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Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Iron Will of Jefferson Davis by Cass Canfield

A flawed biography of a man who is often overlooked

Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) is an oft-overlooked figure in American history, especially when compared to his presidential counterpart in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln. This biography is not recommended as a place to start by this history teacher, though. It has too many flaws.

First, there are strong points:

1. The basics of Davis's life are correct.

2. Lots of good pictures and maps.

Weak points:

The Iron Will of Jefferson Davis is replete with factual errors, such as claiming that Lexington, KY was "in the East" (pg. 8) in 1823, when this was clearly considered the "West" by Americans of the time. He claims that Southern slave plantation farming was more productive than Northern agriculture - this has been proving to be untrue, unless you consider that you can get extended growing seasons and get multiple crops in Deep South, which is all about climate, not slavery (pg. 11). He also erroneously claimed that "slave trading had almost died out by mid-nineteenth century." (pg. 11) International slave trading was nearly dead (but still in existence as demonstrated by the Amistad incident), but internal trading was alive and quite healthy.

He comments "if all plantation owners had treated their slaves as Jefferson did, slavery might have been considered a beneficient institution." (pg. 20) If this were a biography written in the early 20th century, I could understand such an ignorant statement about slavery. Not for a book published in 1978! Slavery as a positive!

He claims that plantation managers were among the first to be conscripted in 1862 (p. 22) - untrue. They were given exemptions throughout the war.

He claims on page 50 that all of the slave states were united in the war when Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware and Missuouri never left the Union and West Virginia split from Virginia to stay in the Union.

He contradicts himself: On page 92 he notes the the choice by Lee to go on the offensive in September 1862 was poor because it was "a bad moment to wage an offensive in the North..." On page 93 he comments, "Had the Confederates won decisively at this time, Great Britain would probably have intervened on the side of the South and forced mediation." It was either a bad time or it wasn't.

Canfield blames George Pickett for Pickett's charge and excuses Lee (pg. 96). Pickett was all for making the charge but this was Lee's attack.

On page 102 he claims the Union had 100,000 African-American soldiers in 1864, and on page 104 claims it was 200,000.

In sum, the basics of Davis's life are correct, but so many other errors force me to recommend that those interested in Jefferson Davis look elsewhere.

I rate this biography 2 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on March 25, 2008.

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