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Posted at 9:40 AM ET, 02/ 7/2011

Gary Gallagher: Was there a better choice for C.S.A. president than Jefferson Davis?

By Gary Gallagher

Professor of history at the University of Virginia


Jefferson Davis has suffered generations of invidious comparisons with Abraham Lincoln. One of the most damning came from David Potter, a brilliant and influential historian of the 19th-century South. In an essay titled "Jefferson Davis and Confederate Defeat," Potter argued that "the discrepancy in ability between Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis" was "as great or greater than the economic disparities" between the two nations and stood as a principal factor explaining Union triumph. Davis lacked Lincoln's humility, his willingness to surround himself with strong advisers, his skill in explaining the war's meaning to the people, and his acceptance of poor behavior from generals who might win battles. Any reader of Potter's essay might infer that there must have been a better person to head the Richmond government.

In fact, there was no better choice. Davis' weaknesses as president are well known--stubborn support for favorites such as Braxton Bragg and a rigid belief in the correctness of his own opinions to name two-but should not obscure the experience and talent he brought to the difficult task of overseeing the Confederate war effort. No other southern leader in 1860 possessed his combination of public stature and military, administrative, and political accomplishment. A West Point graduate, he led a regiment in battle in Mexico (only Joseph E. Johnston among all those who eventually commanded Civil War armies could match this part of Davis's résumé), served as an innovative and able secretary of war under Franklin Pierce, and chaired the Senate's committee on military affairs. His reputation as a moderate within the context of Deep South secessionists in 1860-1861 perfectly suited the incipient slave-holding republic's wish to present a moderate profile to the community of western nations.

During the war, Davis manifested ardent Confederate nationalism that stood at odds with state rights advocates who resisted steps necessary to keep large armies in the field. In this regard, he mirrored the attitude of Robert E. Lee, the president's military adviser in early 1862 and later his only successful field commander. The pair formed a crucial partnership that, while occasionally tense, yielded impressive results. The Confederacy instituted a national draft, impressed supplies and enslaved labor, taxed its citizenry, and otherwise broke with antebellum norms. Davis's insistence that state and local concerns give way to the national project alienated many citizens, but most accepted the need to mobilize manpower and material resources to the greatest possible degree in the face of massive Union military pressure.

Davis's ultimate failure colored all subsequent assessments, opening the door to a detailed examination of how his decisions and actions help explain Appomattox. An equally fruitful exercise would be to assess how his performance helped the Confederacy maintain a resistance across four bloody years.

By Gary Gallagher  | February 7, 2011; 9:40 AM ET
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