Jefferson Davis was never president of all the United States, but he was president of half of them.
Follow Davis as parlays his status as a Mexican-American war hero into a political career as a fiery southern radical, serves as Secretary of War, get's his dream job as general of the confederate Mississippi armies, and days later gets the job he never asked for nor wanted - President of the Confederacy. We'll take a close look at the major decisions he made that helped shape the outcome of the Civil War
While we're at it, we'll also look at the Myth of the Lost Cause - a bit of pro confederate revisionism that has tinted how we remember the Civil War in the friendliest way possible for the confederates who started it.
1. Embattled Rebel - James McPherson
2. Abraham Lincoln – David Herbert Donald
3. Grant – Jean Edward Smith
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B.) Jefferson Davis, the confederate
Welcome to Abridged Presidential Histories with Kenny Ryan. Episode B, Jefferson Davis, the confederate president.
If you’re listening to this show chronologically, you’ve heard a LOT about Abraham Lincoln by now. How he rose to power, how he ended slavery, how he won the civil war.
But you were probably familiar with the broad strokes of that already. Everybody learns something of Lincoln and the civil war growing up, and what it took for the union to win it.
Today, we look at the other side of that war. The southern side. And the man who led it. Jefferson Davis. The President of the confederate states of America.
Being an American, a president, and requested by quite a few of you, he qualifies for this show. And by looking at the unique opportunities and challenges he grappled with, we’ll get to provide a slightly more complete picture of that greatest of American conflicts, the Civil War.
And as we get to do that, I’ll get to do what I really want to do, and that’s take on the myth of the “Lost Cause.”
What is the myth of the lost cause? Well, it’s Gone with the Wind. It’s Birth of a Nation. It’s confederate statues in city squares and confederate names on schools and army bases. It’s how the story of the Confederacy was taught for close to 100 years, shaped by southerners who wanted to rewrite the history of the war so they could be the heroes.
At its core, the Myth of the Lost Cause has six planks. And some of these may sound familiar to you.
Plank 1. Slavery was good for the slaves.
Plank 2. The civil war was fought over states’ rights, not slavery.
Plank 3. The confederacy was only defeated because of the north’s advantages in men and industry.
Plank 4: Southern Women steadfastly supported the confederacy, and sacrificed more men, time, and resources than northern women.
Plank 5. Confederate soldiers were heroic, gallant, saintly, and honorable.
Plank 6: Robert E. Lee was the greatest general of the civil war, and maybe all American history.
The fact that you’ve probably heard of most of those shows how pervasive this myth is. So, as I tell the story of Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy, I’ll pay special attention to whenever the planks of the Lost Cause come up in our narrative, and take a good hard look at how closely the myth meets reality.
So get ready for Jefferson Davis and the Myth of the Lost Cause.
Jefferson Davis was born on June 3, 1808, in Kentucky – 8 months and 100 miles away from Abraham Lincoln. Though they wouldn’t grow up to hold much in common. Davis was the 10th of 10 children. His father was a successful tobacco farmer and horse breeder who valued education and moved his family around quite a bit before settling down in Mississippi. When Davis was 16, he enrolled in West Point, where he was like any other college boy, only moreso. He drank, partied, shot muskets out his window, and was very nearly kicked out of the academy. He graduated 23rd in a class of 34, but none of that mattered. Because whenever anyone looked at him the rest of his life, they’d see WestPoint, and there was respect in that.
Davis enlisted in the army after graduating and quickly met future president Zachary Taylor back when Taylor was just another colonel on the frontier. Their friendship got off to a poor start when Davis fell in love with Taylor’s daughter, Sarah Knox, and asked for Taylor’s permission to marry her, and Taylor said no … and Davis ran off and eloped with Sarah anyway. But these transgressions were forgiven when Sarah and Davis contracted Malaria and Sarah died just months after their marriage. Davis and Taylor’s shared grief brought the men together and they made amends before parting ways. 11 years later, war would bring them together again, this time, down in Mexico.
But first, Davis left the army to chase the southern dream – starting a plantation of his own. Which makes now a good time to discuss Myth No. 1 – slavery was good for the slaves.
The craziest thing about this myth is that, on rare occasion, I still see people making this claim today. Their argument usually boils down to, “Slaves were assets, and it doesn’t make sense to beat or abuse your assets, because that might lower their productivity, so slave owners probably treated their slaves really, really well and gave them better lives than they had after slavery.”
Back in 1860, there were manuals on how often to beat a slave to get the most productivity out of them. A southern doctor claimed any slave that wanted to run away suffered from “Drapetomania,” a made-up illness that could only be treated by, quote, “Whipping the devil out of them.” Nobody cared how slaves felt because they slaves were legally real estate, not humans. Slave owners couldn’t even be charged for murdering their slaves – this was entirely within their right. As was dismembering them, if they wanted to set an example.
