An Honorable Defeat: The Last Days of the Confederate Government

An Honorable Defeat: The Last Days of the Confederate Government

by William C. Davis

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In February 1865, the end was clearly in sight for the Confederate government. An Honorable Defeat is the story of the four months that saw the surrender of the South and the assassination of Lincoln by Southern partisans. It is also the story of two men, antagonists yet political partners, who struggled to achieve their own differing visions for the South:


In February 1865, the end was clearly in sight for the Confederate government. An Honorable Defeat is the story of the four months that saw the surrender of the South and the assassination of Lincoln by Southern partisans. It is also the story of two men, antagonists yet political partners, who struggled to achieve their own differing visions for the South: Jefferson Davis, the autocratic president of the Confederate States, who vowed never to surrender whatever the cost; and the practical and warm General John C. Breckinridge, Secretary of War, who hoped pragmatism would save the shattered remnants of the land he loved so dearly.

Noted historian William C. Davis traces the astounding flight of these men, and the entire Confederate cabinet, from Richmond. Using original research, he narrates the futile quarrels of Davis and Breckinridge as they try to evade Northern pursuers and describes their eventual—and separate—captures. The result is a rich canvas of a time of despair and defeat, a charged tale full of physical adventure and political battle that sweeps from the marble halls of Richmond to a dingy room in a Havana hotel. 6 X 9. 16-page black-and-white photo insert; two maps

Author Biography: William C. Davis has written or edited more than 40 books on the Civil War and Southern history, including, most recently, Three Roads to the Alamo and Lincoln's Men. Twice a Pulitzer Prize finalist, he is former publisher of the magazine Civil War Times, and was elected a Fellow of the Society of American Historians in 1999. He is Director of Programs at the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies, and is professor of history at Virginia Tech.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"This is popular history at its very best."—Seattle Post Intelligencer
"A marvelous supporting cast of politicians and soldiers helps him to fashion a story . . . rich in pathos and humor."—The New York Times Book Review
"A harrowing adventure . . . deftly told."—Booklist
The Barnes & Noble Review
The setting is Richmond, capital of the Confederacy -- the date April 1865. General Lee telegraphs that he can keep one sector of the battle line open for another 12 hours. President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet pack up the archives and treasury and flee the city as the Union soldiers approach and the cotton warehouses go up in flames. Thus begins the odyssey of the Confederate government, vividly recounted in this page-turner of a book.

Though the reader knows how it must end, the story is nevertheless full of suspense. Its hero is not the stubborn, self-deluded Confederate president but his secretary of war, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, who worked desperately to convince Davis that the war was over, and even tried to negotiate peace terms behind his back. Davis, by contrast, clung to the idea that he could continue the fight from Texas or Mexico.

Using eyewitness accounts, William Davis presents in lively detail the adventures of the cabinet and its wagonload of gold and silver en route from Virginia to Georgia. He brings to life the individual quirks of half a dozen men, and the feelings of those who helped and sheltered them. Along the way came news of Lincoln's assassination -- a terrible shock to Davis and Breckinridge, who rightly concluded that they would be blamed, and also felt that Lincoln would have been a better friend to the defeated South than Andrew Johnson.

Against a background of political infighting, the story veers from melodrama to black comedy, complete with escapes and calamities, culminating in the arrest of Davis and his family and Breckinridge's perilous flight to Cuba in an open boat. Exciting and extremely readable, it also enlarges our understanding of this tragic period. (Stephanie Martin)

Stephanie Martin lives in Newton Centre, Massachusetts.

