Jefferson Davis, American
by William J. Cooper, Jr
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000
reviewed by Emil Posey
What drove the South to secede? Why would they rise up in arms to combat a nation they professed so passionately to love? A deep question with an answer perhaps easy to verbalize, but certainly difficult to understand. It is also an answer enormous in its scope if you grapple with it in the context of the whole of the South – many people, opinions, and motives – but we can begin to understand if we focus on the mindset of one individual: Jefferson Finis Davis. If anyone personified the Confederate cause, he did.
“I worked night and day for twelve years to prevent the war, but I could not. The North was blind, would not let us govern ourselves, and so the war came.”
I had only a superficial knowledge of Davis, and essentially viewed him as a traitor to the nation. Then I occasioned upon his great-great grandson, Bertram Hayes-Davis. He speaks and writes often about Davis, and his tag line is that he is misunderstood. I decided to plow into this book to find out.
Davis’ motives often don’t get much in-depth analysis in conventional histories of the war. Summarizations are easier. Even those pieces that discuss the Southern perspective may do so with little penetration into issues and positions. William J. Cooper’s book drives right to heart of that question. A professor of history at Louisiana State University, he doesn’t promote Davis’ agenda, but neither does he demonize it.
No matter how you approach the topic, one cannot escape the issue of slavery in all its perspectives – its morality, its importance to the South’s economy, its persistence in the South, how it was an integral part of the South’s identify, and so forth.* Nor can it be ignored that the South waged a war of rebellion against the duly constituted government of this nation in what is still it bloodiest conflict. Trying to understand the South’s motivations is an amazing exercise in cause-and-effect contradictions. Campbell expertly weaves this backdrop into the story.
* It is true that the war was not started to end or even to maintain slavery, but slavery was the backdrop of all national politics in the US from the Missouri Compromise of 1820 through the end of the war in 1865. It then echoed in national politics down to the present day.
First and foremost, Campbell paints for us a portrait about Davis. If his isn’t the definitive biography of the man, it should be a contender for that moniker. It is full of period anecdotes, observations by peers, newspaper columns, and extracts from letters to, from, and about him. It’s also a portrait of the antebellum South through Davis’ experiences, the sectional and national politics of the times, and the Civil War and its immediate aftermath. As for the war itself, the book deals at the national level — grand strategy, not details of battles and campaigns.
It is a thorough portrait that Campbell builds. Davis was born to politics; it was his life’s work. He had a successful plantation (Brierfield) in a bend in the Mississippi River in Warren County, Mississippi, with a full complement of slaves* and the other resource, crops, and related activities of a typical Southern plantation. Beginning in 1840, he often left it to his brother, Joseph, to manage (along with Joseph’s own neighboring plantation, Hurricane), while he spent much of his time engaged in politics. He had a family that he adored, but, again, politics usually came first. He long-suffered of ill health, afflicted by a chronic eye infection as well as a condition known as trigeminal neuralgia. While somewhat episodic and disabling (the neuralgia was extremely painful), they didn’t slow him down much.
* Throughout his early army career, after graduating West Point, Davis was accompanied by James Pemberton, his slave. When Davis got Brierfield up and running, he made Pemberton the plantation overseer. This is telling of Davis’ character, not to mention his confidence in Pemberton, since the overwhelming majority of plantation owners employed whites in this role. Pemberton held it until his death in 1850. Campbell acknowledges that Davis was “a reasonably humane slave master”, but that he was totally committed to the superiority of the white race and to the institution of slavery (pp. 230-239).
Davis was a workaholic, often to the point of exhaustion. He would work long hours and travel regularly despite his recurrent health problems. He paid great attention to detail and had difficulty delegating responsibility, the combination of which caused him to be a micromanager.* These traits were manifest in his political life as well as in his government service. During the Civil War he tended to neglect civil matters in favor of military issues, favored old friends in appointments of cabinet officers and military commands (see pg. 355, for example), and put up with poor performance and relationships among some of his senior officers – his tolerance of Generals Joseph E. Johnson and P.G.T. Beauregard, and his reliance on General Braxton Bragg, for example. (Contrast this with the mutual respect, confidence, and trust between Davis and General Robert E. Lee. Theirs was a relationship solidly grounded.) These and other shortcomings and failures during the war were legion, and are discussed in detail by Campbell.
