Book Review: Jefferson Davis and His Generals – The Failure of Confederate Command in the West

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STEVEN E. WOODWORTH. Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas. 1990. Pp. xv, 380. $16.95.
JeffersonDavisandHisGenerals

Partners in Command

Much has been written about the political and military genius of Abraham Lincoln and the successful leader he grew to be while Commander in Chief of a fractured union.  But as the country divided and civil war became a reality, a new leader was called upon to assume the role of Commander in Chief for the Confederacy, the seasoned Jefferson Davis.  At the precipice of war, betting men looking at the comparative qualifications of the two presidents could easily have predicted that Davis would outshine Lincoln. What kind of leader did Davis prove to be and how did he recruit and manage those men who would become members of his high command? What kind of generals were they and how did their personalities and actions impact the outcome of the war?

Steven E. Woodworth’s monograph answers those questions and others through examination of Jefferson Davis’ handling of the generals who defended the newly formed Confederacy in the Western theater of the American Civil War. Against a chronology of key events, each commander is introduced with information essential to understanding the skills they brought to war. Woodworth gives us their respective birthplaces, education, military and political experience, and reasons for consideration as senior leaders. Their performances in command roles are examined along with their interactions with Davis. There is brilliance to be sure from both Davis and some of his generals. But there is also incompetence, jealousy, loss of nerve, and even a propensity toward sabotage of brother commanders. Varying degrees of analysis are given to among others: Leonidas Polk, Simon Bolivar Buckner, Albert Sidney Johnston, P.G.T. Beauregard, Braxton Bragg, Early Van Dorn, John C. Breckenridge, Edmund K. Smith, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Patrick R. Cleburne, Sterling Price, William J. Hardee, John C. Pemberton, Joseph E. Johnston, Benjamin F. Cheatham, James A. Seddon, Daniel H. Hill, James Longstreet, Gideon J. Pillow, David Twiggs, and John Bell Hood. Woodworth pulls no punches.

Woodworth concludes that Davis was highly trained, skilled from a breadth of experience in the militarily and in politics, and eminently qualified to assume the role of Commander in Chief of the Confederacy. He was also flawed. His imperfections are revealed as the war in the West is traced from beginning to end. Davis is shown to be incapable of judging objectively the performances of personal friends. He both trusts and delegates too much to his leaders. This trait worked to the detriment of some of the most exceptional men like Albert Sidney Johnston, who accomplished miracles in the defense of western borders despite unanswered requests to fill and equip his ranks. It also left incompetents like Leonidas Polk in power, impairing more talented men like Braxton Bragg. Davis becomes consumed by the war emotionally and physically. In the end, failure in the West is seen to have contributed significantly to the failure of the Confederacy. Woodworth posits that the faults of Davis himself, stemming from a deep-seated insecurity, are contributory to this failure.
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Woodworth brings to the work the credentials of a seasoned historian. He holds history degrees from Southern Illinois University (B.A. 1982) and Rice University, where he received a Ph.D. in 1987. At the time of the book’s publication, he taught history at Toccoa Falls College in Georgia. He now teaches U.S. history, Civil War and Reconstruction, and the Old South at Texas Christian University. He also teaches military history at the American Military University. He is a prolific and award winning author.
Woodworth provides an insightful contribution to our understanding of the Civil War by revealing the best and the worst of the Confederacy’s senior military leadership in the West.
Particularly helpful to an understanding of the challenges faced by Davis’ high command is Woodworth’s campaign analysis. Also exemplary is the concise summary he provides of key points at the end of each chapter. This important study in leadership fills a gap and stands equal to and complementary of the T. Harry William classic,  Lincoln and His Generals. It is both highly readable and academically rich.

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