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Book Review: Davis and Lee at War (Steven E. Woodworth) : CWT

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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DAVIS AND LEE AT WAR
As the title Davis and Lee at War suggests, Steven E. Woodworth argues that the Confederacy's president played a critical role in formulating military policy in the East. The towering presence of Robert E. Lee has led historians such as Douglas S. Freeman, Clifford Dowdey, and Alan T. Nolan to examine Virginia operations in isolation from Davis.

Woodworth offers a strikingly different portrait, one sensitive to the complexities of Confederate strategy and command. Questions of supply, army organization, troop dispositions, and promotion deeply involved Davis. When it came to military operations, he forcefully articulated his views, expected subordinates to work within his guidelines, and challenged those who suggested different plans. His intrusiveness brought discord to the Confederate high command early in the war, when Pierre G.T. Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston figured prominently in the Virginia theater. Both generals interpreted any suggestion as a violation of military prerogative.

Woodworth also believes that command relations between Lee and Davis, while almost always cordial and warm on a personal level, were strained because of significant differences in strategic thinking. Davis wanted the Confederacy to rely more on the defense and less on bold, slashing maneuvers. Lee agreed that the preservation of Southern armies was the key to outlasting the enemy, but concluded that the nation's limited resources made it impossible for the Confederacy to survive a prolonged struggle with the North. A quick, decisive victory, he countered, offered the best hope for Southern independence. Such a view of Confederate grand strategy motivated Lee to take chances in Virginia, risks that often brought him into conflict with his superior.

Woodworth points to Davis's reluctant acceptance of the 1863 Pennsylvania campaign as a perfect illustration of their contrasting philosophies–differences that on this and other occasions undermined military effectiveness. Instead of completely fulfilling Lee's troop requests after the May 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville, Davis cautiously held back to ensure Richmond's safety. His refusal to concentrate manpower in the Army of Northern Virginia reflected his belief in a limited offensive, while Lee's determination to acquire more troops revealed a more aggressive purpose to his Northern invasion. Because Davis refused to yield from his basically defensive strategy, Woodworth argues that he did not give Lee "the maximum possibility of success in his great bid for Confederate victory in the summer of 1863."

Throughout Davis and Lee at War, Woodworth effectively captures the tension and subtle disagreements between the two leaders, although his central argument that Lee and Davis never articulated a unified strategy in Virginia is plagued by contradiction. Woodworth asserts that by the end of 1863, "Davis had begun to sense that Lee's fundamental approach to winning the war was at variance with his own" and that Davis's conservative ideas would be partially implemented as the war progressed. If this was the case, then why did Davis increasingly seek Lee's guidance during the last years of the war, a point Woodworth himself endorses? He writes, "The worse the Confederacy's prospects became, the more Davis came to lean on Lee's judgment." Woodworth unfortunately exaggerates Davis's defensive proclivities, obscuring the fact that the president was also willing to gamble to achieve an overwhelming battlefield victory. A crevice, not a chasm, separated Lee and Davis when it came to designing Confederate strategy.

The familiar image of Davis as a meddling bureaucrat occasionally surfaces in Woodworth's fine narrative, but the author moves beyond this one-dimensional portrait to reveal a man who pursued a conciliatory approach with his subordinates while energetically meeting their manpower and supply requests. This is Woodworth's most instructive and persuasive interpretation. Instead of measuring Davis's performance "against the exacting standard of perfection," Woodworth correctly reminds the reader to consider the tremendous material and manpower disadvantages facing the Confederacy. Within this context, heconcludes, Davis demonstrated that he was "the best the South could offer."

Peter S. Carmichael Richmond, Virginia

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