Reading Jeff Davis

“No major figure in the Civil War stands more in need of a thoroughly researched and judiciously presented biography than Jefferson Davis,” wrote James I. Robertson in Civil War Times Illustrated in August 1972.

But that doesn’t mean that a lot of writers didn’t try.

John J. Craven, M.D. was Davis’ physician for a time during his confinement at Fort Monroe; his work, The Prison Life of Jefferson Davis, came out in time (1866) for the ex-president to read it and make marginal criticisms of its factual errors. (See Edward K. Eckert, “Fiction Distorting Fact”: The Prison Life, Annotated by Jefferson Davis [Mercer University Press, 1987]). Another early work was Frank H. Alfriend, The Life of Jefferson Davis (1868), which includes extensive quotations from Davis’ letters and speeches. The very next year came Edward A. Pollard’s Life of Jefferson Davis, filled with the anti-Davis vitriol that sparked the pages of the Richmond Examiner during the war. The ex-president’s widow Varina put forth her Jefferson Davis, Ex-President of the Confederate States of America: A Memoir by His Wife, which came out in 1890, the year after her husband’s death in December 1889. (He doubtlessly helped in the writing.)

In 1907 there appeared Jefferson Davis by William E. Dodd, a professional historian (Ph.D., University of Leipzig, 1900). Morris Schaff’s Jefferson Davis His Life and Personality (1922), is notable as the work of a Union war veteran who wanted to do justice to the man who “has had unfair treatment by the historians of the great war between the States.” H. J. Eckenrode, Jefferson Davis, Political Soldier, appeared in 1923. That same year the Mississippi Department of Archives and History published Dunbar Rowland’s ten-volume Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers and Speeches. Volume One starts out with a “Chronology of Jefferson Davis” and a short “Autobiography” that appeared in Bedford’s Magazine a month after his death.

Allen Tate is better known as Southern literary critic (one of the Nashville Fugitives), but he tried Confederate biography, too, with his life of Stonewall Jackson (1928), followed the next year by Jefferson Davis: His Rise and Fall, A Biographical Narrative. “Davis is the only material for real tragedy I know of, in American history,” Tate wrote his friend Donald Davidson in February 1928. Then came Elisabeth Cutting, Jefferson Davis Political Soldier (1930). That same year saw the release of Robert W. Winston’s High Stakes and Hair Trigger: The Life of Jefferson Davis (the President of the Confederacy was hot in the Roaring Twenties). Following in 1937 was Robert McElroy’s two-volume Jefferson Davis: The Unreal and the Real, which Dr. Robertson judges as “a shade more readable than revealing.”

Hudson Strode’s three-volume biography (1955, 1959, 1965) speaks for itself. I bought the volumes not as one set. When I chanced upon Volume Three (The Last Twenty-five Years 1864-1889) it turned out to have this inscription: “For Eleanor—with abiding love from Hudson and affectionate good wishes from Therese Christmas 1964.” Inside were even two photographs, whose backs read, “Therese and Hudson in Bermuda in the long ago” and “Hudson as he is today, 1964 in the studio before a portrait of Jefferson Davis.”

The massiveness of Strode’s work led Dr. Robertson to suspect that other would-be biographers would get scared away. Not so. Clement Eaton’s Jefferson Davis (Free Press, 1977) drew criticism from Kenneth M. Stampp in the New York Times as “rather disappointing,” deeming it “amiable, admiring (though not uncritical), slow-paced, anecdotal, digressive and rather rambling.” More meritorious is William C. Davis’ Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour (HarperCollins, 1991). William J. Cooper’s Jefferson Davis, American (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000) drew plaudits from (coincidentally) Jack Davis, who noted that “historians will disagree with some of Cooper’s conclusions, perhaps most of all the notion that Davis was, in fact, a superb politician.” Still another very respectable biography is that by Felicity Allen, Jefferson Davis, Unconquerable Heart (University of Missouri Press, 2000). According to one reviewer, the author “thaws Davis’ icy image, rendering him as a stern soldier but one who loved horses, guns, poetry and children.” (Way to go, Dr. Allen!)

An exceptional work is Herman Hattaway and Richard E. Beringer, Jefferson Davis, Confederate President (University Press of Kansas, 2002). When I wanted details of the time when Davis, in flight from Richmond, spent the night in Washington, Georgia, I turned to Hattaway and Beringer.

There are short works, too. The redoubtable Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989) chronicled the former Rebel president’s restoration of rights in Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back (University Press of Kentucky, 1980). Eric Langhein’s Jefferson Davis, Patriot:  A Biography 1808-1865 (New York: Vantage Press, 1962) runs all of 101 pages. Dr. Cooper adds to the bookshelf with Jefferson Davis: The Essential Writings (New York: Modern Library, 2003), a collection of 165 letters and speeches. Among the latter is Davis’ Inaugural Address, delivered at Montgomery on Feb. 18, 1861, in which he declared, “Obstacles may retard, they cannot long prevent the progress of a movement sanctified by its justice, and sustained by a virtuous people.” (Try getting away with that today.) In reprinting Davis’ speech delivered at Macon in September 1864, Cooper deleted portions of the president’s prepared text, which was immediately printed in Georgia newspapers. Gone, for instance, is his swipe at Joe Johnston, “Why, when our army was falling back from Northern Georgia, I even heard that I had sent Bragg with pontoons to cross into Cuba. But we must be charitable.”