So, Myth 1 is 100% a myth, slavery was not good for slaves.
As Davis starts building his plantation, he developed a reputation for being one of the more progressive slave owners. Which meant, instead of hiring white overseers to whip his slaves, he just had his more subservient slaves whip the others instead. Yup. Davis was entirely invested in black servitude to the white race, saying, quote, “African slavery, as it exists in the United States, is a moral, a social, and a political blessing.”
By the time the civil war broke out, Davis owned 113 slaves valued at $80,000 1861 dollars – equivalent to $7 million dollars today, making Davis among the most well-off plantation owners in the south.
After spending about a decade getting his plantation up and running, war beckoned. In 1846 – a year after remarrying and being elected to Congress - the Mexican-American war broke out and 39-year old Jefferson Davis signed up to lead a regiment of volunteer Mississippi rifles in Mexico. War reunited him with his one-time father-in-law Zachary Taylor, who was now his commanding general in the battles of Monterrey and Buena Vista. Davis’s performed admirably in both battles, earning him acclaim as a war hero back home. After the war, the governor of Mississippi appointed Davis to an open seat on the Senate, thrusting Davis into the heart of American politics at a very precarious time for north-south relations.
If you’ve been listening for a while, you know I view the annexation of Texas as the first domino toward the civil war, but it’s hardly the only one. There were a lot of dominos that had to fall to split the union and, Well, Jeff Davis is going to be one of these fanatical pro-slavery guys who, if it ever looks like the next domino might not fall, he’s going to go ahead and give it a nudge. In one of his early speeches on slavery, he said, “If this is to be made the center from which civil war is to radiate, here let the conflict begin.”
Between that, opposing allowing California to enter the union as a free state, and running as a secessionist gubernatorial candidate in 1851, you might think Davis would be marked as a dangerous man. Instead, the hapless President, Franklin Pierce, appointed him secretary of War in 1852. Which, you know, isn’t where I’d appoint the secessionist guy. But you do you, Franklin Pierce.
As Secretary of War, Davis earned accolades for upgrading the army’s muskets, sending military observers to Europe during the Crimean War, and even experimenting with deploying camels to the American southwest. The camels are a funny story. They took to the region as well as you’d hope, but had to be abandoned due to budget cuts and because they spooked the army’s horses. And when I say abandon, I mean, they seem to have just kind of been left there to wander off into the desert and do their thing. The wild descendants of Jeff Davis’s camels would continue to be seen in the American Southwest until 1941.
After Davis’ tenure as Secretary of War, he returned to the senate and campaigned very vigorously against Lincoln and the Republicans in the 1860 election, which seems a bit odd, since Lincoln wasn’t even on the ballot in 10 southern states. Davis vowed that, if Lincoln won, he’d rather, quote, “Welcome the invader to the harvest of death than attempt to live longer in such a union.”
Which brings me to, Lost Cause Myth No. 2 – the civil War wasn’t caused by slavery.
The argument goes that the south seceded and fought the civil war, not because of slavery, but to defend States Rights. But I’m not buying it. In the 1850’s, there’s exactly one example where one part of the country passed legislation that forced states in another part of the country to follow laws they didn’t want to follow – and it was when the south passed a fugitive slave act that forced northerners to help recover escaped slaves.
So I’m not buying it for a second that the south suddenly cared about state’s rights. The states’ rights argument, then, and today, is just what political parties point to when they’re in the minority and they’re trying to slow their opponents from passing laws they disagree. When parties are in the majority, they don’t care about states’ rights. When they’re in the minority, they do care about states’ rights. It’s hypocritical and designed to distract from the issues.
So to say the south was so concerned over states’ rights that it seceded, that just doesn’t add up.
The other reason I can very confidently say the confederacy seceded because of slavery is because they said so. Repeatedly. All over the place. Four confederate states specifically issued declarations listing slavery among their reasons for secession, and, before the first shots of the civil war had even been fired, the confederate vice president gave a speech which, well, I’ll just read it in full and let you draw your own conclusions.
“The new [Confederate] Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson (as in, Thomas Jefferson), in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted.
The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away... Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it—when the "storm came and the wind blew, it fell."
“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
That was the confederate vice president, just weeks after the confederacy had formed. Now you tell me if the south seceded to defend slavery or not.
I’m going to wrap this topic up by borrowing a construct I heard on the Civil War podcast – which is fantastic and I’d recommend it. The construct is this: Secession happened because of slavery, and the Civil War happened because of secession. And this is where, I suppose, you can very narrowly argue that the war WAS fought over states’ rights – that is, a state’s rights to secede. If you want to define it that way, then sure. The civil war was fought to determine a state’s right to secede, but slavery is why the states were trying to secede. And we know that because they told us so.
When southern states started seceding after Lincoln’s election that winter, Davis retired from the senate and returned to his plantation in Mississippi, where he was pleased to be appointed general of the state’s militia.
