DAVIS AND LEE AT WAR
The decisive impact of politics on Civil War strategy is currently a hot topic among Civil War historians. Works analyzing thehigh commands of the Federal and Confederate armies and their complex relationships with the political hierarchy of theirrespective governments have proliferated, adding a new layer of knowledge to our understanding of the war. Considering thenumber of excellent books on the subject, it is hard to imagine that there is anything left to say about command and strategy inthe Virginia theater, but Steven E. Woodworth’s Davis and Lee at War (University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kan.,$29.95) proves an illuminating addition to this critical aspect of Civil War history.
Davis, of course, had had considerable military experience as a commander of volunteers in the Mexican War and later assecretary of war, and some Southerners expected him to take personal command of the critical theater of the war. Davis’military acumen and experience, however, were undercut by debilitating illnesses and the press of his constitutional duties aschief executive of the Confederacy. He had to leave battlefield command to others, however unsatisfactory they might prove tobe.
Woodworth maintains that Davis failed to find a suitable general to support his essentially defensive-minded strategy inVirginia. Indeed, Davis’ relationship with his first commanders, P.G.T. Beauregard and Joseph Johnston, disintegrated afterFirst Manassas, where Johnston proved reluctant to give battle for fear that failure would tarnish his reputation, andBeauregard demonstrated an unfortunate egomania that offset his genuine military ability. Conversely, Davis’ relationship withLee began positively and remained solid throughout the conflict. This resulted from Davis’ appreciation of Lee’s military gifts, aswell as from Lee’s perceptive handling of his president’s often prickly personality. After Johnston was severely wounded at theBattle of Seven Pines in May 1862, Lee, who had vigorously advocated attacking the Union army as it moved up the VirginiaPeninsula, was given the opportunity to do just that.
While Woodworth ranks Davis’ appointment of Lee as one of the “most brilliant command decisions in military history,” he alsomakes it clear that Davis had little choice and at first perceived Lee as merely an excellent staff officer. The Lee-Davisrelationship, surely the most successful war-making combination from the Southern point of view, was marked from the first bya tacit disagreement between the two men regarding Confederate grand strategy. Davis believed that an essentially defensivestrategy, forcing the Federal armies to attack them on their own terrain, where the Confederacy possessed the advantage ofinterior lines, would ultimately exhaust the North and wear down its will to continue. Lee, on the other hand, believed that timeworked against the Confederacy. With every passing month, the North would grow stronger while the Confederacy grewweaker. Woodworth argues that Lee, like many Southerners, was also beset by doubts about the righteousness of theSouthern cause. A quick victory would relieve those doubts and spare the “brittle” Southern morale the acid test of long,destructive military campaigns. Consequently, Lee sought a decisive battle that would not only defeat but ruin the Army of thePotomac and shatter Northern support for the war.
The tension between Davis’ desire for a defensive strategy and Lee’s conviction that the South must win a quick victory wasnever resolved. Instead, neither strategy was totally adopted, and a hodgepodge of both approaches was implemented.Certainly, Davis gave Lee a generally free hand in his conduct of the Virginia war. Lee’s first offensive, the Seven Days’campaign, unnerved the president by exposing Richmond to possible capture. From Lee’s vantage point, however, the SevenDays, while relieving Federal pressure on Richmond, was a disappointment in as much as he had hoped to destroy the Unionarmy.
Through the winter and spring of 1862-63, Davis still endeavored to satisfy Lee’s wishes by supporting him with supplies,promotions and new recruits. Together they made the Army of Northern Virginia “larger, more responsive and more combatready than it had ever been before,” Woodworth writes. The results showed at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, thoughagain both engagements were frustrating for Lee since he was hoping for much more. In April 1863, he secretly ordered mapsdrawn of the Shenandoah Valley and its extensions north through Maryland and Pennsylvania as far as Harrisburg andPhiladelphia. Sensing Davis’ essentially defensive proclivities, Lee sought approval for the new offensive by presenting it in amore conservative light than he actually intended it to be. Davis was led to believe the invasion was more of a raid to relievepressure on Virginia than a full-scale invasion of the North.
