wife’s dress, left her and the children to the tender mercies of bullets flying in the air, and headed for his own safety.

    Original documents prove that — it’s not a mystery, it’s not confusing. Davis the macho man was big on sending killers, and justifying it in Orwellian double speak. But in the end, he was a coward and a liar.

    Let McPherson deal with facts — not BS.

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