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This article is also available for rental through DeepDyve. View Metrics. Email alerts New issue alert. Responding to an inquiry from a South Carolina fire-eater, Davis said that Mississippi would not secede alone. Furthermore, he told his correspondent that South Carolina should wait to see what the South would do, not rush out on its own. But he alone counseled against immediate action.
Before these deliberations concluded, Davis received a telegram urging him to come promptly to Washington. He left Jackson but informed his associates that he would be governed by their decision. In the frantic month of December , his hopes rose and fell. The key feature of the Crittenden Compromise would extend the Missouri Compromise line westward through the Mexican Cession, leaving California intact.
Davis, along with the other Democrats on the committee, signaled their acceptance of the proposal provided that Republicans did also. But all five Republicans united in refusing to do so. Recognizing its failure, the committee at the end of the month reported to the Senate that it could not agree on Crittenden or any other compromise measure. At this point Davis gave up. He then joined in conversations concerning a new southern government, though without elation. Reluctantly he let the Union go. Two days later he gave his farewell to the Senate.
Perhaps its most famous, and in some ways most lasting, formulation came in when historian Frank L. In fact Davis absorbed the ideological testament even before his political career began, for he identified himself as a Democrat and 33 CooperJefDavisFinal. Of course, by the s Jackson and Calhoun had become political enemies, but Davis never acknowledged their falling out, maintaining his twin loyalty. As a newly elected congressman, Davis proved his doctrinal orthodoxy by opposing even the venerated Calhoun on a constitutional issue.
In this area he did not hold to a strict ideological position. The key issue was a transcontinental railroad. As secretary of war from to , Davis had responsibility for the military defense of the country. By this time, of course, the United States had become a continental nation. The Oregon Territory had been organized in and California admitted as a state a year later. As secretary of war, Davis worried about the potential menace to the Pacific Coast of a foreign maritime power, for example, Great Britain.
Combating a threat on that coast with forces from the eastern seaboard required a lengthy transit: either by sea to Central America, then overland to the Pacific, and again by sea up to California; or by sea all the way around Cape Horn at the tip of South America. Moreover, he faced the ever-increasing problem of protecting the growing number of American settlers heading across the plains toward the Rocky Mountains. Attempting to cope with these assignments, the U.
Army confronted tremendous logistical and operational difficulties. Secretary Davis thought a transcontinental railroad the only real answer to this problem. Until one could be built, though, he turned to various stopgaps like the famous camel experiment. In this venture Davis intended to use camels in the southwestern desert for transportation and fighting. Convinced by Turkish and French examples, he believed employing these desert-friendly animals in place of horses and mules would give American soldiers an advantage in the vast arid landscape stretching westward from central Texas.
Indeed, initial trials proved promising. But for Davis this initiative was only temporary. He wanted a railroad to the Pacific, and he urged Congress to authorize its construction. Even more, he advocated that the U. In doing so he perceived no constitutional difficulty.
First and foremost, he pointed out that the Constitution had delegated a favorite word of strict constructionists to the federal government the duty of defending the nation. He went on to say that the government owned the territory and the railroads would be constructed mostly on federal land, chiefly for military purposes. Then the political problem of an eastern terminus caused gridlock.
All assumed there would be only one route, and southerners and northerners were determined that their section would win the prize. When Davis returned to the Senate in , he continued to press for the railroad, utilizing the same arguments. To overcome constitutional and political problems, he and others suggested contracting with private companies, using public lands and government loans to pay the cost, but this proved futile. Ultimately constitutional objections and sectional politics stymied railroad proponents—no transcontinental railroad was built before the Civil War.
That same phrase appeared in his message to the special session of the Confederate Congress he called after Fort Sumter. The firing on Fort Sumter and the outbreak of war occurred only two months after Davis had taken office as provisional president. The government, still under construction, quickly moved to a war footing. From the outset Davis foresaw a long, tough struggle. For example, he urged Congress to authorize enlistments in the army for the duration of the conflict, or at least three years. Yet he was only able to get authorization for oneyear enlistments from a Congress that preferred six months.
In the spring of , fearing the decimation of Confederate ranks with the expiration of twelve-month enlistments, he proposed the first national conscription law in American history. Prompt attacks on conscription as an unconstitutional aggrandizement of power by the central government poured forth.
The constitutional power of the central government to raise and maintain armies stopped there. Responding, the president averred that the constitution made the central government responsible for national defense; specifically it authorized Congress to organize and maintain armies. In sum, Davis argued as he had as a U. As he read the United States and the Confederate States constitutions, both gave the central government the duty to defend the nation.
