Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederacy

Paul Escott delivered this essay at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh on Feb. 12, 2009, the 200th anniversary of the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. He is the author of numerous books on the Civil War, Reconstruction and the South, including most recently, “‘What Shall We Do with the Negro?’: Lincoln, White Racism, and Civil War America” (University of Virginia Press, 2009) and “North Carolinians in the Era of the Civil War and Reconstruction” (Universty of North Carolina Press, 2008).

Consider the situation of Edward John Smith. One day he hears words like these: “Congratulations, Edward! You are going to make history. You are going to command the newest, grandest, fastest, and most advanced ship of the line. The world will remember you as captain of the Titanic.” In fairness, this was roughly the situation of Jefferson Davis, though he performed better in his role than Edward John Smith did in his. Still, both met with disasters that have fixed their reputations in history.

To assess Jefferson Davis fairly, one should first consider the dimensions of the challenge he faced. Lists of the disadvantages he inherited normally begin with the North’s objective superiority in population, draft animals, railroad mileage, steel production, and multiple indices of industrial and economic strength. These daunting material deficiencies are so well known that I won’t recite them here. Instead, let me point out that Davis also led a new nation whose sense of nationalism was undeveloped and whose reflexive devotion to states rights suggested how unprepared the culture was for a massive war.

Jefferson Davis’ South was a rural, agrarian society with weak institutions, small governments, low taxes, and a strongly local orientation among its populace. Its leaders belonged to a class of proud, aggressive, and quarrelsome aristocrats who put their interests first while preaching a myth of social equality. The subsistence farmers who heard the myth, for their part, could be equally assertive in defense of their independence and honor.

The South’s economic wealth depended on coerced, enslaved black laborers who were supposed to be devoted and loyal to their white masters. This was the society that ventured into a war that would require enormous industrial output, huge expenditures, a strong central government, and a high level of cooperation among whites and between the races.

Confederates plunged into war with a shocking misperception of what lay ahead. They went to war to avoid change, which they feared would come from the so-called Black Republicans. But the war itself brought enormous, unexpected, and unwelcome change. Militarily, Jefferson Davis was one of the few who feared a “long and bloody” conflict; most spirited young men and older, but not wiser, heads were confident of a quick and decisive victory.

As war began, the Charleston “Mercury” promptly declared that southern troops were “far superior” to northern soldiers, and the Richmond “Examiner” predicted that “victory would be certain, and chance become certainty.” While Davis lamented that “the people” were “incredulous of a long war,” Thomas R. R. Cobb, normally a sober Georgia lawyer and politician, proclaimed First Manassas “one of the decisive battles of the world.

When Davis’ pick as Secretary of the Treasury, Christopher G. Memminger, urged a reliance on taxation to fund the conflict, the enormously wealthy men in Congress refused to levy meaningful taxes. State lawmakers, who were supposed to collect a small direct tax, instead borrowed money or printed state notes to meet the obligation. This was the origin of the Confederacy’s runaway inflation and crippling financial weakness.

The South’s greatest strategic advantage was also a potentially fatal weakness. The new nation comprised a vast territory to subdue and conquer. Baron Carl von Clausewitz had emphasized in his writing on war that any army invading a large country faced severe dangers. Its lines of communication, wrote Clausewitz, could become “overstretched. This is especially true when the war is conducted in an impoverished, thinly populated and possibly hostile country.”

Supply lines would be “always and everywhere exposed to attacks by an insurgent population.” “[I]n truly national wars with a population in arms,” the invader is menaced on all sides, and the flames of resistance “will spread like a brush fire, until they reach the area on which the enemy is based, threatening his lines of communication and his very existence.”

Thus, size would seem to be an advantage. But the Confederacy was not able to suffer invasion and then strike with a truly national resistance. As William Cooper has written, “time and again political and military authorities both told Davis that loyalty depended upon defense.” To give up territory was to lose not just supplies and troops, but the morale that would sustain the war effort. Local officials forecast “dire results” if troops left their area, for Confederates “wanted concrete evidence that the government in Richmond was determined to defend their region.”

This brief recital of problems suggests the enormity of the challenge Davis faced. In assessing his performance as President of the Confederacy, we also have to take into account the natural human bias in favor of history’s victors. The Confederacy lost and the Union prevailed. Therefore it is natural to assume that Abraham Lincoln was a better leader than Jefferson Davis.

