Embattled Rebel by James M. McPherson

Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander-In-Chief

James M. McPherson (The Penguin Press, October 2014)

McPherson’s account of Jefferson Davis as Confederate Commander-in-Chief is superb, and perhaps surprisingly quite sympathetic. As McPherson notes in his introduction, despite his Unionist sympathies, as his research progressed he became less inimical to Davis than he had expected, the Confederate chief executive coming off “better than some of his fellow Confederates of large ego and small talents.”

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The book looks at Davis’s approach to strategy, his efforts to create an army, his relations with other politicians and with his generals, and his response to the changing fortunes of the Confederacy. McPherson argues that the much-criticized early-war “cordon defense,” for which Davis later apologized, was politically impossible to avoid. This is one of the few points on which I would take issue with McPherson’s analysis. But then, I tend to disparage the conventional wisdom that “politics is the art of the possible,” preferring Cardinal Richelieu’s “politics is the art of making possible that which is necessary.”

In any case, McPherson succeeds admirably in recreating the world of 1861-1865 as seen through the eyes of a Southern nationalist and ardent defender of the established social order, and provides readers with a more balanced view of Davis than that handed down by many of his contemporaries.


Highly recommended.

-Keith Poulter