Thus in his mind, conscription easily passed the constitutional test. Davis made similar arguments about instituting impressment and suppressing habeas corpus. This formulation is both thoughtful and legitimate. In the name of national independence, they would support legislative initiatives such as conscription as well as the growth of executive power. He was absolutely committed to national unity, supporting a number of measures making both the central government in general and the executive in particular more powerful.
Yet in his mind such powers had but one end, protecting Confederate liberty, the liberty both of the country and of its citizens. He made that point time and time again. In his script all the sacrifices, including conscription, imprisonment, privation, death, and destruction, would have a glorious outcome, independence and liberty. For Davis then, failure of the Confederate nation meant enslavement, the utter loss of rights and liberty, for Confederate citizens.
Thus Davis probably would have difficulty accepting the separation Rable has devised. From this group I exclude a man often included, Governor Zebulon B. Vance of North Carolina, because he does not belong. Davis correctly considered Vance a loyal Confederate who worked zealously for the cause, often with the president. Vance even managed to vanquish the major anti-Davis, antiConfederate movement in his state.
The Confederate Congress usually gave the president the legislation and the authority he requested. Even in Georgia, the home of the most luminous group of Davis enemies, Brown, the Stephens brothers, Toombs, and their allies could not carry the state into their camp. Until the end of the war, no one doubted that Jefferson Davis was the president. In a real sense all the sound and fury was just that, sound and fury. Returning to the two questions in the opening paragraph, my answer to both is negative. As he made clear on so many occasions, Davis insisted that both the U. Constitution and the Confederate Constitution delegated to the respective central governments responsibility for national defense and the authority to carry out that responsibility.
To be sure, he had other vocations. In early manhood he had served as an officer in the U. Army, and since the mids he had been a cotton planter. But from his selection in as a Democratic presidential elector in Mississippi, he had concentrated on politics, a dedication that resulted in a notable political career—holding seats at various times in the U.
House of Representatives, the U. Senate, and the cabinet. In the s Davis established himself as the dominant political figure in Mississippi. By the end of the decade, he had become a major leader in the Senate and in the nation, not just in his state and section. Abiding by the conventions of his time, Davis claimed that he had no interest in appointive or elective office.
He really did not want to remain on his Mississippi plantation but wanted to win office. To reach and then maintain his political position, he constantly campaigned and tended to constituent services. From , when he entered the House, until the breakup of the Union, Davis was an absentee planter, spending considerably more time in Washington than in Mississippi.
In he was a professional politician and an extraordinarily successful one. When the cataclysm of the secession crisis ripped the nation, it also 41 CooperJefDavisFinal. He was no fire-eater, no sectional extremist. Although he believed in the constitutionality of secession, he never advocated leaving the Union.
His own combat wound suffered during the Mexican War he counted as a badge of honor. Davis saw no contradiction between owning slaves as a representative of a slave state and devotion to his country. Rejecting the notion propounded by Republican politicians like Abraham Lincoln that the nation could not exist half-slave and half-free, he pointed to great American heroes like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Zachary Taylor, slaveowners all. Furthermore, the Constitution in his judgment protected slavery, a view shared by the U. Supreme Court.
After all, fully 60 percent of American voters cast their ballots for candidates who had no problem with perpetuating slavery in the nation. In his state and to other southerners, Davis counseled caution. In the Senate, for himself and for his country, he strove to find a way to avoid the disintegration of the Union. He did not succeed. His own rhetoric trapped him just as the dynamics of southern and Republican politics trapped the country. The failure of the Union massively affected Davis. The old politics, the style and system he had mastered, had failed.
He believed that ambition and selfishness had led men to lose sight of the main goal, preserving the constitutional Union of the Founding Fathers. After the Civil War he would even sign the books he acquired on page sixty-one. It could not, would not, fail. The birth of the southern nation caught him in motion. He was throwing off the old politics but unsure of the new; he would have to find a new political center. For him that quest quickly became a crusade.
He would make an indelible imprint on the political world of the Confederacy. That world included the military, for the Confederate Constitution, like its U. The military quickly assumed a central place because almost from birth the Confederacy found itself immersed in the cauldron of war. Only two months separated the establishment of the Confederacy and the firing on Fort Sumter.
Of course, the military world would never exist in a vacuum divorced from the civilian universe. In the South, as in the Union, powerful bonds connected the soldiers and the civilians. In this essay, however, I will concentrate on the military, but even with that concentration my comments will reveal the inseparability. In the South military affairs and operations were conducted in a political environment.
This fact is fundamental. Too often those who discuss Confederate military history treat it as beyond or apart from politics, except for the individual politics of personality squabbles. That approach is absolutely wrong. The entire subject of Confederate military history is in a basic sense political. Of course, all American wars occur within a political framework.