For those liking picture-books, Stan Cohen’s Following in the Footsteps of Jefferson Davis (2021) follows Pictorial Histories’ fashion of offering colorful paperbacks.

The crowning achievement in Davisiana is the publication by Louisiana State University Press, in fourteen volumes (1971-2018), of The Papers of Jefferson Davis. Several scholars were involved in the editing, notably Lynda Lasswell Crist. When I gave one volume a glowing review, I received a personal note from Dr. Crist!

Finally, James M. McPherson renders a thoughtful assessment in Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief (Penguin Press, 2014). McPherson points out that Davis made three trips west: Dec. 9, 1862-Jan. 4,1863; Oct. 6-Nov. 7, 1863; and Sept. 20-Oct. 6, 1864. One may infer that he did so because there was so much trouble among his generals in the Army of Tennessee. But it also worth noting that the other wartime president, Abraham Lincoln, did no such thing.

Speaking of Lincoln, while Davis may be criticized for poor decisions in appointing his commanding generals, he at least kept sound criteria in mind (West Point training, prior war experience, etc.). With Lincoln, politics was often paramount, as when he gave important commands to Democratic “political generals.” Ludwell H. Johnson is just one scholar who points this out. “The President’s correspondence is dotted with letters in which he tried to placate darlings of the German faction,” an important constituency (Civil War History, June 1971). Lincoln personally saw, for instance, to the elevation of such incompetents as Sigel and Schurz. Halleck once complained, “it seems but little better than murder to give important commands to such men as Banks, Butler, McClernand, Sigel, and Lew. Wallace, and yet it seems impossible to prevent it.” When Prussian-born Alexander Schimmelfennig came up for an appointment, someone in the War Department called attention to his weak qualifications. It didn’t matter; the president liked the Germanic lilt to the candidate’s name. Abe is said to have walked away, muttering to himself, “Schimmelfennig, Schimmelfennig….”

A final point of contrast comes from the two presidents’ visits to the front. True, Davis rode to the battlefield of Seven Pines on May 31, but didn’t expose himself recklessly. Two years later, when Jubal Early threatened Washington, Lincoln rode to Fort Stevens to take a look, peering over the parapet, stovepipe hat and all. Capt. Oliver W. Holmes bravely admonished, “Get down, you fool!” (John H. Cramer, Lincoln Under Enemy Fire [LSU, 1948]).

Here endeth the lesson.


Stephen Davis’ forthcoming work is “I thank the Lord I am not a Yankee”: Selections from Fanny Andrews’ Wartime and Postwar Journals, set for publication next year by Mercer University Press.

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8 Responses to Reading Jeff Davis

  1. Savas Beatie says:

    Interesting. I have read Jack Davis’s The Man and His Hour two times. I think it is one of the finest biographies ever written, period. I highly recommend it. — Ted Savas

  2. John Pryor says:

    I love the author’s tongue in cheek narrative! Davis and Lincoln both worked themselves to near physical collapse, though Lincoln had his sardonic sense of humor to sustain him at times. My best evaluation is that if Davis had Lincoln’s resources to draw upon ( not including those German generals) he wins the war in a year.

  3. Shipdriver says:

    Isn’t there some doubt about the Holmes at Fort Stevens story?

  4. Alton says:

    I love the pontoons to Cuba comment. I’m sure if it was possible Johnston would have done it.

  5. Lyle Smith says:

    The William Cooper book is the book to read.

  6. Mike Maxwell says:

    Thanks for this report IRT sources of Jefferson Davis information and interpretation. A man of many parts, Davis was moulded by diverse experiences; and he accumulated “fellow travellers” from his many arenas of experience (Transylvania College; West Point; Mississippi/ Southern politics; Mexican War; U.S. Secretary of War; U.S. Senate) and made use of that “network of friends” in order to pursue his ultimate aims. No one reference captures the essence of Jefferson Davis; but a selection of five or six resources, each one focused on a different arena of personal experience, allows for the most complete understanding of Jefferson Davis.

  7. Katy Berman says:

    Thank-you for this survey. I read McPherson’s; I think I’ll try Allen’s.

  8. mark harnitchek says:

    thanks Stephen, this is a great rundown of Davis historiography … i enjoyed McPherson’s book which is a nice companion piece to his book on Lincoln — Tried by War … i loved the Schimmelfennig story — that’s vintage Lincoln … thank goodness modern Commanders in Chief are not burdened with “political general” baggage … hard to imagine Nancy Pelosi or Newt Gingrich as brigade commanders in Iraq or Afghanistan.

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