An Honorable Defeat: The Last Days of the Confederate Government

Overview

In February 1865, the end was clearly in sight for the Confederate government. Lee's defeat at Gettysburg had dashed the hopes of the Confederate army, and Grant's victory at Vicksburg had cut the South in two. 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 during this time to achieve their own differing visions for the South: Jefferson...

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Overview

In February 1865, the end was clearly in sight for the Confederate government. Lee's defeat at Gettysburg had dashed the hopes of the Confederate army, and Grant's victory at Vicksburg had cut the South in two. 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 during this time 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.

Pulitzer Prize nominee William C. Davis traces the astounding flight of these men, and the entire Confederate cabinet, as they flee south from Richmond by train, then by mule, then on foot. Using original research, he narrates, with dramatic style and clear historical accuracy, the futile quarrels of Davis and Breckinridge as they try to evade bands of Northern pursuers and describes their eventual—and separate—captures. The result is a rich canvas of a time of despair and defeat that is exciting and highly readable, 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.

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Editorial Reviews

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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.

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
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
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
From the Publisher
PRAISE FOR AN HONORABLE DEFEAT

"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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780151005642
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 6/4/2001
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 512
  • Product dimensions: 6.31 (w) x 9.22 (h) x 1.60 (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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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Introduction: Ends and Beginnings xi
Chapter 1 "The Responsibility of Action" 1
Chapter 2 "Let It Not End in a Farce" 36
Chapter 3 "A Very Troublesome Elephant" 70
Chapter 4 "The Shadows of Misfortune" 95
Chapter 5 "I Cannot Feel Like a Beaten Man" 125
Chapter 6 "We Are Falling to Pieces" 169
Chapter 7 "All Is Lost but Our Honor" 201
Chapter 8 "The Confederate Government Is Dissolved" 242
Chapter 9 "This, I Suppose, Is the End of the Confederacy" 265
Chapter 10 "This Maze of Enemies" 286
Chapter 11 "The Last Hope Is Gone" 313
Chapter 12 "We All Felt Profoundly Grateful" 349
Aftermath: "When All These Wounds Are Healed" 384
Notes 401
Bibliography 459
Index 479
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Interviews & Essays

Author Essay
No one in the past seems to have appreciated the full dimension of the disintegration -- political and civil as well as military -- during the closing days of the Confederacy in February-April 1865. Indeed, that proved to be a story in its way even more fascinating than the incredible adventure of the flight of the government itself and its pursuit by Union cavalrymen.

Moreover, the characters involved are compelling. Difficult as he could be, and unlikable as he may seem to our sensibilities today, President Jefferson Davis was a rock throughout. He never lost faith or dedication to his cause. Indeed, though there is no other comparison between them, there is something almost Hitler-like about Davis in these final days, reminiscent of the Führer buried in his Berlin bunker and refusing to acknowledge that his cause was crumbling about him, or that his army and people no longer had the will, determination, or physical ability to go on. Unlike Hitler, however, Davis was no coward. Not for him the easy escape of suicide, to leave his people to their fate. Davis would share their hardship, though he, too, in the end, felt betrayed by some and abandoned by others. He had been the most dedicated Confederate of them all.

At odds with Davis in those final months was his chief cabinet minister, an altogether different sort of man. Warm, engaging, diplomatic, and urbane, Secretary of War General John C. Breckinridge possessed all the social virtues that Davis lacked, and he knew how to use them. Where Davis's life is largely a story of lost friends, Breckinridge held the loyalty, even adoration, of almost everyone who knew him. He also had the gift of pragmatism, the ability to make rational judgments detached from his emotions.

Unlike Davis, Breckinridge knew when it was over for the Confederacy, and as a result, during the final months of the infant nation's existence, Breckinridge's efforts were bent behind the scenes on engineering a dignified peace and surrender short of the utter defeat and conquest that were the only alternatives in Davis's independence-or-nothing policy. No cabinet minister had ever had the courage to stand up to Davis, but Breckinridge had the personal prestige and the following in the government and army to risk doing so, again and again.

Yet theirs was a civil and constitutional battle between men who were cordial friends, if not intimates; even though in later years Davis would endlessly castigate everyone who had opposed him during his presidency, he never had anything but praise for Breckinridge, the only man who ever successfully resisted his policy. Perhaps that was because Breckinridge had been so subtle and nonconfrontational that Davis never actually realized just how much he had been outmaneuvered by his war secretary. Indeed, Breckinridge even enlisted the sainted Robert E. Lee in his plan to gently force Davis to recognize the inevitable -- a behind-the-scenes political role that most Lee biographers have failed to note, and proof that Lee was a man who could confront the inescapable (even though in the end he stopped short of playing the role devised for him in the peace plan.) Still, this story reveals hints of a revolutionary Lee that few would suspect.

We spend far more time studying how nations begin than we do looking at their ends, and in so doing we miss some of the essential understanding of how countries and societies cope in crisis. The death of the Confederacy proved to be far more complex and intrigue-ridden than the simple story of defeat and disintegration that has come down to us. It was political and personal as well, founded as much in personalities as it was in policies. Most amazingly of all, those trying to bring about its demise from within were doing so as a way of setting the role for a new South in the future in a reunited America. In their end, men like Breckinridge and Lee were seeking their beginning. (William C. Davis)

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 7, 2002

    A Wonderful Read

    William Davis has said that history is not what happened, but essentially a literary pursuit. In this book, he faithfully retells a good story, however, it is his narritive abilities that carry the day. From his frequent and entertaining appearences on C-span's 'Booknotes' and other such programs, I became familiar with his works; those animated speaches are nothing compared to the real thing: the history -- well told, well written, and more consuming than a very good novel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 8, 2001

    An in-depth look at the final days of the Confederacy

    Mr. Davis has written another book with a unique perspective on events in the South as the Confederacy became unraveled. The most interesting part of the narrative to me was the emergence of John Breckenridge as a major figure. Jefferson Davis is as familiar to Southerners as anyone but Breckenridge is far less known. Mr. Davis has a great knack for turning a history lesson into an engrossing read. The book flows like a novel and the events are so interesting that one often believes that he is in fact reading fiction. He also debunks the myth that Jefferson Davis was trying to escape capture by dressing as a woman. You actually feel that you are making the journey with the characters and you get a deep insight into the conflicted relationship between Davis and Breckenridge and how far apart they were in terms of how they envisioned the war ending. I highly recommend this book. If you are a Civil War buff it is a necessity. The Long Surrender by Burke Davis has previously dealt with this subject but William C. Davis fleshes out another most interesting Civil War story.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2009

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