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How do you compare the leadership of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis during the United States Civil War?

Both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis had to deal with contentious congresses with often clashing interests and agendas. In Davis’ case the discord was intrinsic in the very “States’ Rights” concept behind the Confederacy, though in practice Lincoln had plenty of cat herding of his own to do. Lincoln was arguably the more successful president in having better political instincts, which became more evident as he grew into his presidency—a talent for knowing when and how to cajole, horse-trade, bribe outright or ruthlessly assert his power, depending on who he was dealing with.

For all the thinking on his feet that he did, however, Lincoln never lost sight of his principal goal, and in 1864 he ultimately found generals who shared the Commander-in-Chief’s intent. Davis was less adept at this, often letting his generals do the strategizing for him (after Robert E. Lee’s stunning success in the Seven Days Campaign, it was hard for Davis to argue when Marse Robert proposed taking the fight north into Yankee territory). Davis’ judgment in picking senior generals in the critical Western theater of operations (Braxton Bragg, then Joseph E. Johnston, followed by John Bell Hood) also speaks for itself; Lincoln’s worst choices in the East were finally behind him by the time he turned to Ulysses S. Grant in March 1864.


Jon Guttman
Research Director