Book Review: Embattled Rebel
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.