Jefferson Davis and His Generals
The Failure of Confederate Command in the West
Modern War Studies
Sales Date: June 27, 1990
400 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in
- Published: June 1990
Winner: Fletcher Pratt Award
Jefferson Davis is a historical figure who provokes strong passions among scholars. Through the years historians have placed him at both ends of the spectrum: some have portrayed him as a hero, others have judged him incompetent.
In Jefferson Davis and His Generals, Steven Woodworth shows that both extremes are accurate—Davis was both heroic and incompetent. Yet neither viewpoint reveals the whole truth about this complicated figure. Woodworth’s portrait of Davis reveals an experienced, talented, and courageous leader who, nevertheless, undermined the Confederacy’s cause in the trans-Appalachian west, where the South lost the war.
At the war’s outbreak, few Southerners seemed better qualified for the post of commander-in-chief. Davis had graduated from West Point, commanded a combat regiment in the Mexican War (which neither Lee nor Grant could boast), and performed admirably as U.S. Senator and Secretary of War. Despite his credentials, Woodworth argues, Davis proved too indecisive and inconsistent as commander-in-chief to lead his new nation to victory.
As Woodworth shows, however, Davis does not bear the sole responsibility for the South’s defeat. A substantial part of that burden rests with Davis’s western generals. Bragg, Beauregard, Van Dorn, Pemberton, Polk, Buckner, Hood, Forrest, Morgan, and the Johnstons (Albert and Joseph) were a proud, contentious, and uneven lot. Few could be classed with the likes of a Lee or a Jackson in the east. Woodworth assesses their relations with Davis, as well as their leadership on and off the battlefields at Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, and Atlanta, to demonstrate their complicity in the Confederacy’s demise.
Extensive research in the marvelously rich holdings of the Jefferson Davis Association at Rice University enriches Woodworth’s study. He provides superb analyses of western military operations, as well as some stranger-than-fiction tales: Van Dorn’s shocking death, John Hood and Sally Preston's bizarre romance, Gideon Pillow’s undignified antics, and Franklin Cheatham’s drunken battlefield behavior. Most important, he has avoided the twin temptations to glorify or castigate Davis and thus restored balance to the evaluation of his leadership during the Civil War.
"Brings alive the whole landscape of the Confederate war in the west in a clear and persuasive fashion. Exceptionally well written."—Journal of Military History
"A solidly researched, thoughtful and interesting book. The story of Davis is skillfully and interwoven with the account of his Western generals and the relationships they shared—relationships that determined, to a large degree, the Confederacy’s fate."—Blue & Gray
"Civil War historians, buffs and armchair strategists will find Jefferson Davis and His Generals informative, incisive and sometimes provocative."—America’s Civil War
"Woodworth cuts to the heart of the issues and contributes significantly to an understanding of why the South lost the Civil War."—Register of the Kentucky Historical Society
"A clear, readable, and authoritative overview of the often stranger-than-fiction interactions between Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and his western generals. The personalities of Davis and his high ranking subordinates—and Woodworth’s research and writing style—make the work interesting, insightful, and entertaining. Along the way, the reader is treated to fine analyses of campaigns."—Kansas City Star
"A highly readable, sometimes humorous account that mirrors T. Harry Williams’s classic treatment of Lincoln and His Generals. Woodworth’s major new, and most controversial, finding is that Davis lacked self-confidence. A more assured Davis might have won the West and, with it, the war. The argument will fuel debates on the Civil War for some time. Highly recommended."—Library Journal
"This well-written study of military and political leadership in the Confederacy provides a valuable reference for both the general reader and the military professional."—Infantry
"A long-awaited work on an important topic—a counterpart for T. Harry Williams’s celebrated Lincoln and His Generals. Woodworth’s conclusions are exciting. He writes in a good, clear style that should appeal to a wide audience. I found many passages to be pure pleasure to read."—Herman Hattaway, author of How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War
"Highly readable, stimulating, and at times provocative. This fast-paced and compelling narrative provides a very effective overview of Confederate command problems in the West."—Albert Castel, author of General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West
Illustrations and Maps
1. The Man and the Hour
2. Organizing the Western Theater
4. The Coming of Albert Sidney Johnson
5. The Gateway to East Tennessee
8. The Gibralter of the West
9. Bragg Moves North
10. Unified Command
11. Winter of Discontent
12. The Fall of Vicksburg
13. The Loss of Tennessee
14. To Atlanta and Beyond
15. The Commander in Chief