Pulitzer Prize-winning author James McPherson delves into Jefferson Davis’ efforts to lead an aspiring Confederate nation in his latest book, which attempts to paint a clearer portrait of a leader whose accomplishments have been overshadowed by the failure of his cause.
“Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief” is the latest in a series of books about the Civil War that McPherson has written. Long hailed for his efforts to make history accessible to the public, McPherson will read from the new book at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh.
Reached by phone, the retired Princeton University history professor spoke with pride of his efforts to reach the masses with stories from our collective past.
“I have tried to ... (make) history an exciting story,” he said. “Not only exciting, but meaningful, and show that it has relevance to readers’ lives and the world in which they live. It can be an uphill struggle, but it has become a kind of mission in my life to make some kind of contribution to that process.”
By looking into Davis’ history as the leader of the Confederacy, McPherson isn’t courting controversy. He isn’t here to praise the man who attempted to fight for Southern cessation, but merely to clarify that Davis’ term wasn’t the failure that so many generations have believed it to be.
“I think his record as a leader was mixed,” said McPherson, whose 1989 “Battle Cry of Freedom” won the Pulitzer. “I was more impressed by his qualities of leadership than I was expected to be, but at the same time, some of the facets of his personality, many people found to be off-putting. They led to various kinds of feuds with other members of the Confederate Congress, which in turn led to handicapping his leadership ability, although in the end he was able to push through all of the legislation that he felt was needed to win the war through Congress.”
One of Davis’s feuds involved the state of North Carolina, where his reputation was “probably poorer than anywhere else.”
“North Carolina was one of the least enthusiastic of the southern states, one of the last to secede,” McPherson said. “There were significant Union sympathies in the western part of the state, and a very prominent peace movement in the summer and fall of 1863. Gov. Zebulon Vance, while he was a very loyal Confederate, was very critical of Davis and his cabinet. Also, soldiers from North Carolina had one of the highest percentages of deserters from the Confederate Army. Davis was not happy with that.”
Even though Vance continued to support the war effort, tension between the two persisted, McPherson noted.
“I think Davis felt North Carolina, as one of the largest of the Confederate states, could have done more for the cause,” he said, adding, “I also think there was a sense among North Carolinians in the Army and Vance that Davis showed favoritism toward Virginia, with North Carolinians turned down for promotion with the military even when they deserved it.”
Perhaps the largest contributor to Davis’ unpopularity among his former constituents was the poverty that enveloped Southern states once the fighting stopped. Many former allies viewed him as a traitor to the cause by leading them into financial ruin, McPherson said.
“His determination to keep fighting, to maintain the effort to achieve independence by continuing to hold out against the enemy prolonged the war and prolonged the destruction of the South,” McPherson said. “The South took so long to recover from this tragedy, but I don’t feel that you can say that it was a mistake in general policy; as he put it, he was put in power to achieve independence by the Confederacy, not to negotiate defeat.”
By 1865, Davis was basically the last Confederate left standing, McPherson said. Everyone working under him, both in the military and in his Cabinet, felt the war was lost and tried to negotiate a peace, even if it wasn’t an independent Confederacy. But Davis refused.
“Even as he was fleeing from Richmond, he hoped that they would be able to continue the war effort,” McPherson said. “I believe when he was captured on May 10 of that year, he still didn’t really give up that desire to keep fighting. I suppose you could say in the way that that led to greater suffering after the war than if he had given up earlier.”
With this latest chapter in his journey into America’s past, the professor once again shines a spotlight on an overlooked, and perhaps unfairly maligned, figure of the Civil War. But McPherson is not attempting to make excuses for Davis’ part in the failure of the Confederacy.
“You have to blame someone when things are going wrong, and Davis was the obvious target. As Harry Truman once said, ‘The buck stops at the President’s desk,’ and that was certainly true of Davis.”