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He was one of the most embattled heads of state in American history. Charged with building a new nation while waging a war for its very independence, he accepted his responsibilities reluctantly but carried them out with a fierce dedication to his ideals. Those efforts ultimately foundered on the shoals of Confederate defeat, leaving Davis stranded in public memory as both valiant leader and desolate loser.
Now two renowned Civil War historians, Herman Hattaway and Richard Beringer, take a new and closer look at Davis's presidency. In the process, they provide a clearer image of his leadership and ability to handle domestic, diplomatic, and military matters under the most trying circumstances-without the considerable industrial and population resources of the North and without the formal recognition of other nations.
Hattaway and Beringer examine Davis's strengths and weaknesses as president in light of both traditional evidence and current theories of presidential leadership. They show us a man so respected that northern colleagues regretted his departure from the U.S. Senate, but so bent on Southern independence he was willing to impose unthinkable burdens on his citizens-an apologist for slavery who was committed to state rights, even while growing nationalism in his new country called for a stronger central government.
In assessing Davis's actual administration of the Confederate state, the authors analyze the Confederate government's constitution, institutions, infrastructure, and cabinet-level administrators. They also integrate events of Davis's presidency with the ongoing war as it encroached upon the South, offering a panoramic view of military strategy as seen from the president's office. They tell how Davis reacted to the outcomes of key battles and campaigns in order to assess his leadership abilities, his relations with civilian and military authorities, and—his own personal competency notwithstanding—his poor judgment in selecting generals.
Rich in detail and exhilaratingly told with generous selections from Davis's own letters and speeches, Hattaway and Beringer provide the most insightful account available of the first and only Confederate presidency-suggesting that perhaps it was the Confederate government, rather than Davis himself, that failed. More than that, it shows us Jefferson Davis as an American leader and offers a new appreciation of his place in our country's history.
Copyright © 2002 University Press of Kansas.
All rights reserved.
Jefferson Davis was a Welshman by paternal ancestry, and his mother was from a Scotch-Irish family. Born in Kentucky on June 3, 1808, Davis was the tenth and last child of his parents. They prospered rather well, though never did they become truly wealthy. By 1810 they had relocated to the Mississippi Territory, and "there my memories begin," Jefferson wrote in his last year, recalling life in and around the towns of Woodville and Poplar Grove. He remembered vividly the wound inflicted on his brother Samuel's horse, for example, in the January 1815 Battle of New Orleans. Jefferson's young life was spent on a farm verging on the edge of the American wilderness. His parents were loving; his older siblings, and particularly certain slaves, doted on him. And always there were slaves.
When he was but a young boy, Jefferson Davis had met Andrew Jackson, and he thought then and perhaps forever after that Old Hickory was the greatest man he ever met. As one of Davis's recent biographers, Felicity Allen, puts it, he had an "unusual view of Jackson through the honest eyes of a child." Davis primarily remembered Jackson's "unaffected and well-bred courtesy." Davis was much impressed that "the hero always said grace at the table." More than seven decades later he wrote, "in me he inspired reverence and affection that has remained with me through my whole life."
A Jeffersonian in political and social philosophy, perhaps Davis, unlike his hero Jackson, was a purer version, in fact as well as in namesake. (Abraham Lincoln, whose presidency Davis, as head of the Confederacy, was to rival, was quite the opposite: Lincoln rejected Jeffersonianism and all that grew from it.)
The young Davis spent two years of formal schooling under the Roman Catholic friars of St. Thomas in Springfield, Kentucky. The school rightly enjoyed a fine reputation, and students came from Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, and Missouri as well as from Kentucky. There he not only learned a great deal, he also became enamored with Catholics—so much so that, as Felicity Allen opines, "he remained prejudiced in their favor." Although far from home, he kept in touch through letters from his parents, none of which survives.