Yet a strong case exists to place the Civil War, for both sides, as the foremost political war. This reality did not escape Davis. His antebellum background prepared him for it. He understood that political considerations formed the keystone of Confederate military policy. At the onset of the conflict, Confederates considered the size of their country, stretching more than a thousand miles from the Atlantic Ocean westward across the Mississippi to Texas, a strategic military asset.
The Union faced an immense task to subdue a widely scattered population and occupy so much territory. But at the same time, this presumed positive posed a severe problem for the Confederate president. He would have defend the immensity, or at least make choices about which portions to defend, should the United States mount offensive operations sufficiently powerful to threaten the entire border.
Since the s, critics have pounded Davis for failing to honor the great military principle of concentration. He should have decided, they argue, what areas were key and concentrated southern forces at these points. Davis knew better, however. He understood that decisions about what and where to defend in his far-flung country were political as well as military.
For many in Confederate uniforms, the great motive to fight came from defense of home against an invader. But accept it he did. Furthermore, he recognized the crucible of war as an extraordinary moment for its construction. Of course, he did not always succeed, a fact that he recognized. Yet even the virtuoso Abraham Lincoln might not have succeeded completely. Still, Davis merits substantial credit for comprehending the fundamental political reality that he had to face in his strategic decisions. In making major military appointments, Davis, as did Lincoln, had to contend with the civilian-professional quandary.
Whereof leadership? As a proud alumnus of West Point and a former regular-army officer, Davis had defended both the military academy and the regular army as an antebellum politician. As president of the Confederacy, he preferred professionals, and at the highest rank he placed only professionals.
Every full general was a graduate of West Point and had seen service in the regular army. Yet Davis did not confuse his country with Prussia. Practically speaking, there just were not enough professionals to staff the Confederate army.
In his appointments and assignments of officers, Davis took politics into account in two different ways. First, he wanted his political generals to have a positive effect on his administration and his cause. Second, even when dealing with professionals, he took seriously the view of political leaders in making assignments. Three illustrations make this point clearly. Discussing appointments with Governor Isham Harris of Tennessee in the summer of , Davis made clear his awareness of the political value accruing from the right choices.
Harris expressed concern that the president had paid too little attention to previous political affiliations in awarding army commissions to Tennesseans. At the center of this situation was John C. Pemberton was one of those officers who, without ever having done anything to warrant it, enjoyed an excellent military reputation, an opinion shared by Davis. The president considered him a selfless patriot committed to the Confederate cause. In the spring of , Major General Pemberton, with headquarters in Charleston, assumed his duties as commander.
Despite his reputation, the transplanted Pennsylvanian never became acceptable to South Carolinians, especially Governor Francis W. Pickens, who urged Davis to remove Pemberton. Pickens said simply that the general could not generate public support, no matter his military standing. Having reached this conclusion, the president made a shrewd political-military move. Beauregard, the victor of Fort Sumter and a favorite in South Carolina.
Earlier that summer Davis had decided that Beauregard, the first Confederate military hero, was no longer fit to head a major field army, but the South Atlantic slot was an acceptable assignment because it entailed chiefly coastal defense requiring the engineering skills Beauregard possessed. Thus Davis found what he considered an appropriate position for a senior general and at the same time reaped the political profit from a grateful and pleased state governor and citizenry.
Governors, members of Congress, and other prominent men from Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas attended. The conferees, in published proceedings, proclaimed the fidelity of the Trans-Mississippi and their personal confidence in the cause. In this instance civil-military relations meshed perfectly. Although not always happy, he did not betray his prewar political professionalism. But in all politics, personal relationships are critical; they often determine success or failure.
No political leader can maintain effectiveness if that person cannot deal effectively with people. By most accounts Davis too often failed in this regard. But why did he fail? The list is legion. The failure of the old Union delivered a severe emotional and psychological blow to him. The new Confederacy must not fail, and to it he gave his absolute commitment. Such notions as ambition, greed, vanity, and selfishness had to be banished from this sacred crusade.
The Confederates, with Davis as their president, were embarked on a holy mission that had no place for the human comedy. Of course, he was at the top as the president and commander in chief, enabling him to conflate and to rationalize—to conflate his views with correct ones and to rationalize his selflessness and dedication only to a larger good, never to personal outlook and prejudices. Each instance in its own way was critical not only for his performance as commander in chief but also for his cause.
At the outset of the war, President Davis liked and respected Joseph E. Even a cursory look at their early correspondence, when Johnston was in command at Harpers Ferry, reveals a cooperative, even friendly, spirit. When lawmakers created this highest rank in the army, they stated that rank previously held in the U. Army should govern placement in the Confederate army. But much to his dismay, Johnston found himself ranked fourth, not first, as he assumed would be his placement.
