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Posted at 9:54 AM ET, 02/ 7/2011

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

By Waite Rawls

President and chief executive of the Museum of the Confederacy


The Provisional Constitution of the Confederate States of America was finalized and signed on February 8, 1861. One of the first acts of the new Congress was to choose the first Provisional President. They did so the following day, and Jefferson Davis was by far the best choice—for both political and military reasons.

We see shades of the Congress’ political concerns today, as both our current Democratic and Republican Parties are split between moderates in each camp and the “true believers.” At the time of the selection of President, the Confederate Congress was faced with a similar choice in leadership. Should they pick a hard-line “fire eater” who had led the secessionist movement, a movement primarily centered around slavery? If so, Alabama’s William Lowndes Yancey, Georgia’s Howell Cobb or Robert Toombs, or South Carolinian Robert Barnwell Rhett would get the nod.

Their principal concerns, however, were northward to the Upper South, where their hard-line pro-slavery stance had gained some support but had not resulted in the secession of the Upper South states. Moderation in the conduct of the Deep South might have some influence. Additionally, there was some hope, in both North and South, that some compromise might be struck or that the Deep South would be allowed to go in peace. Again, moderation might have some influence over future events.

The Confederate Congress also knew that war, not peace, might result from the secessions of the Lower South states, and Davis’ military experience was extensive. He was a graduate of West Point and had distinguished himself in the U. S. Army during the Mexican War. He had resigned from his seat in the U. S. Senate to become President Franklin Pierce’s Secretary of War, where he proved to be one of the more progressive men to hold that seat in our country’s history, before or since. He knew the leading Army professionals personally, and he appreciated recent changes in the conduct of war from his close study of recent conflicts in Europe. America has had a number of war-time generals who later became President, but no U. S. President has ever been better qualified to be a war-time Commander-in-Chief than Jefferson Davis.

So the Provisional Confederate Congress turned to the leading Southern moderates—Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis and Georgian Alexander Stephens for their choice. Both had served in the U. S. Congress, both had close friends in the North, and both had originally opposed secession. Stephens had actually voted against secession in the Georgia convention, and Davis had been proposed as a possible compromise candidate for U. S. President in 1860 by some Northern Democrats. Davis became the unanimous choice for President because he engendered a high level of trust in his character and confidence in his military experience. Stephens was the unanimous choice for Vice President.

By Waite Rawls  | February 7, 2011; 9:54 AM ET
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"America has had a number of war-time generals who later became President, but no U. S. President has ever been better qualified to be a war-time Commander-in-Chief than Jefferson Davis."

So, Jefferson Davis was more qualified to be a war-time commander-in-chief than any of the former generals who became president? Two gentlemen come to mind that challenge such an assertion, Washington or Eisenhower.

Posted by: blpeyton | February 7, 2011 11:36 AM | Report abuse

All five of these "experts" on this panel are saying nearly the exact same thing. Yes, Jefferson Davis' resume might have suggested he was an excellent choice. However, none of these five discuss his actual actions during the war in any depth. He made numerous errors, not just in judgement but in his overall systematic approach to decisionmaking. Moreover, this five-expert consensus seems at odds with many historians (not just David Potter, see also James McPherson).

Posted by: malcolmyoung1 | February 7, 2011 11:39 AM | Report abuse

So, you're asking this questions 150 years later?? WHY? Are you joining in league with the other history-erasing loon that's on the political speaking circuit now??

Do you believe the Civil War is still relevant now??? Are we trying again to glorify Slavery?? Do YOU want some at you house to do the extra work YOU won't do? Or, just for talking points to further your political agenda..??

The South got smashed like a bug in the Civil War and it's time to move on down the road.. The history lesson is old news. It's a huge blight on US history and it should be viewed and taught like that - END.

Posted by: rbaldwin2 | February 7, 2011 12:04 PM | Report abuse

Just about every southern city has a street named for Martin Luther King, Jr. and a street named for Jefferson Davis. Most people esteem the southern generals more than they do Davis.

One thing you have to conceed though is that it was the only way a Mississippian would ever become President!