Davis's true scholarly bent, nurtured at St. Thomas, was clearly recognized by the faculty at Transylvania University, where he spent three years. This first institution of higher learning west of the Appalachians was well endowed by doting planters and enjoyed a sterling reputation in much of the region. The impressive city of Lexington was the center of the rich Bluegrass region. "Poetry cannot paint groves more beautiful, or fields more luxuriant," wrote one enthusiastic observer. Lexington was a cosmopolitan town, and as Davis's most recent biographer, William J. Cooper Jr., points out, "The Athenaeum stocked newspapers and periodicals from East Coast cities. The public library held 6,000 books; in addition, the library at Transylvania contained more than 5,500 volumes, and the two debating societies owned another 1,000."
Davis encountered difficulty in mathematics while taking the entrance examinations. He had hoped to enter as a sophomore, but instead he was put in classes with younger boys; always before he had been grouped with older ones. He was "quite disappointed," and as he put it, "I felt my pride offended." Davis apparently made his feelings known, and the mathematics professor agreed to tutor him privately; and after the remainder of the first session and through the ensuing summer, he had mastered the deficiency and was admitted to the junior class. Afternoons were mostly free, and while many other students participated in athletics, Davis took private lessons in French and dance.
Davis made many friends at Transylvania; some he later worked with in Congress. At the end of his junior year he was given honors and chosen to give an address at a class exhibition, which he entitled "An Address on Friendship." A local newspaper noted that "Davis on friendship made friends of the hearers." Beyond doubt Davis was well liked. Fellow student George W. Jones, a future senator from Iowa who remained a devoted friend until Davis's death (admittedly no unbiased observer), recalled that Davis "was considered the best looking as he was the most intelligent and best loved student in the University."
In June 1824 all seemed well in the world to the sixteen-year-old Jefferson Davis. But in July he learned that his father had died. As Cooper observes, this "had a profound impact on the youthful Jefferson." Sixteen was of course an impressionable age, and his brother Joseph, twenty years older, became profoundly influential as a surrogate father. Joseph was, and forever remained, quite ambitious for Jefferson. At this moment, Transylvania did not measure up to Joseph's hopes, and he decided that Jefferson should go to the U.S. Military Academy. He secured an appointment through the good offices of Secretary of War John C. Calhoun.
"It was no desire of mine to go," Davis asserted to his sister Amanda. But Jefferson was a dutiful lad who much respected the wishes of his oldest brother-cum-father-figure. Jefferson admitted to his sister, "as Brother Joe evinced some anxiety for me to do so, I was not disposed to object." At the Military Academy Jefferson became a lifelong friend and admirer of both Albert Sidney Johnston and Leonidas Polk. He also doubtless knew two Virginians who were in the class behind him, Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston, but he did not become close to either of them.
The West Point Davis knew was virtually the creation of the superintendent, Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Sylvanus Thayer. A keen admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte, a believer in high standards, and an advocate of a modified Socratic teaching system, Thayer had shaped the institution into a first-rate engineering school with high standards and a demanding schedule. As Cooper has put it: "Only on Sunday afternoons, the Fourth of July, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day did the cadets have any respite from their mandated regimen"; indeed, Cooper suggests, it was a "military monastery."
Nevertheless, the young man was something of a risk taker, and as Cooper points out, "Davis willingly and knowingly challenged the system in both small and large matters. His brother Joseph worried that Jefferson might end up in the guard house." There were three occasions when Jefferson tempted fate and did jeopardize his survival at the academy. Each incident involved alcohol. Still, in this forbidden imbibing, Davis managed to impress his peers as being convivial. One miserable youth, Edgar Allan Poe, who remained a cadet for less than one year, called Davis "the sole congenial soul in the entire God-forsaken place."
Never adept at mathematics, Davis struggled with that subject, but he persevered and ultimately graduated twenty-third in a class of thirty-three. This standing put him into the Infantry Corps. He never later spoke favorably about any of his West Point instructors. Nothing survives of his opinions about Thayer, but Cooper suggests that since Davis obviously disliked the system Thayer had imposed, "it is most unlikely that he would have had much positive to say." Thayer certainly had little regard for Davis. In 1855, when Davis was secretary of war, Thayer declared, "Neither [Davis] nor my opinion of him have changed since I knew him as a cadet. If I am not deceived, he intends to leave his mark in the Army & also at West Point & a black mark it will be I fear. He is a recreant and unnatural son, would have pleasure in giving his Alma Mater a kick & would disclaim her, if he could."