Johnston was insulted; he was the only Confederate officer to have held the permanent rank of brigadier general in the old army and had no doubt that he should have headed this list. Davis gave various explanations for his ranking. Lee and J. Johnston, ranked second and thirteenth within that class respectively ; and Beauregard, The president also said he placed A.
Johnston and Lee ahead of J. Johnston because they had been line officers, while J. In addition, he asserted that the law applied neither to Lee nor J. Johnston because both had entered Confederate service from the Virginia state forces, in which Lee held the higher rank.
While each of these reasons may have had some validity, Davis was clearly rationalizing what he had done. He believed A. Johnston to be his best soldier, and since his own arrival in Richmond, Davis had become increasingly confident in the Virginian, with whom he worked closely. Thus J. Johnston was relegated to fourth place. Infuriated, Johnston would take none of it quietly. Its language is, as you say unusual; its arguments and statements utterly one-sided, and its insinuations as unfounded as they are unbecoming.
Never again during the war did the two men correspond about this matter, though its memory embittered Johnston for the rest of his life. In his reaction Johnston had revealed the human flaws of pride and ambition, which Davis could not countenance, for the Confederate purpose was far too serious to permit indulgence in such luxuries.
After all, Lincoln would conclude that he and the country cared far more about victory than rank. But Davis, never. This episode forever poisoned the Davis-Johnston relationship.
For quite different reasons, neither man ever again trusted the other. Yet Davis looked on this general as vain and ambitious, more committed to self than to the cause. Johnston never tried to improve the situation. Not only did he distrust Davis, but he also began associating with anti-Davis politicians. Imbibing their anti-administration line only inflamed his distrust. To his wife he asserted that the president, hoping he would fail, only gave him commands in which no one could succeed, though he would always act to ensure his reputation. Davis had never been as close to Beauregard as he had been to Johnston.
But nothing foreshadowed serious difficulties. The president was pleased with Beauregard at Fort Sumter and so delighted with First Manassas that he promoted the officer to full general in the field. Davis quickly became disillusioned, however. Additionally, he pointedly noted that even before the battle, the president had quashed his offensive plan. Poorly disguised as a mere battle report, this promotional tract was sent to friendly politicians as well as to the War Department. Then in mid-June Beauregard, without requesting permission from the War Department and even without prior notification, placed himself on sick leave and departed for a salubrious resort, putting his deputy in charge of the army.
The president was appalled. A chronically ill Davis simply could not accept this conduct. In the cabinet, talk was about absence without leave, about desertion of his command. If Beauregard believed his army could do without him, Davis would not argue. On June 20 he removed Beauregard from command.
The gulf between the two men steadily widened. In one sense Beauregard was right: Davis consigned him in the military wilderness of coastal protection until the final autumn of the war, when he was utterly desperate for a senior commander. Johnston and Beauregard as men who could not or would not subordinate the personal to the cause, Davis viewed Braxton Bragg as a selfless, dedicated patriot.
Yet no other Confederate general would cause more controversy than crusty, fussy Bragg. Certainly Davis has received much of his harshest criticism for standing by Bragg for so long. My chief concern here is not whether or when the president should have sacked Bragg, though I will comment, but rather the basis of this seemingly ill-placed loyalty. When his command there was substantially diminished to fill the ranks of the main armies, Bragg did not complain but did his work of organizing and training. That commitment impressed Davis, who saw a general who valued the cause above his ambition.
He also thought Bragg was direct and honest with him. His confidence grew so that by early he believed Bragg one of his ablest generals. From Pensacola in the winter of , Bragg went to serve under A. He soon made Bragg a full general. At this time his opinion of Bragg as a loyal Confederate differed sharply with the reservations he had begun to hold with J. Johnston and Beauregard, both of whom had initially enjoyed higher rank and more favored assignments.
He stuck with the general as commander of the Army of Tennessee far longer than he should have. In fact, arguably his most disastrous command decision during the war was retaining Bragg as commander in October , even after a personal visit to the army revealed the venomous relations rampant among its general officers. Afterward both general and president realized the inevitability of change. Bragg resigned as commanding officer of the Army of Tennessee, never to return.
But consumed with leading a holy cause and convinced of his own superhuman commitment to the Confederacy, he could not deal effectively with a commitment from others that was less than total. And he defined the boundaries and depth of that commitment. What was the best use of these three generals as well as others is not the issue here. But Davis did not attempt to employ them most advantageously.
Jefferson Davis and the Civil War Era
In the case of Johnston and Beauregard, he did not act toward them in a manner to get the most from them despite their flaws. In a great irony his incredible commitment to the Confederacy undermined its chance for success. Photograph by Katherine Wetzel. Courtesy of the Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia.