He was shocked when, on February 10, 1861, a messenger found him in his garden and handed him a letter. The Confederate Congress organizing in Montgomery, Alabama, had unanimously elected him president. He didn’t want the job. He hadn’t sought the job. But the job was thrust upon him. The convention felt it needed a president with war experience to lead the nation. And, for better or worse, that’s exactly what it got.
AND SO, on February 18, 1861, Jefferson Davis, the 53-year-old Mexican-American war veteran, former Secretary of War, and recently retired senator, was sworn in as the first president of the Confederate States of America in Montgomery, Alabama. He would also be its last. Davis immediately set about preparing his new nation for war.
At this moment, the confederate states of America were, in order of secession, South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas – basically, the deep south. By mid-June, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee would join them. Compared to the 23 states that remained in the union, the rebel states had one half as many men, one eighth as much industry, one 15th as much iron production, and one 32nd as much firearm production. Which brings us to MYTH No. 3 – was the confederacy doomed from the start?
Here’s why – sure, the south had fewer resources. But it also had different victory conditions.
For the North to win the Civil War, it had to defeat the southern armies and reoccupy all 11 confederate states. For the south to win the war, all it had to do was defeat the north’s will to fight. As late civil war Historian James McPherson put it: "The South could 'win' the war by not losing." but, "the North could win only by winning."
And history is full of examples of this happening. It’s how the United States won its independence from Great Britain, for one – George Washington kept shadowboxing the British until they decided they’d Lost enough lives and money to North America and they gave up and went home. It’s how north Vietnam will defeat the United States. It’s how small countries beat big countries. It’s not easy, but it’s not unheard of.
As Prussian military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz says, War is just politics by another means. The south wins the Civil War if it can make the war so painful for the north that northerners vote Republicans out of office in favor of Democrats who will pursue peace.
Think of the northern will to fight as a battery. Like on your phone. That little green battery that’s always dying on you? That’s the union’s willingness to fight. It’s a battery that’s powering the whole union war effort. And it’s a battery that’s draining all the time. Every day that passes, every dollar spent, it goes down. And every time a union soldier dies, it goes down a little faster. And when that battery starts running low, things can start going haywire fast. Soldiers start deserting. The value of the American dollar declines. Congressmen start asking for peace. The only way to recharge that battery is victory. Battlefield victory. Capturing cities victory. Capturing states victory. Without those victories to recharge the battery, the north loses the war.
So the confederate goal should be… don’t do anything that recharges the northern battery.
Instead, Davis going to make sure that battery starts the war fully charged. Why? – Fort Sumter.
As Davis became president, the south had already occupied almost every federal base and armory in the south, except a couple coastal fortresses, like Fort Pickens in Pensacola or Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. And Davis decided this was a problem because, if the confederacy wanted to be taken seriously, it shouldn’t have federal bases in its territory.
At first, Davis reached out to an old friend - Lincoln’s new Secretary of State, William H. Seward. Davis told Seward it was best to surrender the fort if he didn’t want a shooting war. And remember, nobody yet knows that a shooting war is coming. Right until Lincoln reached the white house, he thought the south was bluffing with this whole confederacy thing, and they’d say ‘oh, nevermind about secession,’ and rejoin the union and continue to argue it out politically. So when Davis says, look, we don’t want a shooting war, Seward doesn’t want one either and he responds to Davis, “sure, no problem, I’ll make the arrangements, we’ll surrender the fort.”
But when Lincoln hears about this, he says ‘No way, Jose.’ Lincoln doesn’t want a shooting war, either, but he’s starting to realize that, if he wants to preserve the union, he might not have a choice. And if there’s going to be a shooting war, union war support – that battery powering the northern war machine – the only way it starts at 100% is if the south shoots first. This cannot be a war of northern aggression. So he countermands Seward’s order and refuses to evacuate the fort.
Which put the ball back in Davis’ court. What’s he going to do? Do you let the federal troops stay? Or do you fire the first shot, knowing it’s going to rally the north to Lincoln’s banner?
Davis decided to pull the trigger. On April 12, the confederate cannons rang out, and on April 13, Fort Sumter surrenders. Two days later, Lincoln called for 75,000 soldiers, and all across the north, volunteers flood recruiting offices to defend the union from southern aggression – because the south had fired first.
But Davis got something else out of this, too. He knew that, when Lincoln summoned an army to march against the south, some of those slave states that hadn’t left the union yet – there were 8 of them in April, 1861 – he knew that some of those slave states would be pushed to secede by Lincoln’s call to arms, and four of them did. Virginia on April 17, Arkansas on May 6, North Carolina on May 20, and Tennessee on June 8. It’s right in the middle of this that Jefferson Davis and the confederate capital moved to Richmond, Virginia, on May 20 – roughly 100 miles from the union capital at Washington D.C.
