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Saturday, October 8, 2016


Published in 2014 by Penguin Press

Famed Civil War historian James M. McPherson aims to fill in an historical gap by providing a biography of Jefferson Davis's Civil War years. He notes in his opening that it is natural to make comparisons between Lincoln and Davis but those comparisons are often lopsided due to a lack of information. There are enough different Lincoln biographies to easily fill a truck. But, Davis is often a caricature - a difficult man who thought he could be general and commander-in-chief due to previous military experience - a man who refused to remove his friends from important military posts and also a man who carried a grudge.

That thumbnail sketch is largely true, but also incomplete. Thanks to the mass of information on Lincoln we are able to detect a sense of nuance.  A lot of source material on Davis never survived the Fall of Richmond. Even worse, many people who worked with him were unwilling to talk about it after the war - they just wanted to get on with their lives and put the war behind them. Even worse, others defended their own reputations by degrading his.

Jefferson Davis (1808-1889)

McPherson's biography of Davis pales in comparison to Doris Kearn Goodwin's work about the Lincoln Administration, Team of Rivals. Even so, this is a solid attempt to fill this glaring hole.

Even though this book mostly reinforces the stereotype view of Davis, it does provide a look into how hard it really was to be the President of the Confederate States of America. He was outgunned from the start and stayed that way throughout the war. It was very rare to have a Confederate force actually larger than the Union force it faced it battle.

But, just as it there was a shortage of men and supplies, there really was a shortage of top level officers. A truism often bandied about by Civil War devotees is that the Union had more soldiers but the Confederacy had better officers. It started out that way but battlefield deaths (Albert Sidney Johnston and "Stonewall" Jackson, to name two of the biggest losses) and difficult personalities combined against the Confederacy to even out things.  Davis is often criticized for holding on to officers like Braxton Bragg for too long but he really didn't have a lot of men with the expertise to manage an entire army. Take a look at the example of John Bell Hood - an aggressive Corps Commander who was promoted and went on to ruin an entire army in just a few months.

There really is not much new here, but it does the reader the service of collecting the information that would be scattered across a larger history of the war and consolidates it into one very readable, if smallish, book.

I rate this history 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Embattled Rebel.

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