To suggest that politics might have had anything to do with Jefferson Davis as a strategist counters the general view, which pictures the Confederate president as anti-political, or at the least apolitical. Emphatically he was a political man. In , at age thirtysix, he campaigned throughout Mississippi as a Democratic presidential elector. The next year he matched that performance in a successful run for Congress.
Because Mississippi in still had a general-ticket election for Congress rather than specified districts, Davis had to traverse the entire state. Then upon his return from the Mexican War, the governor appointed him to an empty seat in the U. Senate, a position he won on his own in the next election. To aid his party he left the Senate in to run for governor, a race he lost.
In that post, political considerations demanded much of his attention. Although he had attained a dominant position in the Democratic Party in Mississippi, in the s he also traveled and spoke in the North. Those men, including the politically astute Albert G. Brown and the military hero John A. Successful politicians in that state had to work for their triumphs.
No one should think that in antebellum Mississippi, rich planters in mansions sipping Madeira dominated politics. Jacksonian political practices ruled in a rough-and-tumble world in which hard campaigning and attentiveness to the adult-white-male electorate were essential for success. Davis recognized those truths early on and never forgot them in his rise to dominance. No other active political leader from the Deep South had a stronger set of credentials; no one else had been more successful over the previous decade and a half.
In February in Montgomery there was not a lengthy battle over the choice for president. Without serious or substantial opposition, Davis received the nod. Yet the political dimensions of his administration remain relatively unexplored. Many people think that Jefferson Davis and politics were strangers. Three major reasons explain this often deeply held conviction. First, his wife, Varina, in her Memoir declared that her husband was never a politician and did not want the presidency. Instead he really wanted command of the army. As for the latter, Davis would have been pleased with the top military post, but he clearly indicated that he would accept whatever job the delegates in Montgomery gave him.
Second, after the war Davis seemed unpolitical in the traditional sense. He refrained from public comment on most contemporary political questions. His own Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government dwelt on the past, avoiding current affairs. In one sense, of course, it was quite political in its vindication of the South. But Davis did not present himself as a politician.
The third and final cause combines Confederate defeat and the imposing figure of Abraham Lincoln. Few individuals get tossed into the dustbin of American history faster than failed politicians, especially if they lose a war. And Davis surely failed, for the Confederacy suffered a massive defeat. Also, he is matched up against Lincoln, arguably the greatest of all U.
This comparison has been most cogently made by the superb historian David M. After all, the Confederate States of America resulted from a political act in which the leaders and citizens of seven Deep South states decided to sever their ties with the Union and create a new republic. Although not always agreeing with every decision along the road that led to the Confederacy, Davis surely participated in critical deliberations, and he made the entire journey. Moreover, he knew that the delegates in Montgomery who selected him as provisional president had made a political choice.
From the very beginning in the new nation, the political and the military were fundamentally inseparable. Davis understood this basic truth. He always believed that the political creation of the Confederate States would end in an arduous war with the United States. The crisis there graphically illustrates the intersection between military and political.
Fort Sumter also required President Davis to make his first major command decision, one in which he had to weigh political repercussions. The presence of Union troops in the fort at the mouth of Charleston Harbor was but a minor military menace either to South Carolina or the Confederacy. They could not attack the mainland; besides the fort was under orders not to fire upon any vessels unless attacked. At the same time, Fort Sumter under Union control posed a major political threat to Confederate claims of independence.
From the southern perspective, uninvited soldiers of another country occupied a fortification within Confederate borders. Davis even was prepared to pay for the property. This is not the place to discuss the story of the Confederate delegation and the Lincoln administration except to say that no formal negotiations ever occurred. Moreover, during the first week in April, Lincoln had decided he would not peacefully relinquish Fort Sumter. In Montgomery Davis and his advisers watched and waited.
Then on April 8 Davis learned that the governor of South Carolina had received a dispatch from Lincoln stating that a resupply expedition was being sent to Fort Sumter. It was a masterstroke, providing the first clear sign of the political genius that would make Lincoln such a formidable war leader.
As he and his advisers viewed the situation, they occupied peaceful and defensive ground because the United States had no legitimate claim to Fort Sumter. Davis surely wanted peace; he did not want to use force. Then the Union presence touched upon more than pride; it powerfully threatened the vital interests of his country. Although he had ultimate responsibility and never shirked it, he did not have to force his will upon his counselors. Potent arguments supported the case for action.