And now you have the battle lines of the civil war. The Union must invade and reoccupy 11 states and 770,000 square miles of hostile territory, and the south must destroy the union’s will to fight.
Now, as I tell the story of the civil war from Jefferson Davis’ perspective, I’m going to focus on the decision points where Davis himself issued orders that really impacted the direction of the war, and then I’ll look at other aspects of his job as confederate leader – like equipping the army, feeding the people, managing his generals, and maintaining morale.
If Davis’ first big strategic decision was Fort Sumter, the second came five months later in Kentucky.
By September 4, 1861, the first battle of Bull Run had been fought and won by the confederacy. Both sides were beginning to realize the war wouldn’t be over quick, and Kentucky was suddenly incredibly important. Kentucky is one of the four so-called Border states – slave states that stayed in the union. Kind of. Kentucky had a big fat asterisk next to it. When that second wave of secession happened after Fort Sumter, Kentucky’s governor wanted to secede, but the state assembly wanted to side with the union, so they split the difference and declared neutrality. Neither northern nor southern troops were allowed in, which was vexing, because the North and South both badly wanted Kentucky on their side of the war because both knew the best way to defend the confederate state of Tennessee was to defend Kentucky. There are two major rivers that flow into Tennessee like highways for invasion, and they both flowed from Kentucky. If the south held Kentucky, the north would have a heck of a time breaking in. But if the north held Kentucky, Tennessee would be virtually wide open. As Lincoln said around this time, “I hope to have god on my side, but I must have Kentucky.”
So, this brings us to Davis’ dilemma. A northern army was poised on the north side of Kentucky and a confederate army was on the southern side, and each knew that if their side invaded first, Kentucky would probably join their enemy. But if they didn’t invade first, they ran the risk of Kentucky joining the other side anyway, and then they’d have lost their chance to get in there first and just capture Kentucky before anyone was home to defend it.
So what should Davis do? Wait and hope for Kentucky to tip his way? Or invade while it’s undefended, push Kentucky to the union, and hope your invading force can hold onto it?
Davis went with option B. Confederate armies crossed into Kentucky, Kentucky declared itself for the union, and union armies were invited into Kentucky to liberate it … and they pretty quickly had almost all of Kentucky in union hands. The invading confederate forces were unable to hold onto the state they had tried to capture.
And that union war battery – that support for the war that might have dipped after Bull Run – it got a nice little boost from the victory.
The thing is, this invasion of Kentucky, it’s not going to be the only time Davis launches an invasion of the border states or the north. Davis thinks the best way to drain that northern morale is to take the fight to the north and defeat them on their turf, and he tries again a year later in Maryland.
By the summer of 1862, we’re really getting into the war. And it’s not going good for the confederacy. Just as the south had feared, the north used Kentucky to launch an invasion of Tennessee. Forces led by General Ulysses S. Grant had already captured half the state. Elsewhere, the union Navy had blockaded the entire south and was starting to capture coastal islands and cities, including New Orleans, the south’s largest city. Western Virginia had been captured by the union – and would soon become the new state of West Virginia – and a union army under General McClellan had invaded Eastern Virginia and was knocking on the door of the confederate capitol, Richmond. Things were looking mighty good for the union, and mighty dire for the confederacy.
And that’s when the general in charge of defending Richmond, Joseph E. Johnston, was wounded in battle, and Davis turned to his military advisor, Robert E. Lee, to defend the city.
And that’s when Davis found his man.
Lee launched a series of attacks against the union army outside Richmond that drove it all the way down a peninsula and pinned it against the Chesapeake bay. Another union army, led by a guy named Pope, tried to attack from the north, and Lee sent it reeling in the second battle of Bull Run. The Union was suddenly on its heels. That battery of war support was draining, mid-terms were just a few months away, and Davis decided it was time to go on the offense again – this time in Maryland.
Davis had a few reasons here. Maryland was one of those border slave states, and Davis thought the presence of confederate troops might prompt it to flip, and if Maryland seceded, Washington D.C., which is located between Maryland and Virginia, would be surrounded, so that would be game over. But even if Maryland didn’t secede, the confederacy had a lot of supporters there, and Davis thought they’d flock to join the confederate army when it passed through. And even if that didn’t happen, he thought maybe Lee could whip the union army on its own turf and totally take the wind out of the union sails, which could lead to substantial republican losses in the midterms and an overwhelming demand for the north to seek peace.
The trouble for Davis is none of those things happened.
The presence of a confederate army didn’t push Maryland to secede.
Marylanders didn’t join Lee’s army in droves.
And instead of dealing the north a reeling defeat, Lee’s army was nearly destroyed at Antietam – the bloodiest single day of fighting in American history – and was forced to retreat back to Virginia. The union celebrated. It’s battery of war support was restored. Lincoln used the victory as cover to announce his emancipation proclamation. And, though the republicans did lose seats in the 1862 midterm, they still held a majority. The war was still on.