Nevertheless, "In one fundamental sense Thayer was absolutely wrong ...; [Davis] absolutely prized West Point. Its imprint never left him. His lifelong military bearing he acquired there." For Davis, the experience at West Point was the beginning of a military dimension of his life that he seemed destined to exit, reenter, and exit—on and on—until after the Civil War. In many respects he seems to have been standing at attention throughout all his years. Still, he had a love-hate relationship with the military: he loved it most only when he was out of it.
Davis graduated from the Military Academy on July 1, 1828. His frontier services were rather uneventful. During his first assignment, at Fort Winnebago, Wisconsin Territory, he became something of a construction superintendent. When he got there the fort consisted of "only log huts connected by a stockade." Davis set to work improving the officers' quarters, and in the process also became a furniture maker. Seeking to create an edifice that would provide universal storage from clothes to china, according to Mrs. John H. Kinze, the wife of the Indian agent at the fort, he and his helpers "exhausted all of their architectural skill." She described the "structure" as "timbers [that] had been grooved and carved," forming pillars that "swelled in and out in a most fanciful manner"; not only paneled, the doors also "radiated out in a way to excite the imagination of all unsophisticated eyes." She and the wife of Major David E. Twiggs, the post commander, "christened the whole affair, in honor of its projector, a 'Davis.'"
It was, however, on this duty tour that Davis suffered his first grave illness, a severe case of pneumonia, which commenced in March 1831. It probably was brought on by arduous labors in the harsh outdoors, overseeing the building of a sawmill. Alien cites a source that indicates he had been "often wet to the skin for hours," in intense cold, and suggests that these "lumbering days came close to being his last." Davis's second wife, Varina, later wrote in her memoirs that "he became so emaciated that his servant, James Pemberton, used to lift him like a child from the bed to the window." But Pemberton in good time at last managed to nurse the patient back to health.
Davis occasionally ruminated upon his present duties and his apparent place in the world. In a long letter to his sister Lucinda, written during his first summer in the army, he admitted that he did not find the army exciting, but he also confessed, "I know of nothing else that I could do which I would like better." He found some compatriots with "genteel" manners, and he liked that. Furthermore, "as far as morality is deemed necessary in the intercourse of men in the world it is strictly observed." "Dissipation," he noted, was "less common than among the citizens of Mississippi," and if drunkards did appear, "they are dismissed from the service." Most revealingly, he asserted that West Point "made me a different creature from that which nature had designed me to be." Cooper suggests that the twenty-one-year-old Davis was both evincing pride in his profession, and "at the same time he obviously struggled with his emotional state." He had essentially been on his own since the age of fourteen. The kind of self-examination in which he was indulging "in those circumstances could lead to an enveloping sadness, which he clearly confronted." He shared with his siblings the news about this confrontation, and in 1833 a loving niece, Joseph's oldest daughter and Jefferson's contemporary, warned him against "that ever preying viper melancholy." She suggested that he would "cherish ambition, cherish pride, and run from excitement to excitement." Cooper asserts that "Lieutenant Davis clung to his family," which was large and extended, and that "all cared enormously for him"; indeed, "home never strayed too far from Jefferson's mind." Moreover, Joseph counseled him that in charting "a plan of life, we should look to the end and take not the shortest route but the surest, that which is beset with the fewest difficulty [sic] and the most pleasant to travel."
Apparently, Jefferson generally tried to heed his brother's and his other relatives' advice. His army career was fairly uneventful, but on one occasion he did get into some trouble and was court-martialed for insolence, disrespect toward a senior officer, and dereliction of duty. He was acquitted, but it had been a narrow scrape. One of his fellow junior officers, Lieutenant Lucius B. Northrop, testified in his behalf, thereby gaining Davis's highest esteem for the rest of his life. Davis had taken the court-martial very seriously. He felt that not only had the accusation threatened his army career, it also had maligned his public reputation and challenged his sense of himself. His honor had been questioned. He longed to "wipe away the discredit which belongs to my arrest," asserting that "the humble and narrow reputation which a subaltern can acquire by years of the most rigid performance of his duty, is little worth in the wide world of Fame, but yet is something to himself." Cooper suggests that "this classic combining of the public and private dimensions of reputation formed the fundamental underpinning to the idea of honor in Jefferson Davis's own mind and in the South."