The first, of course, was that Union occupation mocked the independence of the Confederacy. According to this outlook, the Confederate States of America could not stand as an independent nation so long as another power maintained an unwanted military force within its borders. Then officials in Montgomery worried with justification that despite Confederate military control in Charleston, hot-headed South Carolinians might on their own initiative assault the fort. Belligerent talk had circulated among zealots in and around Charleston for months. Such an action would undermine the authority of the Confederate government and commit it to a cause it had not decided upon.
Finally the Confederate leadership realized that a move against Fort Sumter would galvanize the citizens behind their government and, even more important, probably propel the Upper South slave states, especially Virginia, into the Confederate fold. The weight of these considerations pushed Davis toward action. There was but a single counterweight. Although contemporary evidence is scanty, Secretary of State Robert Toombs apparently argued against acting, asserting that in so doing the Confederates would lose all potential friends in the North. Toombs had no allies. Although Davis recognized the difficulties that could stem from actually shooting first, he believed doing so essential.
From his decision in Montgomery on April 10, , onward, Jefferson Davis always acknowledged and acted upon demands of politics in making critical strategic decisions. Three examples, or case studies, from the war underscore the validity of this generalization—one at the outset and two from the midpoint. At the beginning of the war, Davis decided he had to defend the entire frontier of the Confederacy along its border with the United States, from the Potomac River in the east all the way to Arkansas and Texas in the West, stretching more than one thousand miles.
Without doubt, military and political considerations informed this decision. From the first Davis proclaimed the Confederacy only wanted to be let alone; it had no offensive ambitions regarding the Union. Thus he adopted a generally defensive posture. And following the beginning of hostilities, military necessity reinforced his initial defensive stance. Davis knew he lacked the means to send his forces northward, even though he told friends he wanted to make the enemy know firsthand the sting of war.
Comprehending the infant nationalism struggling to grow his country, he feared the fracturing of the Confederacy if the southern soldiers disappeared from any portion of it. He was convinced that any posture other than defending the entire Confederacy would undermine the new nation before its journey really got underway. The manuscript record underscores this pressure on President Davis.
In no traditional loyalty existed to the Confederate States of America. And nothing guaranteed maintaining the immediate loyalty that sprang up in the winter and spring of Between December and February , seven states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederacy, their goal—protection from the perceived threat from the Republican Party taking control of the national government. After hostilities commenced at Fort Sumter in April, four more states joined the young country. If this new nation could not or did not provide protection, then any state might ask why remain in.
First, key figures besides Davis require identification: General Joseph E. In the fall of , Davis acted to bring stability and control to the vast area between the Appalachians and the Mississippi by creating the Department of the West.
Jefferson Davis - Civil War, Wife & Significance - Biography
To lead this new command he appointed Joseph E. Davis really devised a theater command, which would become popular in World War II. When assigned to the Department of the West, Johnston was informed both orally and in writing that he had command authority over all forces, including general officers, in his department. Despite that assurance and its repetition by the president and the War Department, Johnston found his post most uncomfortable. He claimed that he could not command without troops directly under his control.
Rather than striving to become an effective commander, Johnston sulked, believing that Davis had put him in an impossible position, a title with no authority. But the authority was clearly there, an authority Johnston would never accept. Throughout his tenure in the Department of the West, Johnston kept up a mind-numbing correspondence with the War Department about his supposed powerlessness. No matter how many times reassurance about his real power came from Richmond, Johnston never stopped asking about it and never accepted his responsibility as a commanding general.
Critical became acute when in April Grant passed below Vicksburg on the west bank of the Mississippi and then crossed to the east bank. Back in late Johnston advocated a concentration of Confederate forces to the area east of the river. When in Mississippi with Davis in December, Johnston pressed his case. The president agreed in large part, but he refused either to put Holmes under Johnston or to direct Holmes to do as Johnston desired.
Davis did, however, make his views clear in a letter to Holmes, a letter that he showed to Johnston. He told Holmes that defending Vicksburg was essential and went on to talk about the military value of concentration. Yet he issued no directive. Instead Davis told the general that he, Holmes, must use his discretion. Holmes would decide if the proper course would have his soldiers cross the river. No relief for Vicksburg ever came from the Trans-Mississippi.
It was certainly not because of any reluctance to take troops from elsewhere to aid Vicksburg. The president had sent 5, men from the South Atlantic Coast, considerably farther from Vicksburg than Arkansas. It was surely not from a lack of interest. In addition to the usual communications from civil and military authorities, letters from his brother Joseph underscored that the safety of his own home and family was also at stake. Davis made a political judgment. From the latter half of forward, he heard regularly from civilian and military officials about the situation in the Trans-Mississippi.