As 1862 turned to 1863, Davis made another series of decisions that, while they didn’t refuel that northern war battery, they did have huge consequences, so they’re worth mentioning. In November, 1862, he learned that six African American union soldiers had been captured by confederate forces in a raid on an island off the Georgia coast, and the soldiers who captured the men wanted to know what should be done with them, and Davis replied, quote, “They cannot be recognized in any way as soldiers subject to the rules of war and to trial by military courts …(so) Summary execution must therefore be inflicted on those taken.” In other words, kill ‘em. On January 12, 1863, he updated his position – any captured black soldiers and their officers should now be handed over to the states to be tried for inciting slave insurrections, which still meant certain death.
When Lincoln found out about this, he wasn’t having it. He announced the killing had to stop or he’d start responding in kind and killing captured rebel soldiers, so the confederates said, ok, we’ll just enslave any African americans we captured. Lincoln wasn’t having this, either, so he announced any enslaved union soldier would be matched by forcing a confederate prisoner of war to perform hard labor. After this, the official Confederate policies of killing or enslaving African American soldiers was officially stopped. But, unofficially, well, nobody’s stopping you.
But then a new issue arose. Sure, the confederates were now taking some African American union soldiers prisoner when they surrendered, but they were refusing to include those captured African Americans in prisoner exchanges, saying they would only trade whites for whites. They wouldn’t trade captured African Americans back to the union at any rate. Lincoln said, fine. If you refuse to include captured African American soldiers in prison swaps, then we’ll stop doing prisoner swaps altogether. And the POW exchanges ended.
And that’s when the prisoner of war camps started to become a problem.
The norm back then was, neither side wanted to pay the expense of feeding, sheltering, and guarding captured enemy soldiers, so you would periodically trade them back, man for man, on the honor system that they wouldn’t fight any more. They were literally on parole. When those trades stop happening, the POW camps start getting bigger and bigger, and the challenge of feeding, sheltering, and caring for prisoners just became too much for anybody to care to deal with. 10% of all civil war deaths occurred in these overcrowded, underfed, malnourished prisoner of war camps. And a big part of that rests on Jeff Davis’ shoulders.
By the June of 1863, Union morale – that battery powering the war engine – was running low again. The north had hardly made any progress since it’s victory over Lee at Antietam nine months earlier. There had been no major victories, no major conquests, in nearly a year. But thousands of union soldiers had died in that time, including nearly 8,000 at Chancellorsville in early May, Lee’s greatest victory of the war.
People in the north were getting antsy.
And then news came from the west that had the potential to change everything. General Ulysses S. Grant’s army had abandoned it’s supply lines, snuck through the confederate rear, and laid siege to Vicksburg, the last confederate fortress on the Mississippi. If Vicksberg fell, the confederacy would be split in two. There’d be no more supplies or men from Louisiana, Texas, or Arkansas. Reinforcements were desperately needed to lift the siege and, maybe, destroy Grant’s army and the union threat in the west.
But then Robert E. Lee started tugging Davis’ ear with another plan. Frankly, a crazier plan. Lee said, no, give me those reinforcements and I’ll invade Maryland, again, but this time it will work! So Davis had to decide. Would he send the reinforcements out west to try to stop Grant and save Vicksburg – which, to be fair, no guarantees Vicksburg could be saved – or would he give those reinforcements to Lee for another crack at winning the war in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Davis gave the troops to Lee and he marched into the north. Then, on July 3, 1863, Lee lost the battle of Gettysburg, and maybe 28,000 men in defeat.
One day later, July 4, 1863, Vicksburg surrendered to Grant. 29,000 rebel soldiers became union prisoners of war and the north took full control of the Mississippi river. The confederacy was cut in two.
And that battery of union morale went right back up to 100%. Out west in Texas, our old friend Sam Houston saw the fall of Vicksburg as loss that made the war unwinnable for the south. And unwinnable it might have been, but the fighting would go on for another two years.
The final big decision Davis made would come another year later, in the summer of 1864. By July 1864, Grant had taken command of the union armies in Virginia and waged a grueling two-month campaign that resulted in the union siege of Petersburg, the city whose rail lines connected Richmond to the rest of the south. If Petersburg fell, Richmond would be forced to surrender and Lee would be cut off from reinforcements or escape. Further south, William Tecumseh Sherman was marching through Georgia toward Atlanta – a bastion of the south. Despite this progress, northern opinion was again turning against the war. An election was coming up in November. And this time, Lincoln himself was on the ballot. Everyone knew a vote for Lincoln was a vote to consider the war, while a vote for the Democrats would be a vote for peace and possibly an independent south.
If the confederacy could just hold out a few more months… Lincoln was on track to lose reelection, and lose the war.
