November 17, 1862—Expecting another Union offensive against Richmond, Jefferson Davis now found an additional headache: the need to replace his third Secretary of War within two years, George Wythe Randolph (pictured)—an appointee so initially promising, but ultimately so disappointing, to the Confederate President.
If he had looked in the mirror, however, Davis might have realized what had led one of his better Cabinet appointees to leave the government after only nine months. Very few people—and definitely not Randolph, blessed with golden Virginian lineage, a military background and administrative skills—were prepared to be what a departed Confederate Secretary of State, Robert M.T. Hunter, had termed a “clerk of Mr Davis.” Randolph’s refusal to consider Davis’ request to rethink his decision might have irked the President, but the fact that he had dug in his heels testified to Davis’ fatal aptitude for getting under the skin not just of opponents but also of those who wanted to work with him.
Some analysts of the Civil War have argued that Confederate defeat was inevitable, pointing especially to the North’s advantages in population and industrial might. That ignores the South’s supremacy in talented commanders, knowledge of terrain and shorter supply lines. More important, it disregards human contingency—in this case, Davis. What was judged a major asset for the Confederacy—Davis’ military record, as a hero of the Mexican War and perhaps the most innovative Secretary of War in U.S. history to that time—turned out to be a mixed blessing, because the secessionist leader’s stubbornness and micromanaging turned off Cabinet members in Richmond and commanders in the field alike.
Davis had good reason to fear that a Northern move against Richmond was in the offing—George B. McClellan, head of the Army of the Potomac, had been relieved of command by Abraham Lincoln because of his dawdling. Davis had the utmost confidence in his commander, Robert E. Lee. But the War Department was another matter. There, Davis acted as if he wanted to run it himself. Given his first couple of appointments, he might as well have.
The first Confederate Secretary of War, Leroy P. Walker, had been chosen because Davis needed someone from Alabama to ensure that all secessionist states would be represented in his Cabinet. But Walker, a prominent attorney before the war, knew nothing whatsoever about the military, and left office before the end of the summer of 1861, defeated not by armies in the field but by the titanic task of raising Confederate forces from scratch—and, in what would become a consistent leitmotif of the administration, disagreement with Davis (in this case, over Confederate violation of Kentucky’s neutrality). (It didn’t help that Walker had rashly predicted that the war would be over quickly, even offering to wipe up with his handkerchief all the spilled Southern blood).
Walker’s successor, Judah Benjamin, moved over from Attorney-General to assume the war portfolio. More administratively gifted than Walker, the Jewish Louisianan served as a scapegoat for critics wanting to tear down Davis for failure to supply forces on Roanoke Island, N.C. Benjamin could not provide the real reason for this failure—he did not send the munitions because none were available—because that would have undermined the Confederacy’s claim to Britain and France that it was a functioning government. After pushing and pulling between Davis and the Confederate Congress, Davis shuffled his Cabinet again, naming Benjamin Secretary of State and Randolph Secretary of War.
The move ranked as one of Davis’ best to date. The last name of the new appointee, for one thing, was magic. Randolph’s father had been a U.S. Congressman and governor of Virginia, and his grandfather was none other than Thomas Jefferson. A government that looked to the Declaration of Independence for the right of revolution now had a direct link to that document. Hiring a scion of one of the First Families of Virginia (FFV) would also placate representatives of the state who had felt peeved after the Cabinet departure of one of their own, Hunter.
As well as being a key member of one of the FFVs, Randolph had served in the military: in the U.S. Navy for eight years in the 1830s, then with the Richmond Howitzers (a company he helped found), rising to the rank of brigadier general.
In the Cabinet, Randolph soon began to prove his value. He supported Lee in his decision to keep forces in Williamsburg in an effort to delay General McClellan at the start of his Peninsula campaign. Just as crucially for the long term, he joined with Lee and Johnston in urging conscription to bolster the thinning ranks of the Confederate forces. Randolph’s biographer, George Green Shakleford, credits the Secretary of War with recruiting a cadre of technologically advanced men (many fellow FFVs) who helped him bring new efficiencies to his department. All in all, Randolph proved to be what Frank E. Vandiver, in his history of the Confederacy, Their Tattered Flags, called “a man of sense and vision and wisdom.”
He was also a man who would not stay long under Davis’ thumb. What was it like to serve under the President? Well, any Cabinet member could expect frittering his time and energy on long meetings that went off on Davis’ endless digressions, as well as answering a blizzard of papers requiring his immediate attention. If the President was not in a good mood, he’d launch peevish remarks at them.
In his history of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Ordeal by Fire, James M. McPherson, while refusing to join other historians in vitriolic criticism of Davis, also strongly contrasts the Confederate President with his counterpart for the Union, Lincoln: “Unlike Lincoln, Davis was more concerned with proving himself right than with getting results. He was unable to admit mistakes, and he lacked Lincoln’s ability to work with critics and with those who disagreed about the best means toward a common end. David also lacked 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.”
The two Presidents also differed in how they dealt with Cabinet officials who went astray. Lincoln’s first Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, after disregarding the President’s admonitions about making a public call for immediate emancipation, found himself being proposed as Ambassador to Russia—about as close as you could get to being sent to Siberia. But Lincoln kept the support and even affection of this key party boss from Pennsylvania by absorbing some of the blame for hasty decisions that led to large-scale war profiteering in the war’s early months. With Cameron out of the way, he chose Edwin Stanton, who before the war had pointedly snubbed him in a legal case, judging correctly that the powerhouse attorney’s energy was just what was needed at the War Department.
Davis, on the other hand, simply left appointees deeply chagrined. The interference was particularly bad at the War Department, where he felt that he knew best in all things. In the end, Randolph ran afoul of his chief by an act of initiative. Randolph had sent an order directing a commander to cross the Mississippi and join in the defense of the key river citadel Vicksburg. Davis, annoyed at not being consulted on the directive beforehand, could not hide his displeasure: “The withdrawal of the commander from the Trans-Mississippi Department for temporary duty elsewhere would have a disastrous effect, and was not contemplated by me."
Randolph, already afflicted with tuberculosis, decided he did not also need a boss constantly looking over his shoulder. He resigned, traveled to Europe for his health, and died in 1867, two years after the war’s end.
By that time, Davis had gone through two more War Secretaries, James Seddon and John C. Breckinridge, giving him five for the conflict. None could do much to counter either reverses in the field or their President’s continual interference. The Confederacy was the loser in all of this.