Moreover, the Confederacy fought to protect slavery and white supremacy, while the Union eventually came to fight against slavery as a means to preserve the Union. Thus, morally, Davis and the Confederacy were on the wrong side of history’s judgment, while Lincoln and the Union advanced human liberty.

Without in any way defending the Confederacy’s goals, I do contend that a more narrowly focused assessment of presidential performance would discount these sources of historical bias. As we begin to evaluate Jefferson Davis, let us remember that Abraham Lincoln was not a popular president; that on August 23, 1864, Lincoln himself wrote that “it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected”; and that only the capture of Atlanta on September 2 ensured his victory and made possible his exalted place in history.

Let us remember, too, that the celebratory imperative in our culture’s view of US history – the deeply rooted belief in American superiority and exceptionalism – has enshrined Lincoln as a paragon, the icon of America’s virtue and progress. Frequently it has overemphasized his progressiveness on matters of race.

My assessment of Jefferson Davis will start with the negative. Certainly Davis was far from perfect (just as Lincoln was not perfect). Davis had personality defects, made some bad decisions, and failed, in my judgment, to meet a crucial part of the vast challenge that confronted him. In regard to his personality, it is too well known that Davis satisfied the qualifications for membership in his class of proud, touchy southern aristocrats. He could be rigid, haughty, and overly convinced of his own virtues. Even his wife said that he was “abnormally sensitive to disapprobation” and sometimes adopted “a repellent manner.”

This chief executive was not a political charmer in the manner of Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, or Bill Clinton, and he occasionally offended congressmen or state officials. But I do not believe, as William Cooper wrongly supposed, that Davis’s personality flaws became more pronounced during his presidency. Rather, he improved on his prewar performance.

As Confederate president, Davis worked hard “just to let people alone who snap at me.” He often displayed great patience under provocation, and he was more constructive and less petty than many of his political foes, who displayed that disease of planter culture that James Henry Hammond aptly described as “Big Man Me-ism.” Surely Senator Herschel Johnson of Georgia had this at least partially in mind when he said of Davis, “I know of no man among us, from the ranks of the extreme Sesessionists [sic], who would have conducted affairs half so well.”

But reining in a touchy personality did not ensure wise decision-making, and Davis made some serious errors. Generations of commentators have been correct to assail his excessive loyalty to some bad generals, most notably Abraham Meyers, Lucius Northrop, and Braxton Bragg. The first two performed badly in equipping and supplying the southern army, and Northrop made his challenges worse by bringing to the job “pettiness,” bureaucratic rigidity, and “the personality of a malicious old man.”

One of the few arguments in favor of Braxton Bragg was, perhaps, that he was from North Carolina, which felt itself ignored and under-represented in the higher councils of the Confederacy. But Bragg was not a strong field commander, and he alienated virtually all the officers who served under him. Davis’ worst and most inexcusable performance as a manager of people was, certainly, when he decided to retain Bragg in command of the army of Tennessee. Davis had good reason to visit the dissension-plagued army, and he encouraged its generals to speak out frankly in a meeting before himself and General Bragg. But when Bragg’s subordinate officers unanimously urged their commander’s removal, Davis’ decision to support Bragg defied common sense.

In two other well-known conflicts with military commanders – P.G.T. Beauregard and Joseph Johnston – I defend Davis. Beauregard had excessive self-regard and a devotion to grand but impractical strategies; still, Davis found ways to use him throughout the war. Joseph Johnston was the over-cautious McClellan of the Confederacy, a general who failed to act boldly either to defend Vicksburg or to stop Sherman’s advance into Georgia. But Davis was painfully aware of Johnston’s defects – it was strong political support for the general that forced Davis to give him too many important responsibilities.

Davis should be faulted for his use of a military departmental system, in which designated generals had wide latitude to direct affairs in their geographical departments. During the first year and half of the war, this system worked well, but thereafter it became a source of weakness for the Confederacy. The problem was that Davis failed to intervene and force generals to take action required by the overall needs of the nation.

As commander-in-chief, Davis immersed himself in many minor details but on large issues proved too respectful of his departmental commanders. They did not cooperate with each other as Davis hoped they would. But in a final analysis it was his responsibility, not theirs, to determine that one department needed the assistance of troops from another, and bolder action on his part might have increased the Confederacy’s chance of success.

At the level of grand strategy, Steven Woodworth has contended that the harmonious collaboration of Davis and Robert E. Lee, ironically, deprived Confederate strategy of coherence. Lee doubted the staying power of Confederate morale and believed that a decisive victory was needed sooner rather than later, whereas Davis felt the Confederacy was too weak to dominate on the battlefield and sought to outlast the foe.