But when Davis looked down toward Atlanta, he didn’t like what he was seeing. Remember the first Confederate general in charge of the armies of Virginia? Joseph Johnston – the guy who was injured outside Richmond and before Lee took over? Well, Johnston, was now leading the confederate army in Georgia – basically, the only other army the south had left – and he was in charge of keeping Sherman out of Atlanta. Which, well, Sherman wasn’t in Atlanta yet. But it seemed to be just a matter of time, because Johnston kept refusing to engage Sherman’s larger army.
What would happen is, Johnston would fortify a spot, like a ridge or a creek, Sherman would set up his camp across from him, and slowly extend his army to outflank Johnston, and then Johnston would withdraw just before battle could commence to set up his next fortified spot further down the road. As one historian wrote, if Johnston were left in charge, the deciding battle of Atlanta would be fought in Key West.
But Johnston wouldn’t be left in charge. Davis wanted a fighter. So, on July 17, he sacked Johnston and put a new guy in charge of Atlanta’s defense, General John Bell Hood.
General Hood proceeded to launch several attacks on Sherman’s army in the weeks that followed, with disastrous results for the south. Hood suffered two to seven time as many casualties as the union did in each battle, ruining his army and forcing him to abandon Atlanta altogether less than two months later. On September 2, Sherman entered the city.
The fall of Atlanta basically cemented Lincoln’s reelection and decided the war.
No decision by Davis drew more flack during the war than his sacking of Johnston for Hood, but, I think I agree with historian James McPherson here. If Johnston had been left in charge, Atlanta would have fallen without a fight. Possibly sooner. By this point in the war, Davis simply had no good options left to take.
From Lincoln’s reelection that November to the end of the war the following May, Davis begins to remind me of Hitler toward the end of World War two. Everybody knows the north is going to win the war. The south has lost. There’s no more possibility of victory, but Davis in denial, and so he refuses to surrender. And every day he refuses to surrender, more soldiers die fighting over what is truly, now, a lost cause. As Richmond fell, Lee surrendered, and the final confederate armies were pursued and captured in April, 1865, Davis fled toward the Mississippi River and the western half of the confederacy, where he hoped to continue the fight in Arkansas and Texas, until he was captured by union cavalry. Union papers had a field day with reports that he’d been wearing his wife’s shawl when he was captured. According to Davis, this wasn’t a disguise. He was simply cold.
So those are the big decision points of the civil war from the southern perspective – the attack at fort sumter, the failed invasions of Kentucky once, and Maryland twice, and the desperate decision to replace General Johnston with Hood on the outskirts of Atlanta.
But these big decisions weren’t Davis’ only responsibility as confederate president during the war. He was also responsible for building a functioning nation that could carry on a war, supply its armies, and feed its people. Let’s see how he did there.
At the outset of the war, Davis’ biggest worry was a lack of munitions. Remember what I said at the top, about the union having 32 times as much military industry? The south was so desperate for arms that, when called for soldiers toward the start of the war, it set enlistment commitments to 3 years – or one year, if you provided your own gun.
But, well, the south ended up working wonders in this department. Davis’ ordinance bureau developed a home-made arms industry from scratch and secured what it couldn’t produce itself by building a fleet of blockade runners that carried southern cotton to European ports in exchange for military supplies. By 1862, arming the southern armies was no longer a crippling worry.
But other areas of southern governance weren’t as successful. In particular, food supply. Despite being an agrarian economy, the south starved during the civil war. This was in part due to some unfortunate harvests and in part due to farmers growing cotton they largely couldn’t sell instead of food they desperately needed to eat. Which takes me to MYTH No. 4 – the notion that southern women steadfastly supported the cause. Food shortages were so severe in the south that southern women participated in numerous bread riots during the war – the largest of which caught Davis right in the center of it. On April 2, 1863, several hundred women rioted in Richmond, stealing bread, clothes, and jewelry from the city’s storefronts. Davis stumbled upon the riot just as the city’s armed militia arrived. He leapt onto a wagon, pulled out his watch, and yelled to the crowd that they had five minutes to depart or he’d order the militia to fire. The women stood there sullenly and glared at him for four minutes, then Davis told them they had 60 seconds to disperse and ordered the militia to load their muskets. Nobody knows if he would have actually given the order, or if the militia would have fired into a crowd that may have included their wives, sisters, and daughters, for the mob finally melted away, with 60 seconds to go.
To be clear, I’m not saying southern women were any less supportive of the war or their loved ones fighting in it than women in the north, I’m just saying they were human. And they suffered the war, and responded to it, as any other women of that era would.
Ok, so, Davis has good marks on arming the south and poor marks on feeding it. The treasury was also perpetually dry and rampant inflation basically destroyed the southern economy, but there wasn’t much Davis could do there, due to the union blockade, so we’ll call that a wash.