Otherwise, Davis was a good soldier and officer: "Unlike Cadet Davis, Lieutenant Davis was not constantly at war with rules and regulations." Events allowed him to demonstrate that he was both physically strong and courageous. Several accounts reveal his ability to defend himself. On horseback he could dazzle. And as Cooper observes, "His personality along with a 'gay laugh' charmed many of his compatriots." He much enjoyed the company of his old West Point chums whenever their assignments brought them together, especially that of his dearest friend Albert Sidney Johnston. And Davis met new people, with whom he formed mutual friendships, including Captain William S. Harney, a fellow officer at Fort Winnebago. Eight years Davis's senior, Harney became "a boon companion whom Davis would admire into old age."
Not all went well for Davis, however. During an eventful winter at Camp Jackson (soon renamed Fort Gibson), Oklahoma Territory, for the second time in his twenty-five years he became seriously ill. He was plagued with bronchial difficulties and even toyed with trying to get a medical discharge. Bronchial and respiratory problems thereafter remained constants throughout what proved to be Davis's long life.
Then Davis managed to meet and to fall in love with Sarah Knox Taylor, the daughter of Zachary Taylor, his commanding officer. And the attraction was mutual. Indeed, as Allen observes, "It must have been love at first sight." Born at Fort Knox, in Vincennes, Indiana Territory, on March 6, 1814, "Knox," as she was known, was eighteen when she and Davis met. Cooper tells us that "the only extant likeness of her is a stylized portrait of a girlish teenager with long flowing hair, a rounded chin, and a prominent forehead framing luminous eyes. Her winsome personality charmed her contemporaries, who commented on her intelligence and wit." On March 2, 1835, Davis resigned his military commision, having decided to give up his army career in order to become a cotton planter. He and Knox were married on June 17. However, while on a honeymoon in Mississippi both newlyweds contracted either yellow fever or malaria: she died of it on September 15, 1835, after suffering only a short while; he was left to suffer occasional residual ailments for his remaining fifty-four years.
Davis grew up in a slave society and was steeped in its ideology. Indeed, "Race and the place of African-Americans in American society were central in Davis's life.... For his entire life he believed in the superiority of the white race." But as Cooper rightly points out, we should strive to understand Davis as a man of his time, not condemn him for not being a man of our time. Further, Davis's mind-set was a bit unusual; he was something of a maverick. When in 1858 abolitionists were predicting slave revolts, Davis replied to them in a speech in New York City: "Our doors are unlocked at night.... We lie down to sleep trusting to them for our defence, and the bond between the master and the slave is as near as that which exists between capital and labor anywhere." He returned to this idea late in his Confederate presidency when contemplating the military manpower problem. Davis's slave James Pemberton accompanied him throughout his army career. When Davis began his career as a planter, he placed Pemberton in charge of the land clearing; later, he made Pemberton his overseer. Although Mississippi law did not recognize the legitimacy of slave marriages, Cooper observes that "probably the great majority of slaveowners recognized alliances between slaves, as did the Davises." The abolitionist, Davis scornfully suggested, "knows literally nothing" of these relations.
Excerpted from Jefferson Davis, Confederate President by Herman Hattaway and Richard E. Beringer. Copyright © 2002 by University Press of Kansas. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Prologue: A Momentous Step
1. What Manner of Man?
2. The Establishment of Government
3. Provisional Administration
4. To Sumter
5. The Wait for Land Battles
6. In the Aftermath of First Manassas
7. Forging the Resources of War
8. Northern Power Emerges
9. Escalating Degrees of Warfare
10. The Threat of Emancipation
11. Union Power Affirmed
12. The Meaning of War
13. War Leadership in Supreme Test
14. The Great Hope: That Lincoln Be Denied Reelection
15. The Winter of Great Discontent
16. The Battlefield Realities in 1865
17. The End in Virginia
18. The Pseudo-Confederacy
Plates: Art and Community
Epilogue: The Postwar Davis
Appendix: Barber's Model of Presidential Leadership