Arkansas politicians continually pressed him not to denude the state of troops, forecasting dire results if that happened. They wanted concrete evidence that the government in Richmond was determined to defend their region. Nothing demonstrated that determination like troops on the ground. He said that if a substantial part his force went to assist Vicksburg, he probably could not defend the state. Even more, he feared that some soldiers would refuse to go east.
The force of the argument made by regional political leaders and corroborated by his generals made a deep impression on Davis. Several months after the fall of Vicksburg, he spelled out to Smith his thinking that the particular situation of the Confederacy demanded the defense of all its territory to retain allegiance to the Confederate nation. Lee wanted to strike across the Potomac River, taking the war into enemy country.
Davis listened carefully, for he knew full well that Lee was his best soldier; no other Confederate general had even approached his record against Union opponents. With his brilliant leadership, Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia had seized the initiative in the eastern theater. Lee would go on the defensive and dispatch a corps from his army to the West. Then the victorious, concentrated Confederates would relieve Vicksburg.
Having to decide between different views, Davis wanted to meet with Lee. In mid-May the general came to Richmond and presented a bold plan. He would take his army, with all the reinforcements the president would give him, and march into the North. To make his advance even more menacing to the enemy, Lee advocated stripping the Atlantic Coast and consolidating those troops under General P. Beauregard in central Virginia. From there Beauregard could pose a threat to Washington, tying down Federal troops. Moreover, he could quickly exploit any success the Army of Northern Virginia might win.
Lee had several goals for his offensive. He wanted to feed and supply his army on northern soil. Additionally, an invasion would carry the war to the enemy. He also believed his army almost invincible, certainly capable of inflicting a devastating defeat on any opponent. It would surely relieve the pressure on the lower Mississippi Valley, particularly Vicksburg.
Before reaching his final verdict, Davis brought before his cabinet the question of whether to give Lee the permission or to hold him on the defensive, moving units of his army to the west. Aware of the gravity of the decision, the president agreed. According to Reagan, the cabinet spent an entire Saturday going over every issue in detail. An impromptu gathering on Sunday did the same.
These meetings reaffirmed the initial decision, though. His resolve had nothing to do with favoritism for the East. But it surely did have to do with Robert E. Lee, a proven performer. In contrast no one in the West, certainly neither Johnston nor Bragg, seemed to be rising to the occasion. Davis could not even get Johnston to exercise the power given to him. He certainly could not be certain what use would be made of troops sent from Lee. Would they arrive in time; more importantly, would they be effectively employed?
To him that was too much of a gamble, for it risked losing Charleston and Savannah, possibly even the Carolinas. Those political dangers were too great. And his best general told the commander in chief he could deliver. But in this instance the political motive was powerful, even dominant. I have not even maintained that he always weighed accurately the conflicting military-political risks in these crucial judgments.
Nor have I suggested that he was a shrewd politician. But I do insist that he was a politician, a political man, who never lost sight of the political facets of any military design.
- Who Was Jefferson Davis?.
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Recognizing that about him is essential to understanding fully his strategic decisions. But rather than resort to a sketchy overview of the vast and important subject, it is more valuable to examine two critical questions, both of which have occupied historians and indeed captured the attention of everyone interested the war.
First, did Davis comprehend the significance of the western theater, or instead did his living in Richmond, Virginia, lead him to relegate the West to secondary importance? Second, did Davis do a good job of managing the western war, or put more directly, did he succeed in the West as commander in chief? For the purposes of this study, the West covers the area basically from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River.
The Trans-Mississippi theater will not be discussed herein except as it relates directly to events east of the river. Of the two questions, the first is the easier. Just as many historians have claimed that too many of their number have focused too sharply on the eastern theater, likewise many have asserted that Davis did the same. Their argument goes something like this.
Davis lived in Richmond, the Confederate capital, only one hundred miles from Washington. From there he riveted his attention on Robert E. Lee and the 67 CooperJefDavisFinal. I disagree strongly with that opinion. There is no doubt that Davis not only understood the importance of his West but also deemed it utterly crucial.
The evidence is simply overwhelming. Three examples make this point clear. The initial one predates ; the other two come from the war years. He was from Mississippi, and for the quarter century before the war, home was a plantation in Warren County fronting the Mississippi River. In his experience the Mississippi was not just another river. Davis often went to Washington via steamboat on the Mississippi and up the Ohio. Moreover, he shipped his cotton downriver to New Orleans and traveled on the river to that metropolis for business and pleasure. Even before becoming a planter, his active-duty service in the U.
Army centered on the Mississippi River Valley. Thus when he became president of the Confederacy, Davis knew full well the importance of the great river. He placed in charge of this vast domain the man he considered the premier soldier in his army, General Albert Sidney Johnston. He sent for the general to come up to see him.