Another area of struggle was maintaining troop parity with the north. Almost every fighting-age white male in the south would fight in the war, initially as volunteers, and later as conscripts. A full quarter of them died. Let me say that again, a quarter of southern white military-age men died in the civil war. In the north, only half of military-age men fought, in part because the other half had to keep working, since there weren’t any slaves to fuel the northern war industry, but also because this was enough to significantly outnumber southern armies. Roughly 750,000 men fought for the south vs. 2 million for the north.
It didn’t help that, at the outset of the war, almost the whole standing army and navy stayed loyal to the federal government in Washington D.C., which ties to MYTH No. 5 – confederate soldiers were heroic, gallant, saintly, and honorable. Heroic and gallant, sure, I’m sure they were just as heroic and gallant as the men in the north and all other men in war. Humanity exists on a curve and I tend to think it most of this stuff averages out, with nobody especially more or less gallant than anyone else. But saintly and honorable? When the war started, almost the entire rank and file of the army and 80% of its officer corps stayed with the union because that was the honorable thing to do. You will have a few northerners fighting for the south, often because they married into it, but you’ll have even more southerners fighting for the north. And, remember what I said about southern soldiers murdering captured African American troops? There’s nothing saintly or honorable about that! And I’m not saying everybody did it. But … I mean, it was state policy for like six or seven months.
So, Myth 5 – I’m sure confederate soldiers were just as heroic and gallant as northerners, I’ve got issues with saintly and honorable.
Back to Davis. One more area where Davis did well was keeping the south motivated to fight. I’ve talked a lot about the northern willingness to fight, that northern war battery, but there was a southern war battery too. And it was quite a bit easier to keep that one charged since, especially after emancipation, everyone knew the old way of southern life was gone forever if they lost, but Davis still did his part, traveling around the south, giving speeches, and giving everyone reason to keep fighting. And this is actually kind of interesting, because, at first, he’s going around saying slavery is totally the reason for secession. But once the war starts, he changes his tune and starts singing about state rights, constitutional sovereignty, and personal liberties. But then, as the war drags on and, like Lincoln, he has to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, start conscriptions, and do other things that look a little dictator-like, he starts offering a new reason to keep fighting – he can’t say it’s for personal liberties and state’s rights when he’s denying those rights and liberties – so he starts spreading stories of exaggerated northern atrocities. War his awful. Terrible things always happen. I don’t know that this was any worse or better than any other war, but Douglas made sure to widely spread any claims of union soldiers raping or pillaging in the south, and that did succeed in keeping the south invested in the war until, well, until another decision of his in the final months. Are you familiar with Sherman’s march to the sea? After capturing Atlanta, Sherman’s army abandoned its supply lines, spread out, and marched from ___ miles across Georgia, from Atlanta to the Atlantic port of Savannah, living off the land as it went. Today, this is often remembered as an incredibly destructive act by Sherman, who, so it goes, utterly destroyed everything in his path. But, in reality, well. Davis kind of had this fantasy of Sherman overextending himself the same way Napoleon once had in Russia and destroying him. And, remember what the Russians did to Napoleon? They destroyed all the food and supplies in his path before he could get to them so his army would starve. Davis ordered the same in Georgia. In the words of a Georgia citizen at the time, Confederate forces burned, quote, “All the corn and fodder, [drove] off all the stock of armers for 10 miles on each side of the rail road.” They also left primitive mines called “subterranean torpedoes” on the roads. After the confederates destroyed what they could, Sherman’s army consumed anything that was left. The destruction caused by both armies was so severe that the Georgia citizen wrote that Georgians, quote, “Will not care one cent which army is victorious.”
For his part, Davis thought the confederate forces had not been destructive enough, saying, quote, “The faithful execution of those orders would have defeated [Sherman].”
The people of Georgia hated Davis and the confederacy because of this, but, today, it’s usually only Sherman who gets the blame.
The last aspect of war leadership I want to focus on is Davis’ relationships with his generals and the rest of the confederate government. Now, Davis was a guy who had a number of health issues that left him in continuous pain, and that does make it a bit hard to be friendly. But his reputation for being difficult to work with seems to go beyond that. Sam Houston once described him as “ambitious as lucifer and a cold as a lizard.” Davis may have been elected unanimously for his experience at the start of the war, but he was pretty well hated unanimously for his leadership style by the end of it. I made a big deal in the Lincoln episode about how one of Lincoln’s biggest struggles was that it took him forever to find generals who could win the war. Well, Davis had similar struggles, but it kind of seems his came in reverse. He started the war with several great generals, but then all but Lee died and the replacements both struggled to win and struggled to maintain good working relationships with Davis.
And I do want to take this moment to talk more about Lee, because – and this might sound sacrilegious – he might be a tad overrated.