Lee hoped to bring every available soldier with him as he sought a showdown battle with his opponents in Pennsylvania. Herepeatedly badgered Davis for more troops, but in this, at least, Lee was disappointed. The Army of Northern Virginia was apowerful force, but it remained weaker than Lee desired as he began his overly daring gambit. Davis, for his part, believed thathe had done all he could for Lee, consistent with the Confederacy’s overall needs. The result was another uncomfortablecombination of Davis’ defensive and Lee’s offensive strategies. The subsequent Pennsylvania campaign led to the South’s”taking more risks and incurring more losses than Davis’ strategy would have entailed while foregoing most of whatever shot atan early victory Lee’s might have gained.” Both men, according to Woodworth, were to blame for the situation, Davis forshying away from hard decisions and Lee for telling Davis only what he wanted to hear and for giving him “an incorrect notionof just what sort of campaign he was approving.”
Davis undertook Herculean efforts to rebuild Lee’s forces after the 1863 debacle at Gettysburg, and it was a testimony tothese efforts that the Army of Northern Virginia was in as good a shape as it was when Ulysses S. Grant opened his drivetoward Richmond in May 1864.
Perhaps understandably, Davis became increasingly dependent on Lee for both military advice and moral support. Still, hefound himself once again following a different military path than his most able general. Lee realized, as did most Southerners,that the war was irrevocably lost after Lincoln’s re-election, and he concurred with some of his subordinates that the Southwould do well to get the best terms it could even if that meant restoration of the Union. Woodworth believes that it is likely Leebroached the subject with Davis. Davis, however, adamantly opposed any talk of peace on terms other than Southernindependence, the one demand the Lincoln administration would not accept. Consequently, the war continued until any ef-fective Confederate resistance was crushed.
Inevitably, Lee’s lines around Petersburg were broken, and Davis began his flight across Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia,where eventually he was captured. Davis’ flight from pursuing Federal cavalry was also a flight from reality. Despite theunending list of defeats, Davis kept talking of continued resistance. He even disapproved of the magnanimous surrender termsthat Union General William Sherman gave Joseph Johnston, conditions so generous that even the Federal governmentrepudiated them. Woodworth traces Davis’ willfully blind behavior to the fact that Davis believed he was fighting for an idea,”constitutional liberty,” while his countrymen were fighting for a social system. With the defeat of the Confederacy’s fieldarmies, that social system was a mere memory, and further resistance was impossible.
Davis and Lee is well-written and sharply argued. Woodworth’s narrative shows a full awareness of the various argumentsand controversies that have riled Civil War scholarship over the past 25 years. His endnotes are often as intriguing as hisnarrative. In them, Woodworth summarizes opposing views of Lee’s strategy in the 1862 Maryland campaign and explainswhy he reaches different conclusions. Woodworth has a gift for succinct, sharp, sometimes acerbic assessments. For example,James Longstreet is described as “the capable but simple mechanic of the battlefield.” In a like manner, Woodruff summarizesthe difference between Chancellorsville and the Wilderness with the remark that “Jackson was not there, and neither wasHooker.” On the lack of a second day of fighting at Antietam, he observes, “Lee lacked the ability and McClellan the nerve.”
In the final section of Davis and Lee, Woodworth renders his final evaluation of the Confederate president as a warlord.”Davis,” Woodworth writes, “was the best the South could offer and he demonstrated by his impressive performance that thiswas no mean distinction. Had every Southerner–or even a slim majority–displayed Davis’ devotion to the Confederacy, hadmost Southern generals manifested his skill and nerve, independence would have been won.” As it was, thanks in part to theongoing disagreement over strategy between Davis and Lee, such independence was doomed from the start.
Richard F. Welch