Woodworth’s insight demands respect, but a defense of Davis on this score is reasonable. As Clausewitz has written, “The defensive form of war is not a simple shield, but a shield made up of well-directed blows.” Lee, more than any other southern general, proved adept at delivering those blows, and Davis was not wrong to give considerable freedom to his most talented commander. If Lee had always performed well and not made some serious errors, his success might have led to a different political result, even within the “offensive-defense” that Davis favored.

Ultimately success on the battlefield depended upon strength on the home front, and here is the area of Davis’ greatest failure. In dealing with the common people of the Confederacy – the non-slaveholding families who had to supply most of the Confederacy’s soldiers – Davis was ultimately a prisoner of his class and of his class perspective.

I continue to believe, after more than thirty years of study and sincere efforts to view the question afresh, that the failure to aid non-slaveholding soldiers’ families, either by providing food or by “exempt[ing] from conscription” the men “upon whose labor the livelihood of wives and small children was vitally dependent” was one “of the greatest mistakes of the Confederate government.” When the government failed to aid poor soldiers’ families, men left the army in steadily increasing numbers to care for their loved ones, thus depriving the Confederacy of essential military forces.

Davis himself showed some awareness of the inequities in sacrifice by rich and poor, and he declared that discriminations “between different classes of our citizens are always to be deprecated.” But he did not take the kind of bold, energetic steps to alleviate suffering among yeoman families that he took in other policy areas.

As a Mississippi politician he had never had to worry too much about their support, and as president he continued to live a life of material comfort, complete with elegant dining. Moreover, he operated within a political universe composed of wealthy men whose class perspective was far more narrow and self-interested than his. They often saw the government’s interference with their autonomy and privileges as a more serious problem than widespread hunger and suffering on the home front.

Nevertheless, (and here I turn to the positives) any assessment of Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederacy has to credit him with innovation, flexibility, and a willingness to take political risks that far exceeded Abraham Lincoln’s. Jefferson Davis’ administration transformed the South economically, politically, and even to a considerable extent ideologically and culturally. Davis dominated the Confederate Congress in a way that Lincoln never approached in the North, and Davis took the Confederacy in unexpected, radically new and different directions.

Facing extreme crisis, Davis rightly judged, with intellectual incisiveness, that old verities and shibboleths had to be discarded in favor of essential new measures. His administration made the Confederacy a “revolutionary experience,” in Emory Thomas’ accurate phrase.

In a political culture devoted to state rights and small, limited government, he built a powerful central administration larger, in relation to population, than that of the U.S. In an agrarian economy whose political leaders slandered industrialism, he encouraged the development of industries that supplied the army’s needs for ordnance and increased productive capacity in many other areas. In a rural landscape, these initiatives caused cities to grow explosively.

On a populace of independent white citizens unused to any restrictions on their freedom he imposed a wide variety of governmental controls. In a slave society he even advocated the arming and freeing of slaves and managed to gain the support of a considerable portion of the electorate for this heretical proposal.

Jefferson Davis’s administration was responsible for conscription – the first compulsory draft in U.S. history, controversial both in principle and because it applied to men finishing their term of enlistment (or “contract” with the government, as some saw it). Davis’ government carried out extensive military impressment of many types of property, a system that was unpopular but necessary and far heavier in its impact than taxes.

His administration was responsible for the tax-in-kind, which swept up one-tenth of farmers’ crops in order to feed the troops. It aided and encouraged new industries, guaranteed their profits, and used the law of conscription to assign and maintain their workforce. It requisitioned by law one half the cargo space on ocean-going ships, so that the Confederacy could export and import in a manner that served the nation’s needs.

Many of these measures involved legal or military compulsion. Jefferson Davis sought and obtained three suspensions of the writ of habeas corpus. Not only were many citizens arrested under this authority, but generals in the field imposed extra-legal military arrests on many others, so that the Confederacy’s restrictions on civil liberties rivaled those of Lincoln’s government. In addition to the efforts of the Conscription Bureau, units of the army occasionally conducted dragnets through the countryside to round up deserters. (North Carolina had three such expeditions within one year.)

