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Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief

Edited by Scott Moyers

From the dean of Civil War historians and Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom, a powerful new reckoning with Jefferson Davis as military commander of the Confederacy.

History has not been kind to Jefferson Davis. His cause went down in disastrous defeat and left the South impoverished for generations. If that cause had succeeded, it would have torn the United States in two and preserved the institution of slavery. Many Americans in Davis’s own time and in later generations considered him an incompetent leader, if not a traitor. Not so, argues James M. McPherson. In Embattled Rebel, McPherson shows us that Davis might have been on the wrong side of history, but it is too easy to diminish him because of his cause’s failure. In order to understand the Civil War and its outcome, it is essential to give Davis his due as a military leader and as the president of an aspiring Confederate nation.

Davis did not make it easy on himself. His subordinates and enemies alike considered him difficult, egotistical, and cold. He was gravely ill throughout much of the war, often working from home and even from his sickbed. Nonetheless, McPherson argues, Davis shaped and articulated the principal policy of the Confederacy with clarity and force: the quest for independent nationhood. Although he had not been a fire-breathing secessionist, once he committed himself to a Confederate nation he never deviated from this goal. In a sense, Davis was the last Confederate left standing in 1865.

As president of the Confederacy, Davis devoted most of his waking hours to military strategy and operations, along with Commander Robert E. Lee, and delegated the economic and diplomatic functions of strategy to his subordinates. Davis was present on several battlefields with Lee and even took part in some tactical planning; indeed, their close relationship stands as one of the great military-civilian partnerships in history.

Most critical appraisals of Davis emphasize his choices in and management of generals rather than his strategies, but no other chief executive in American history exercised such tenacious hands-on influence in the shaping of military strategy. And while he was imprisoned for two years after the Confederacy’s surrender awaiting a trial for treason that never came, and lived for another twenty-four years, he never once recanted the cause for which he had fought and lost. McPherson gives us Jefferson Davis as the commander in chief he really was, showing persuasively that while Davis did not win the war for the South, he was scarcely responsible for losing it.


Other books by James M. McPherson


“The best concise book we have on the subject.”—The New York Times Book Review

“Mr. McPherson…mounts a defense of Davis is provocative; the book in which he argues it is quietly persuasive…. Mr. McPherson covers a great deal of ground. And there is an economical grace to his prose that makes the book a lightning-quick but lingering read that will appeal not only to Civil War buffs but also to those curious about the Southern presidency and government.” The Wall Street Journal

“[A] fine study of Davis’s military leadership….To this day it is difficult for many Americans to view Davis with dispassion, but McPherson has made a noble attempt to do so….Davis himself does not make that easy.” The Washington Post

Open minds are in short supply today, so it is refreshing that Civil War scholar and Pulitzer-winning author James M. McPherson has taken a fresh look at a subject with which is he eminently familiar: the life and times of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. With more than a dozen books about America’s greatest crucible to his credit, the 78-year-old author is still challenging past postulations.” Christian Science Monitor

“Superb… McPherson succeeds admirably in recreating the world of 1861-1865 as seen through the eyes of a Southern nationalist and ardent defender of the established social order, and provides readers with a more balanced view of Davis than that handed down by many of his contemporaries.” North South Magazine

“The first work to discretely consider Davis as head of his armies and navy… Crisply written, thoughtfully considered, and ultimately persuasive, Embattled Rebel is McPherson and biography at their best.” —History Book Club

Author Q&A


On February 10, 1861, Jefferson Davis and his wife, Varina, were taking rose cuttings in their garden at Brierfield, the Davis plantation on the rich bottomland along a looping bend in the Mississippi River. Three weeks earlier, just recovered from an illness that had kept him in bed for several days, Davis had resigned his seat in the U.S. Senate when he received official word of Mississippi’s secession from the Union. He and his family had made their way home slowly, stopping on January 28 at the state capital in Jackson, where Davis learned that he had been named major general of the Army of Mississippi. It was a position congenial to his desires. As a graduate of West Point, an officer in the regular army for seven years, commander of a volunteer regiment in the Mexican American War, secretary of war in the Franklin Pierce administration, and chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, Davis had vast and varied military experience qualifying him for such a position. He immediately set to work to reorganize and expand the state militia to meet a potential invasion threat from the U.S. Army. Davis also anticipated the possibility that the convention of delegates from six seceded states meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, might choose him as general in chief of the soon-to-be-created army of the Confederate States of America. But for now he was careworn and exhausted. He wanted only to get home to restore his health and energy, supervise his 113 slaves as they prepared Brierfield for the year’s cotton planting, and relax by working in his flower and vegetable gardens.

While Jefferson and Varina were taking rose cuttings that pleasant February day, a special messenger arrived from Vicksburg. He handed Davis a telegram. Varina watched her husband as he opened and read it. His face blanched, she recalled. “After a few minutes’ painful silence” he told her “as a man might speak of a sentence of death” that the convention at Montgomery had unanimously elected him provisional president of the Confederacy—not general-in-chief, but commander in chief, with all of its political as well as military responsibilities and vexations. He did not want the job.

He had expected it to go to Howell Cobb of Georgia. But the convention, anticipating the possibility of war with the United States, had chosen Davis in considerable part because of his military qualifications, which none of the other leading candidates possessed. Despite his misgivings, Davis’s strong sense of duty compelled him to accept the call. He prepared to leave for Montgomery the next day.

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