An Honorable Defeat: The Last Days of the Confederate Government

An Honorable Defeat: The Last Days of the Confederate Government

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by William C. Davis
     
 

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Davis (history, Virginia Tech) explores the final days of the American Civil War, when it was obvious to most the days of the Confederacy were numbered. Noting that the nature of peace is conditioned by the nature of the end of wars, he explores the debates within the highest levels of the Confederate government on how to end the war even as they fled northern troops… See more details below

Overview

Davis (history, Virginia Tech) explores the final days of the American Civil War, when it was obvious to most the days of the Confederacy were numbered. Noting that the nature of peace is conditioned by the nature of the end of wars, he explores the debates within the highest levels of the Confederate government on how to end the war even as they fled northern troops in attempts to avoid capture. For the author, the debate centered around two men—Jefferson Davis, characterized as irrationally clinging to an ideal of no surrender, and General John C. Breckenridge, who attempted to convince Davis that some concessions might be wrung from a war-weary North, if the Confederacy were to surrender. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

Editorial Reviews

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:
9780151007028
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
06/01/2001
Pages:
512
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

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