New Book Considers Jefferson Davis' Legacy As Confederate Commander in Chief

Nov 13, 2014

Jefferson Davis Birthplace Memorial in Fairview, Kentucky
Credit Emil Moffatt

Abraham Lincoln’s place in history is well-defined. He’s the great emancipator, the man who preserved the Union.   

Jefferson Davis’ legacy, however, is a little more complicated.

The two men were born within 120 miles of each other in rural parts of Kentucky.  Today, the Lincoln birthplace in Hodgenville is a National Park, featuring a granite memorial rising above rolling green hills.

“There’s four flights of the steps as you head up to the memorial, said park superintendent Bill Justice. “They are, in their own way, an invitation to go up and go into the memorial itself."

A replica of the austere log cabin in which Lincoln was born sits inside the ornate structure.

“There’s also a beautiful skylight up above there that provides an opportunity for natural light to flow into the building,” said Justice. “It has a very ‘memorial’ feel to it; the beautiful pink granite around the edge, the plaster-finished fixtures on the wall, the florets in the ceiling.  [It’s a] really, really beautiful interior for this memorial.”

Lincoln’s earliest memories happened in central Kentucky before his family moved to Indiana.  

“When you’re six or seven years old, a lot of things that surround you help form who you become.  Lincoln’s experiences here in Kentucky really were formative," said Justice. "The person that Lincoln became – those  seeds were planted here in Kentucky”

Meantime, the day we visited the Jefferson Davis Birthplace memorial in Fairview, there was a living history demonstration put on by a group commemorating the service of a group of Union soldiers the 12th Colored Heavy Artillery.

A two-minute elevator ride is required to get to the top of a 351-foot obelisk that pierces the rural Kentucky sky and commemorates the birthplace of the Confederacy’s only president.

For four years, Ron Sydnor has been in charge of the state park.  

“The whole country, in history has just been taught that he’s the president of the Confederacy and then history doesn’t talk about him anymore,” said Sydnor.  “However, during the first 60 years of the 19th century, he was one of the most popular statesmen in the country.  He was a war hero coming out of the Mexican War, he was a congressman, he was a senator he was Secretary of War. The things that he did in those capacities showed that he was ahead of his time.”

One scholar who’s spent time considering Jefferson Davis’ place in American history is James McPherson.

“I started out with my research thinking that Davis stood for the wrong cause in the Civil War: the defense of slavery and the breaking up of the United States.  I still think that. He was on the wrong side of history.

McPherson is a professor emeritus at Princeton who has written several books about the Civil War, including his latest, called Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis As Commander in Chief.

Embattled Rebel is James McPherson's latest Civil War book
Credit Penguin Press

“Once you grant that he believed in what he was doing and was sincere about what he was doing, one can come to have more understanding, more appreciation and more empathy with the problems he faced,” said McPherson.

In the book McPherson says Davis was rewarded for the confidence he placed in Robert E. Lee.

“In May of 1862, Davis appointed Lee as the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and of course that was by far the most successful Confederate Army and I suppose the principal reason why the Confederacy was able to hold out as long as it did,” said McPherson.

But the relationship between Davis and Lee was the exception, rather than the rule.  McPherson points to contentious relationships with other generals like Joseph E. Johnston and Pierre G.T. Beauregard.

“I think in part, that was a personality clash. All three of those men: Davis, Johnston and Beauregard had strong egos and were disinclined, I think, to compromise some of their differences,” said McPherson.

One passage in the book details the time a riot broke out in Richmond over a lack of food available to the public and Davis himself warned the crowd that if it didn’t disperse, force would be used. But McPherson disagrees with the notion that Davis was an unpopular president.

“I think all of these conflicts between prominent political leaders like [Louis] Wigfall and [Robert] Toombs and prominent newspapers like the Charleston Mercury and the Richmond Examiner have given a somewhat false impression of Davis’ reputation among the people of the Confederacy,” said McPherson. “I think that he was stronger among the general population than the impression one would get.”

Despite losing the war, McPherson concludes that a Confederate loss in the Civil War was inevitable, no matter who was president.

“I don’t think anybody else would have done a better job than Davis. Maybe no one else would have done a good a job as Davis,” said McPherson.