Lost Cause MYTH No. 6 states that Robert E. Lee was the greatest general of the civil war, and maybe even in all American history.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve heard countless times how Lee was the best general in the civil war, and so you reflexively think, well, if everyone keeps telling me he’s the best, he must be the best, right?
But let’s break it down. Let’s look at him as a battlefield commander and as a war strategist.
As a battlefield commander … Lee fought 30 battles and went roughly 8-12-6 in those battles – as in, he won 8, he lost 12, and 6 were inconclusive. Which… isn’t what I expected to see, given his reputation. And there’s a huge caveat here in how you define wins, losses, inconclusive results, and what even qualifies as a battle, so this isn’t definitive. I’m actually going by an online statistical analysis here by a guy named Ethan Arsht, who analyzed 3,580 battles and 6,619 generals from across world history to rate and rank all those generals, and he concluded Lee was, actually, below average, as measured by the results he got with the number of soldiers he had vs. the number of soldiers his opponents had in every battle.
Grant, on the other hand, went 12-1-3 in the Civil War, and is actually ranked the 6th greatest battlefield general in history in that same statistical analysis. Oh yeah, and he beat Lee head-to-head.
So, battlefield edge, Grant, and maybe even the three other union generals who notched wins against Lee during the Civil War. And you might be wondering, wait, how did the war last so long if Lee kept losing all the time, and the answer is that Lee was excellent at withdrawing with his army intact after a loss. So you might beat him one day, but he’s ready to fight again the next day, and then he beats you, and, up until Grant, union generals were much more likely to tuck tail for Washington the moment Lee got a lick in, even if Lee suffered more casualties than they did in the fight.
As a war strategist, Grant also outperformed Lee. We’ll get more into the campaigns of Grant in a couple episodes, when we get to president Grant, but his campaigns changed the war in the union’s favor. Lee’s repeated invasions of Maryland and Pennsylvania, not only ended in defeat, but they recharged northern battery and kept the union in the war.
If it sounds like I’m a crazy guy out on a limb here, questioning Lee’s reputation, I’m not. This is hardly original. You can find many articles that question how good was Lee. But, the guy who put it most harshly might be the late University of South Carolina professor Thomas Connely, who said, “One ponders whether the South may not have fared better had it possessed no Robert E. Lee.”
So, to recap the myth of the lost cause,
Plank 1. Was slavery good for the slaves? Heck no.
Plank 2. Was the civil war fought over states rights instead of slavery? The civil war was fought when the south seceded over its fears that Lincoln would end slavery. So. It’s totally about slavery.
Plank 3. Did the south only lose because the north’s advantage in men in industry made winning impossible? There’s no way of knowing this for sure, but I think the right strategy could have won southern independence. This war was not over before it began.
Plank 4: Did southern women 100% support their side of the war and sacrifice more than northern women? eh. Southern women engaged in multiple bread riots, which isn’t very supportive, and if they lost more, it’s because their side of the war lost. My main thought here is I wouldn’t put them on a pedestal above northern women, or any other women affected by war.
Plank 5. Were Confederate soldiers heroic, gallant, saintly, and honorable? I’ll give you heroic and gallant, but between committing treason and numerous killings of captured African American soldiers, I’ve got issues with saintly and honorable.
Plank 6: Is Robert E. Lee was the greatest general of the civil war, and maybe all American history? Naw. He’s not the greatest American general in history, or the civil War. I’d take Grant over Lee any day of the week.
So, that wraps up the myth of the lost cause. It’s time to wrap up on Jefferson Davis.
On May 10, 1865, Davis was captured by union cavalry and thrown in prison, where he spent two years awaiting a treason trial that never came. On Dec. 25, 1868, president Andrew Johnson issued a Christmas pardon and amnesty to anyone involved in the southern cause during the Civil War. Davis walked free.
Davis spent the next 21 years defending his record as confederate president. He recanted for nothing. He finally died of acute bronchitis on December 6, 1889. He was 81 years old.
So, what can we learn from the presidency of Jefferson Davis? I think the lesson is… if you want to be successful when the odds are against you, you need to really make sure that everything you’re doing is advancing your goal. Remember, for the union to win the war, it had to conquer the whole south. For the south to win the war, it just had to wear out that northern will to fight. But instead of staying on the defense, playing the long game, and avoiding battles the north would win, Davis got aggressive. He repeatedly tried to invade the union and those invasions resulted in some of the most devastating southern defeats of the war. If you want to win as the underdog, you can’t make mistakes. And Jefferson Davis made too many mistakes.
Thank you for listening to today’s episode of Abridged Presidential Histories.
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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps.
The primary biography for today’s episode was Embattled Rebel, by the James M. McPherson
In our next episode, we’ll look at the life and presidency of Andrew Johnson, the man who was entrusted to heal the nation after Lincoln’s assassination and four years of civil war, and who totally dropped the ball by abandoning the southern freedmen to new forms of violence and white terror.
That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.