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Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief
 James M. McPherson
 Penguin Press

In his previous works, particularly Tried by War presents a consistently positive, James McPherson assessment of Abraham Lincoln’s management of the Union war effort. In Embattled Rebel, McPherson turns his attention to Lincoln’s counterpart in Richmond and, while unapologetically unsympathetic to the cause of Southern independence, makes a determined effort to be empathetic toward Davis.

Of course, any fair assessment of Davis’ presidency must acknowledge that he did not have an easy job. Moreover, given the vast disparity in manpower and materiel between the Union and Confederacy, and the North’s determination to preserve the Union, it’s also fair to say he had less room for error than Lincoln. In addition, McPherson points out, Davis entered office in poor health and, due to personal proclivity and the immaturity of governing institutions in the South, shouldered so much work it is surprising he held up as well as he did. But hold up he did and, for the most part, McPherson concludes, probably did as good a job as anyone could have in managing generals and formulating strategy. As McPherson notes, Davis had to make many difficult decisions, and in hindsight the courses he did not take that have often captivated historians and partisans of particular generals were often of questionable feasibility.

This book is not intended for readers reasonably familiar with previous scholarship on Davis and the Confederacy by the likes of William Cooper Jr., Herman Hattaway and William C. Davis. Moreover, McPherson devotes relatively limited attention to Davis’ management of the diplomatic and economic aspects of the Confederate war. But for the general reader looking for a good overview of Davis’ efforts and the military conduct of the Confederate war, McPherson has produced an informative and readable work.


Originally published in the February 2015 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.