Although Davis knew that Johnston was en route to Richmond from the West Coast, he had not known when he would arrive. A brevet brigadier general in the U. Army, Johnston had been on duty in California as commanding general of the Department of the Pacific when he learned that his adopted state of Texas had seceded. Thereupon, he resigned his commission and started east.
Davis was delighted to have Johnston in Richmond ready for duty. He was mortally wounded at Shiloh on April 6, , while rallying his troops on the front lines. Lee became general in chief in On two occasions he organized most of the area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi as a single theater in order to bring more cohesion and control to an enormous geographical area: the Department of the West, under Joseph E.
Johnston from the fall of to the summer of ; and the Military Division of the West, under Pierre G. Beauregard in the fall of And without question he understood its importance and in my judgment devoted to it the proper attention. As I have argued elsewhere, including in this volume, Davis fully grasped the political dimension of the war. He knew full well that his West was more than boundaries on a military map. He realized that he had to rally the citizens of the region to the cause, just as he had to direct the military effort.
On three different occasions—the winter of —63 December 9—January 4 , the fall of October 6—November 9 , and the fall of October 20—November 6 —he journeyed west to meet not only with armies and generals but also with civilian leaders and the general public. In these forays into the heartland of his country, Davis made a number of major addresses and countless impromptu short speeches. The evidence makes indisputable the verdict that Davis comprehended the centrality of his West and that he acted accordingly.
In this essay I am going to concentrate on the year, roughly speaking, between the invasion of Kentucky in the fall of and the Battle of Chickamauga in September These months surely make up a critical period, arguably the time when the Confederacy had its greatest chance for success in the West. Four key events occurred during this crucial stretch of the war. In September and October , the Confederates launched an invasion of Kentucky.
In an underrated accomplishment, during the summer Bragg had transferred his army from northern Mississippi to Chattanooga, which became his jumping-off point for the invasion. Between the two generals no question could come up about rank—Bragg was a full general, Smith but a major general. Yet for this operation Jefferson Davis as commander in chief never officially placed Bragg in charge of both forces.
Bragg and Smith moved smartly on parallel advances roughly one hundred miles apart into Kentucky. But once in the state, the Confederate drive quickly deteriorated. Bragg never attempted to command Smith; instead he asked Smith to join him in order to confront the main Union army. Smith refused, asserting that his own effort too important.
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The cooperation Davis expected as a matter of course never materialized. The southerners, in a futile gesture, managed to inaugurate a Confederate governor of Kentucky and fight a bitter, bloody tactical draw at Perryville. Yet they did not succeed. After the stalemate at Perryville, the Confederates retreated. As Bragg and Smith fell back into Tennessee, Davis saw his high expectations thwarted. The entire venture was a strategic failure. Recriminations filled the aftermath of defeat. Each of the three key generals complained to Davis, holding the others responsible for the outcome.
Polk boasted that had he been in command, the offensive would have been a glorious success. Shirking responsibility, Bragg announced himself blameless for anything that had gone wrong. Realizing that no army could function amid these swirling accusations, Davis summoned the three generals to Richmond for individual conferences.
Who Was Jefferson Davis?
He listened to each man state his case, and his response can only be defined as astonishing. He retained each in place, even promoting Polk and Smith to lieutenant general. The president lectured all that they must cooperate for the cause. The malignancy tearing at the vitals of the principal western army Davis left in place. From Richmond, Davis watched and worried. Although he had not acted after Kentucky, he knew that the army could not succeed with pervasive dissension and turmoil.
Moving to rectify the situation, he decided on a new command structure. Johnston, returning to active duty following a serious wound, in command and having authority over both Bragg and the Army of Tennessee. Davis hoped to have in Johnston a steadying hand that would stabilize the agitation stirring the army. Both he and the secretary of war made clear to the general that he had a command position, that every officer in the Department of the West, including Braxton Bragg, was his subordinate.
Still, Davis decided a personal visit to the army would help guarantee the harmony he so wanted. Thus in early December he left Richmond for a western tour that would take him as far as Vicksburg, though it began with a visit to the Army of Tennessee, encamped at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, between Nashville and Chattanooga.
Accompanied by Johnston, the president spent the better part of three days with the army, reviewing troops, addressing soldiers, and speaking with officers. He thought the men in good shape and able to halt any Union advance. But trouble had not gone away. On the last day of and the first day of , Bragg and his army fought the bloody Battle of Murfreesboro also known as Stones River. Although it ended in a tactical draw, Bragg realized that he could not maintain his army at Murfreesboro and retreated about twenty-five miles.
Almost immediately the old rancor surfaced. A concerned Davis ordered Johnston to proceed to the army and report on whether or not Bragg should be removed. In his directive Davis reminded the department commander of his authority.