June 3, 1808—Jefferson Davis, the only President of the Confederate States of America, was born on this date in a log cabin in Fairview, Ky., the same state where his Union counterpart would be born a year later: Abraham Lincoln.
Davis and Lincoln had more in common than the same home state, humble birth and facial hair covering a gaunt face. Both were born within a year of each other; both were married to strong-willed wives; both lost a young son while leading their governments; both suffered a variety of physical and psychic ailments while waging their remorselessly bloody struggle; both suspended the writ of habeas corpus as a wartime emergency act; and both endured deep unpopularity during low points of the war, only to win widespread affection and respect after its conclusion.
But before the war, one area represented a sharp distinction between the two leaders: experience. Whenever voters wrangle about the merits of experience in a presidential candidate, Exhibit A in the negative, I would argue, would be Davis. The irony is that most objective observers would have concluded in March 1861 that Davis, when pitted against his opposite number in Washington, D.C., was far more likely, based on experience, to lead his side successfully through the impending conflict.
A good source to begin weighing his career is William C. Davis’ (no relation) 1991 biography, Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour, which possessed the benefit of being a mostly sympathetic study. (Biographer Davis argues that Jeff dedicated himself tirelessly to the Southern cause; that he recognized the greatness of Robert E. Lee at a time early in the war when many on the Confederate side regarded the former army engineer as a “ditch digger” for emphasized enhancing entrenched positions; and that the Confederate President was, all things considered, probably the best man for an impossible job.)
Let’s consider the following in assessing Lincoln vs. Davis, pre-Fort Sumter:
* Who was a military hero who knew about strategy and the requirements of victory—a young volunteer who served a near-comic-opera stint in the Black Hawk War, or a West Point cadet who as a colonel in the Mexican War helped win the pivotal Battle of Buena Vista?
* Who had better management and bureaucratic experience—an admittedly astute lawyer who had trouble finding things in his messy office, or a man who had served as one of America’s most able secretaries of war, with such notable innovative ideas as “The Camel Corps” in the Southwest?
* Who knew his way around legislative bodies better—a two-term Congressman whose last experience in the nation’s capital had been a dozen years before, or a Senator who had inherited the mantle of John C. Calhoun as the de facto spokesman for an entire region, someone whose departure from that body who brought forth tributes even from ideological opponents?
In these three cases, if you had picked the second of the choices, you opted for Davis. And you wouldn’t have been unusual in 1861.
William Davis probably makes a good a case as anyone can for the Confederate President’s leadership ability, with diligence and unstinting devotion to his cause as his best qualities. And I’m willing to buy the argument that the Confederacy faced difficult odds in winning independence. But the odds were not as great as those facing the American colonists against England, for instance.
Moreover, the South did enjoy some significant advantages: fighting on its home ground; foreign powers (Great Britain and France) itching to see the young North American republic that threatened their global hegemony neutered; and an officer corps whose majority was pro-secessionist. Davis managed to squander these assets.
How did Davis lose the war (or, if you want to be charitable, how did Lincoln win it?):
* Mismanagement of the Western theater of operations. Many popular histories of the war are distinctly unbalanced, focusing on the Homeric clashes between the Armies of the Potomac and Northern Virginia to the near-exclusion of the equally epic struggles of the two sides on the other side of the Appalachians. If it’s an exaggeration to say that the South lost the war because it let the West slip through its fingers, it’s not by much. Possession of the Mississippi enabled the North to cut the Confederacy in two. Lincoln recognized the leadership of a commander who helped achieve this war aim—U.S. Grant of Galena, Ill.--and gave him increasing responsibility. In contrast, Davis remained loyal beyond a fault to incompetent commanders such as Braxton Bragg and Leonidas Polk, even after they had demonstrated their deficiencies, while he clashed with P.G.T. Beauregard and Joe Johnstone.
* Inability to manage subordinates. Varena Davis noted that in meeting her husband for the first time, he evinced an overbearing “way of taking for granted that everybody agrees with him.” This led to a chaotic situation in his Cabinet, where officials chafed under his micromanagement. The Confederacy had five Secretaries of War during the conflict; Lincoln, only two. Moreover, as Doris Kearns Goodwin noted in Team of Rivals, Lincoln shrewdly put his opponents for the Republican Party in his Cabinet, allowing these able men to guide operations while he set overall policy. His Cabinet officials represented just about every wing of both parties in the North, with one overriding goal: the preservation of the Union.
* Inability to articulate a transcendent purpose with clarity. Davis’ pedantry and inability to admit mistakes were among his worst faults. He also lacked, wrote historian James M. McPherson in Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, “Lincoln’s political acumen, his common touch, his talent for communicating with all classes of people, and his eloquence in defining the purpose and meaning of the war.”
For an example of how they differ in the latter regard, compare the two men’s inaugural addresses in 1861. Can you pick out a memorable phrase in Davis’ platitude-filled oration? Bet you can’t. Now, take a look at Lincoln’s, especially that closing section when he summons “the better angels of our nature.” Where is there not a clear, sharp, freshly turned phrase that demolishes the case for secession?
Maybe that’s why Lincoln’s bicentennial is already stirring excitement a year from now and why he is still celebrated the world over, while the bicentennial of the man who led the struggle to overthrow the republic has just about come and gone, with hardly anyone caring.
Nobody likes an endless war, and it’s forgotten up north that Davis faced powerful internal opposition as much as Lincoln (the New York City Draft riots followed by three months bread riots in Richmond). Davis' popularity especially plunged in the war’s closing days. The North’s mistreatment of him in prison, however, did much to bring sympathy for him in the region he once served. His funeral over two decades later brought out record crowds.