Posted by: blasmaic | February 7, 2011 12:26 PM | Report abuse

It's a good thing you are an executive and not a historian.

What bunk. General Grant once commented that Davis had "an exalted opinion of his military genius", and that "On several occasions he came to the relief of the Union Army."

Indeed he did. Though murderous incompetency.

1864. Sherman is with a few miles of Atlanta.
Your military "genius" is upset and wants the Rebel (and that's what they were) Army on the attack so he relieves the very able General Johnston and puts roaring head-case John Bell Hood in command.

Hood attacked and attacked without stopping Sherman.
In three offenses in a single week, 15,000 Rebs died.

Hood abandons Atlanta, but not before HE BURNED all the manufacturing and industry on his way out. Sherman just finished what Hood had started.

No one can say for sure, but if Davis had left the defense-minded Johnston in charge, Atlanta may not have fallen as quickly as it did, and Lincoln might have lost re-election to McClellan and Davis would have been able to negotiate a peace with cupcake McClellan and won his war. Didn't happen.

After that election, Davis kept Hood in charge of his southern army, still committed to murderous frontal attacks.

At Franklin, TN Hood frontally attacked with 22,000 troops and came out five-hours later with 17,000 troops, many of them grievously wounded. Hood lost a third of his army, 15 generals, and 54 regimental commanders. All were dead. And Davis could not see this? This is a military genius?

Not done losing the war, Hood then attacked Nashville and Union General Thomas with 34,000 men, and then had to retreat with only 15,000 of his tattered forces.

In two weeks Hood had lost half his army. It was not clear at the time because there were so few battle reports of the carnage that Hood created, mostly due to the fact that so many officers were dead or wounded, thus, incapable of writing/filing those reports.

Hood's failures broke the south. Thank you, Jefferson Davis. Couldn't have done it without 'ya!

Surrender at Appomattox was to follow about 4-months later.

Of the 30,000 Mississippians - Jefferson Davis' home state- one-third were dead, and half the remaining were missing a limb or two.

This is the guy you think that no President "has ever been better qualified to be a war-time Commander-in-Chief"? Really? Srsly?

Posted by: Islander5 | February 7, 2011 1:03 PM | Report abuse

First of all, the question is foolish, but then to ask the head of the Confederate museum to respond is even more silly.

As to the issue of J.Davis, he is the one who continued with the confederate cause for several months after the loss was obvious. His Hitlarian like fanatacism in continuing the fight led to many more deaths on both sides and especially on his southern side and that doesn't include the maimed and other wounded, or the destruction of land and materials. All that mattered to him was a cause that was dead.

Any "True" American should feel sickened to see that traitor's name on highway signs and anywhere else other than in a graveyard.

Posted by: familynet | February 7, 2011 1:56 PM | Report abuse

who cares. davis dressed up like a woman to escape arrest. now there is some backbone. sounds like something an alqueda would do.

Posted by: 12thgenamerican | February 7, 2011 2:07 PM | Report abuse

Don't know who was most qualified to lead the South. Do know that one of the "Just War Theory's" principles is that a war must be winnable to justify fighting it. Too bad the Southern leaders were not wise or humble enough to see this was was never winnable.

The best was is the war not fought.

WE '69

Posted by: chucky-el | February 7, 2011 3:24 PM | Report abuse

Islander5's post on John Bell Hood is one of the most outrageous I have ever seen. Where does he get the ludicrous statistics he throws out? Certainly not from the Official Records.

Clearly Islander5 naively gets all his information from the book of now discredited Wiley Sword, whose deceiptful and error filled book on Hood's Tennessee Campaign has unfortunately come to define Hood's remarkable career.

If Jeff Davis made mistakes, the worst was allowing Joe Johnston to command armies four times, all utter failures, and none worse than Atlanta when he yielded 120 miles of north Georgia to Sherman in less than 100 days, thus assuring Lincoln's reelection. Or perhaps Johnston's worst disgrace was attacking Sherman at Bentonville NC in March 1865, butchering 3,000 of his own men when he wrote later in his memoirs that he knew the war was lost and nothing could be accomplished.

Posted by: kyguy | February 8, 2011 3:48 AM | Report abuse

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