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Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln as War Presidents: Nothing Succeeds Like Success

From: Civil War History
Volume 27, Number 1, March 1981
pp. 49-63 | 10.1353/cwh.1981.0055

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JEFFERSON DAVIS AND ABRAHAM LINCOLN AS WAR PRESIDENTS: NOTHING SUCCEEDS LIKE SUCCESS Ludwell H. Johnson We are all familiar with the scene on that gloomy, cold, and rainy Washington's Birthday when Jefferson Davis, pale and haggard from the strain of illness and recent military defeats, took the oath of office under the permanent Confederate Constitution. On her way to the ceremony , Mrs. Davis discovered to her consternation that her carriage was escorted by four Negroes in "somber broadcloth and top hats and wearing white cotton gloves. She asked the coachman what they were doing there. 'Well, ma'am,' he said, 'you told me to fix everything up like it ought to be, and this yere's the way we do in Richmond at fun'rals an' sich-like.' "' These circumstances were ominous in the strict meaning of the word, and especially so as to the way Davis was to be judged as president of the Confederacy. I am not referring to his contemporary critics—the Stephenses, the Wigfalls, the Footes, the Keans, the Pollards—but to the writers of history, or what often passes for history. Not that historians have been unanimously uncomplimentary or uncharitable. In his study of Davis and his cabinet, Rembert Patrick rendered a favorable verdict.2 More recently Raimondo Luraghi, a modern Italian scholar who has put the War for Southern Independence in an even broader perspective than did Charles A. Beard some fifty years ago, is most impressed by Davis's ability. In speaking of the mobilization of Southern resources, Luraghi writes: It is amazing to see how clear-mindedly, how creatively Southern leaders discovered this direction [i.e., "state socialism"], previously unknown, and followed it. The man who, more than any other, embodied this stroke of genius was President Jefferson Davis. Be it only for this, he should rank among the major statesmen in history. His intelligence, his iron will, his capability' in facing and solving such appalling problems were indeed amazing.3 ' Allen Tate, Jefferson Davis, His Rise and Fall (New York, 1929), p. 126. 2 Rembert W. Patrick, Jefferson Davis and His Cabinet (Baton Rouge, 1944), p. 45 and passim. 3 Raimondo Luraghi, The Rise and Fall of the Plantation South (New York and London, 1978), p. 151. Civil War History, Vol. XXVII, No. 1 Copyright© 1981 by The Kent State University Press 0009-8078/81/2701-0003 $01 .00/0 50CIVIL WAR HISTORY Many students of the war may find such an opinion almost shocking, so striking is its contrast with the historical consensus on Davis, so at odds with the time-honored stereotype. They are much more accustomed to hearing such statements as the late David Potter's: the Confederate president , he wrote, "faced many obstacles which even the most gifted leader could not have overcome except in part, but the question is whether he dealt with them as effectively as an able leader could. There is no evidence that he did."4 Weighed in the balance and found wanting —such has been Davis's fate. Perhaps the most representative and sweeping indictment of Davis by a modern historian was handed down by George M. Fredrickson in a recent collection of essays. After extolling the virtues of Abraham Lincoln as a war leader, he goes on to say that "the leadership of Davis was of a very different caliber. The Confederate president was a proud, remote, and quarrelsome man" who "fought constantly with his cabinet," and replaced able men with second-class lackeys. He was tactless, uncompromising, and opinionated , and "acquired bitter enemies in Congress, among the Confederate governors, and among the most competent southern generals." He believed he was a military genius and interfered excessively with his generals , besides adhering rigidly to a "policy of tfoop dispersal and departmentalization of command. Davis seemed to believe that the heavens would fall if the bureaucratic rules of a peacetime army wereviolated." Furthermore, he favored generals that he liked at the expense of better commanders who had offended him. "Unlike Lincoln, he lost touch with the political situation, and he failed to provide leadership in the critical area of economic policy. In the end one has a picture of Davis tinkering...