Civil War History 47.1 (2001) 76-77
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The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Volume 10:
October 1863-August 1864
Volume 10 of the Papers of Jefferson Davis covers the Confederate president's letters, speeches, and other correspondence from the end of the Chickamauga-Chattanooga campaign to the height of the fighting in the Wilderness during that awful, bloody summer of 1864. It begins on a note of defiant optimism, as Davis toured the battlefields of Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge and declared that Southern soldiers had "given still higher evidence of courage, patriotism, and resolute determination to live freemen, or die freemen (21)." The volume ends with reports of dissent on the part of Confederate governors, anxious letters to Robert E. Lee about the mounting difficulties in supplying the Army of Northern Virginia, and Davis complaining about the "carping spirit" pervading the country (630).
The Confederate president's correspondence has a drier, more businesslike feel than in the earlier volumes of this series. There are fewer examples of the colorful, quirky letters from the opening days of the war, when gushing Southerners sent their new president everything from flag designs to pet plans for how to quickly secure victory. By 1864, Confederate citizens were far more likely to write Davis requesting draft exemptions, relief from aggressive army impressment officers, or simply to vent their frustrations about the war's mounting hardships. The Confederate government "is grinding down the face of the poor and seem to care not if they starve to death," wrote an anonymous Southerner from Alabama in April 1864 (365).
Davis was bombarded with such complaints. By the fall of 1863, he was in many ways a man under siege, beset on all sides by quarreling generals, recalcitrant Congressmen, angry newspaper editors--all the pained voices of a fledgling nation slowly strangling from the pressures of war. The result is a portrait of a tense and sometimes irritable president, who argued with hecklers in a crowd in Mississippi, angrily exclaiming that he would "not be interrupted by blackguards" (30). Volume 10 also contains evidence of Davis's rather infamous penchant for petty legalisms; for example, he vetoed a Congressional bill for creating an asylum for military veterans, arguing that the bill violated the Confederate Constitution by vesting the asylum's board of managers with too much power (229). [End Page 76]
But other qualities in Davis are evident throughout the correspondence in Volume 10. His letters to his wife Varina reveal the man's warmer side, as well as his interesting habit of keeping his wife well informed about military matters. Davis was also at times quite compassionate, as evidenced by the fair number of pardons he issued commuting the sentences of deserters and other unfortunate Southerners.
Such documents illustrate the value of the Papers of Jefferson Davis. Older editions of Davis's papers focused largely on public speeches and official correspondence. These are valuable resources, but they failed to reveal the more subtle characteristics of the man. By mining obscure resources and seemingly innocuous minutiae such as pardons and endorsements--all with masterful and thorough editing--this fine collection gives us a complex and nuanced mosaic of the Confederate president and his times.