Ernest B. Furgurson
No other writer has described the death agonies of the lost cause with more authority, brought Breckinridge forward more convincingly, or portrayed Davis's blind determination more clearly than William C. Davis. Once again, he has reminded us that American history is not all black and white, or blue and gray -- that, especially within the doomed Confederacy, the shadings of character ran from nobility to absurdity.
Washington Post Book World
Steve Raymond
Davis tells his story in an open, accessible style, and his action-filled narrative is irresistible...popular history at its very best.
Seattle Times / Post-Intelligencer
Publishers Weekly
The Pulitzer Prize-nominated Civil War historian turns his pen to the last four months of the Confederacy: how, asks Davis (Three Roads to the Alamo, etc.), did Confederate president Jefferson Davis respond to Union victory? Author Davis charts the president's gradual acceptance of defeat, his flight from the Confederate capital and his eventual capture. The author has an eye for detail, and his chronicle of the Confederate cabinet's attempt to escape Richmond is lively. We watch President Davis sending his wife out of the city on a train, having given her a gun "and instructed her in its use." We see Davis silently reading a note from Robert E. Lee in the middle of Sunday morning worship at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, and we watch as Secretary of War John Breckenridge leaves behind his invalid wife, who is "too ill to travel." But if Davis has given us a fast-paced story, his analysis leaves something to be desired. He is too busy telling us what happened to pay attention to why. The gist of Davis's analysis can be gleaned from his title like many scholars of the Confederacy before him, Davis is interested in showing that the rebels were, above all, honorable. They emerge as gentlemen, hounded and beleaguered, rather than as traitors. Readers who enjoy romantic renderings of the Civil War era will enjoy this portrait of defeat. Readers looking for a compelling and convincing historical interpretation will be disappointed. (July) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Davis's work opens during the last four months of the Civil War, which saw Lee's retreat from Petersburg, his stinging defeat at Sayler's Creek, his surrender at Appomattox, the fall of Richmond, and Lincoln's assassination. Davis (history, Virginia Tech Univ.; Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour) follows the contentious relationship of two men, rivals through circumstance but wedded by politics, who both collaborated and feuded during this period to advance their respective visions for the Confederacy. The two men were Jefferson Davis, the stubborn, imperious, and delusional leader of the Rebel forces, and the sensible and personable John C. Breckenridge, Davis's Secretary of War, who worked tirelessly against his leader to achieve the best peace terms for the South. The book retraces the familiar but always riveting tale of the flight of these antagonists as they escaped from a disintegrating capital into the Deep South. Emphasis is given to their derring-do trials, the divergence of personalities in Davis's party, the constant tension and deep mistrust between Davis and Breckenridge, and the ultimate fate of each fugitive. The author's frequent segues to a contextual time line add meaning and insight to his finely drawn and highly readable study. Recommended for all libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/1/00.] John C. Edwards, formerly with Univ. of Georgia Libs. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A skillfully rendered account of the closing hours of the Civil War. Long before Lee surrendered his army to Grant at Appomattox, writes historian Davis (The Union That Shaped the Confederacy, p. 229, etc.), the leaders of the Confederacy knew that their cause was doomed to fail. Jefferson Davis's vice president, Alexander H. Stephens, had given up hope as early as 1862 and simply went home to Georgia, while others took longer to conclude that Davis's prosecution of the war could lead only to defeat—especially after Davis resolved to fight to the last man. By 1865, some dissidents within the Confederate government were calling for his violent overthrow and the installation of Lee as "interim dictator." Others, notably Davis's secretary of war, Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge, believed that the North was so tired of waging war that it could be persuaded to come to a settlement—one that might even allow the Southerners to retain their slaves and political power. "Faced with almost certain defeat anyhow," Davis writes, "Confederates might come out of defeat with much better terms than by negotiating now than if they continued on and forced the North to beat them into definitive subjugation." Breckinridge could not convince Jefferson Davis to accept this alternative, but he loyally accompanied the president as Davis attempted to flee from the advancing Union armies in order to continue the war from the safety of Texas or Mexico. The denouement is well known, as Davis (no relation to the Confederate leader) writes, but it is often incorrectly reported: The story that Jefferson Davis tried to escape by disguising himself as a woman is a canard. In the end, Davis remarks, theNorth scarcely knew what to do with the captive leaders, for "the Constitution failed specifically to define what they had done as treason," and all were free by 1868. Solid history and good storytelling in a swift-paced narrative. First printing of 50,000; History Book Club main selection; Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection; author tour

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Harvest Edition
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.35(d)

Meet the Author

The author of more than forty books, WILLIAM C. DAVIS is the director of programs at the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies. He is also chief consultant for the A&E television series Civil War Journal and teaches history at Virginia Tech.

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