The efforts to maintain military discipline, control dissent, and manage transportation led to a passport system that by 1863 had become nearly ubiquitous. A British visitor traveling from Mississippi through Alabama to Tennessee found that soldiers demanded his papers “continually, and on the railroad every person’s passport was rigidly examined.” Armed guards controlled railroad cars inside and out, and sentries patrolled many “public highway[s],” especially around Richmond, where Senators and Representatives complained that they had to go “to the Provost Marshal’s office and ge[t] a pass like a free [N]egro.”

With all these measures, I submit, Jefferson Davis took enormous political risks, and in attacking the fundamental institution of the slave South’s economy and social system he exposed himself to the public’s ire beyond any risk considered by Abraham Lincoln. In the last six months of the war, Davis campaigned (especially through Robert E. Lee) for the arming and freeing of the South’s slaves. This proposal caused one prominent senator to say, “What did we go to war for, if not to protect our property?” while the Richmond “Examiner” denounced the idea as “totally inconsistent with our political aim and with our social as well as political system.” These were only two of many statements that swelled a chorus of often apoplectic outrage.

Though there is not time to argue the point here, I also maintain that the desire of Davis and his administration to establish “serfdom” for freedmen, had their plan succeeded, does not diminish the boldness of his action in comparison to Lincoln (or even leave it as grossly deficient to Lincoln’s action in point of morality as most would assume). For in a similar manner the Great Emancipator repeatedly encouraged “apprenticeship” or “temporary arrangements” with which, as he put it, the slaveholders “may be nearly as well off . . . as if the present trouble had not occurred . . . .” And though Lincoln wanted to see slavery end, up to the time of his death he was advocating a method for ratification of the 13th Amendment that cast doubt on its prospects.

In closing, I would like to argue that Jefferson Davis had a major impact on our history in two important areas that generally have not been emphasized. First, as my comments thus far suggest, few have taken account of the extent to which Davis militarized the South during the war, compelling southerners to continue their battle for independence in accord with his determination and strong will.

After 1865, in the cultural contest to establish the meaning of the war, southern propaganda created an image of a united and gallant southern people fighting for constitutional liberty rather than slavery. That image was fiction. Southern whites were not, in fact, united, and, of course, their political leaders had promoted secession in order to defend slavery.

The supposedly united Confederacy would never have survived to 1865 without Jefferson Davis. Although many individual Confederate soldiers proved tenacious and bold, Confederate society was quite disunited and increasingly despairing and resistant to authority under the pressures of battlefield reverses and home front suffering.

Because Jefferson Davis was determined to gain independence and totally uninterested in negotiating for concessions short of independence, the Confederacy kept fighting. Davis knew that he had to adopt strong measures to compel his citizens to fight on, if he wanted to have a chance of success. Because he did so, the war lasted four years, even as southern ranks thinned. Because he was so resolute and demanding of his nation, during several weeks in 1864 it seemed that Northern will would falter first, leading to the election of George McClellan and very possibly the Confederacy’s negotiated independence.

Second, Jefferson Davis deserves much of the blame for deepening and magnifying the intersectional hatred that came out of the war. The carnage of four bloody years would have produced much bitterness in any event, but Davis did all he could to stir up such feelings and use them in support of the Confederacy’s aims.

As early as 1862 he charged the U.S. army with disregard of “the usages of civilization and the dictates of humanity.” He condemned Lincoln’s final Emancipation Proclamation as an effort to “incite servile insurrection” and stimulate slaves to “a general assassination of their masters.” Lincoln, he said, was responsible for “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man.”

More generally, he accused the Union army of “every crime conceivable”, including the burning of “defenceless towns” and the “pillag[ing]” of people’s homes by a “brutal soldiery.” “Hyenas,” he said, were preferable to Yankees. A northern victory would bring “subjugation, slavery, and . . . utter ruin.” After condemning the “wickedness of the North,” he asked the Mississippi legislature if its members were willing to “be the slaves of the most depraved and intolerant and tyrannical and hated people upon earth?” Other choice epithets included calling northerners “the offscourings of the earth.”

As the Confederacy’s prospects darkened, so did Davis’ rhetoric, as he attempted to nerve southerners for stronger resistance. The enemy’s “malignant rage,” he charged, would result in “nothing less than the extermination of yourselves, your wives, and children.” No one, perhaps, did more to encourage sectional enmity and divisive stereotypes that would last to our day.

This is the mixed legacy of Jefferson Davis’ leadership in the Confederacy – a leadership that accomplished political and social change on an almost unimaginable scale, yet leadership in dedication to an immoral goal, carried out with long-lasting and destructive effects.

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