Jefferson Davis in Blue: The Life of Sherman's Relentless Warrior. By Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, Jr., and Gordon D. Whitney. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-8071-2777-9. Maps. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xviii, 475. $49.95.
The authors of this ambitious study, Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, Jr., and Gordon D. Whitney, attempt to shed light on one of the Union Army's most controversial officers. Jefferson Davis in Blue more than meets their ambitions. [End Page 244] Jef Davis, as he was known, began his military career as a corporal in an Indiana volunteer regiment during the Mexican War. Despite receiving praise for his performance at the Battle of Buena Vista, Davis failed to secure an appointment to West Point. Hughes and Whitney acknowledge that "not having attended the Military Academy would set him apart from other regular officers" (p. 20). Instead, Davis was commissioned a second lieutenant in the First Artillery Regiment.
When the Civil War broke out, Davis was among the contingent of regulars protecting Fort Sumter. Later, he took command of an Indiana regiment, then rose through the ranks while developing a reputation as a hot-tempered disciplinarian. Davis's temperament fueled an event that almost ended a promising career. Detailed to Louisville, Kentucky, to help suppress the invading Confederates, Davis failed to arm and organize the local home guard. He received a stern reprimand for this from his commanding officer, Major General William Nelson. Davis took offense at this action and demanded an apology. When Nelson refused, Davis confronted him later at the Galt House Hotel and shot his superior to death. Despite the seriousness of the crime Davis was neither court-martialed nor tried in a civilian court.
On the battlefield Davis made up for his personal shortcomings. A brilliant performance at Jonesboro established him as one of the Union Army's brighter stars in the Western Theater. This was recognized by General Sherman, who promoted Davis to Fourteenth Corps Commander. According to the authors, "Sherman seemed to have liked Davis from the start. They communicated easily, they trusted each other, and they enjoyed each other's company" (p. 216). Operating on the left wing of Sherman's Army during the battles around Atlanta and the March to the Sea, he became Sherman's most reliable corps commander. Hence, the reason for the subtitle of this book, Sherman's Relentless Warrior.
Sherman recommended Davis for promotion to brevet major general, but the War Department refused. The most likely reason was another controversial incident. After Davis's corps crossed the treacherous Ebenezer Creek in Georgia, he ordered the dismantling of the pontoon bridge. As a result an untold number of black refugees following his army either drowned or were captured by Confederate cavalry. His biographers surmise the order may have stemmed from either Davis's unabashed antiabolitionist views, or from the sound military principle that the ex-slaves would hinder his rapidly moving army. Whatever the reason, Davis was labeled a racist in some circles.
After the Civil War, Davis served in Alaska and the Department of the
Columbia. During the latter assignment he distinguished himself during the
Modoc Indian War. Jef Davis, who suffered from various maladies throughout
his life, died in 1879. Jefferson Davis in Blue is the first
full-scale biography of this controversial soldier and it is doubtful
this balanced work will be surpassed any time soon. Unfortunately,
the hefty price tag may keep its readership to a minimum.
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