* Davis’ tendency to micromanage was apparent when he was US Secretary of War. It was manifest during the Civil War as well. Take, for example, when General Leonidas Polk violated Kentucky’s neutrality on September 3, 1861, by occupying Columbus, Kentucky. Local politicos were aghast at the implications for the Southern cause in Kentucky and beseeched Davis to order the general’s immediate withdrawal. Davis instructed Secretary of War Leroy Pope Walker “to retire from Kentucky and to explain his actions. Before he received Secretary Walker’s instructions, General Pope wired Davis that “military necessity make taking Columbus essential”. Davis accepted this and sent General Pope a countermanding order. (Pp. 356-357.) In fairness, it must be pointed out that Secretary of War Walker was not up to the task, which lends credence to Davis bypassing him when communicating with field commanders, but, “From the earliest days in Montgomery, Davis basically acted as his own secretary of war. Considering no matter too trivial for his attention, he did not assign Secretary Walker primary responsibility for any activity. Much correspondence and many directives went out over Walker’s signature, but all the major decisions, and many minor ones, were Davis’s.” Pg. 354.) This kind of direct involvement was in large part why he went through three Secretaries of War between February 1861 and November 1862.
There was a lot to the man. He was an ardent supporter of progress, championing the likes of Manifest Destiny and the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. I would have liked more about his time as the US Secretary of War under President Pierce, 1853-1857, but Campbell devotes only one chapter, about 35 pages, to this episode in Davis’ life, and even then only briefly touches on the many innovations Davis applied. On the other hand, Campbell provides much detail in his description of state-level politics in the South, particularly Davis’ rise in his home state of Mississippi.
Throughout his career, Davis was passionate about states’ rights, and therein is the core of what drove him to the Confederacy. In his first major congressional speech in the US House of Representatives, on February 6, 1846, he said, “To all which has been said of the inherent powers of the Government, I answer, it is the creature of the States; as such it could have no inherent powers, all it preserves was delegated by the States, and it is therefore that our Constitution is not an instrument of limitations, but of grants…[W]hatever was then deemed necessary was specifically conveyed; beyond the power so granted, nothing can now be claimed except those incidents which are indispensable to its existence; not merely convenient or conducive, but subordinate and necessary to the exercise of the grants.” He was quite the orator.
With his chronological approach, Campbell provides a thorough, comprehensive journey through Davis’ life and times. As to the question of who Davis really was, the title provides the book’s main theme. As Campbell puts it in his preface, “By 1860, he stood as one of America’s most accomplished political leaders. A superb politician, he dominated his state of Mississippi. As a hero of the Mexican War, as a notable cabinet officer, and as a prominent member of the United States Senate, Jefferson Davis commanded respect across the nation. He was spoken of as a man who could legitimately aspire to his country’s highest office. And he did become president, but not of the United States.” (Pg. xiv.) He believed in the Constitution, and served his country long and well until the Civil War, yet his dedication to states’ rights, first manifested during the Nullification Crisis between South Carolina and the United States government in 1832-33, prevailed. An exercise in contradictions, indeed. Yet, was there a contradiction in these seemingly divided loyalties? Many in the South, including Davis, felt not – they felt clear in their beliefs. Campbell discusses Davis’ views comprehensively and at length, relying in large part on his speeches in public, at party conventions, and in the House and the Senate. Davis always strove to be clear, but he struggled to reconcile all of his points to reality. Contradictions remained. The struggle many, north and south, had in answering that to themselves shows they, too, struggled with the contradictions.
Campbell is an accomplished author of Civil War history with several books already to his credit. These include We Have the War upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April 1861, Liberty and Slavery: Southern Politics to 1860, and The South and the Politics of Slavery, 1828-1856, to name a few. Each of these compliments Jefferson Davis, American quite well.
This is a fine resource for those of casual interest about Jefferson Davis and the Civil War as well as those of a more scholarly bent. It is a long book – 658 pages of text, plus extensive end notes – but it is well written, flows smoothly, and is easily read. I highly recommend it.
Mr. Posey recently retired as Contract Specialist at NASA’s George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, Alabama. He was at Marshall since December 1986, and supported the Space Shuttle Program. He has supported a variety of other programs along the way including Chandra X-Ray Observatory, International Space Station, the Ares and Space Launch System stand-up and the Shuttle-Ares Transition Office. He also led the center’s Contracting Officer Technical Representative (COTR) training program.
His work history spans almost 40 years, beginning with over 5 years of active duty service in the US Army (most of it as a commissioned officer) followed by a career in the Federal Civil Service, almost entirely in the field of procurement in supervisory and management positions, along with 19 years in the Army National Guard and US Army Reserve.
Mr. Posey has a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Hood College, Frederick, Maryland. He lives in New Market, Alabama with his wife, Rhodora and has two sons, Richard and Russell Southerland, both currently on active duty with the US Air Force, and one daughter, Emili Aelena Williams, whose active duty is raising her five-year old son.
He is a past president of the Huntsville chapter of the National Contract Management Association, and is a member of the Special Forces Association, the Tennessee Valley Civil War Round Table, and Elks Lodge 1648 (Huntsville, AL). Publicity Chairman
Tennessee Valley Genealogical Society
His is a dedicated bibliophile, and is a (very) armchair political strategist and military enthusiast.