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Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West.

Steven E. Woodworth offers less a biography of Jefferson Davis than a study of why Confederate leadership proved wanting in the critical Western theater of war. Woodworth targets "the interaction of the unique personality of Jefferson Davis with the equally unique personalities of his generals within the crucible of war" (p. xiii). The book reveals the complex challenges the West presented to Davis - not only from the Union army but also from the squabbling and incompetence among some of the Army of Tennessee's generals. Davis emerges as a well-intentioned, though flawed, commander-in-chief, prevented from excelling because of his basic insecurity. But Davis does not bear the sole blame for Confederate defeat: Woodworth concludes that the Old South itself produced "great men who, in the end, were not quite great enough" (p. 316).

Although his interpretations often prove more subtle, Woodworth's argument falls within two historiographical traditional causes of Confederate defeat. First, like David Potter's contention in How the North Won the Civil War (1960) that the South lost because Davis proved deficient, Woodworth emphasizes personal shortcomings among Southern leaders. The implicit assumption is that different decisions could have increased the South's chances to win. Second, the book follows recent scholarship that favors the Western theater of war between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River as far more crucial than Virginia for Southern defeat. Even though Woodworth borrows his inspiration for the study from T. Harry Williams's study of Lincoln's growth as a military leader (Lincoln and His Generals [1952]), the Western emphasis makes the parallel less than perfect.

Woodworth finds Davis himself wanting in four ways: protecting friends while being blind to their faults, needing to be recognized as always right, overworking to the point of hurting his fragile health, and delaying decisions. Woodworth tests these traits in a chronological analysis of Western events throughout the war, concluding that Davis's performance as commander-in-chief fell into four periods: from the beginning of the war to Shiloh; from April 1862 until his first trip to the West that December; from January 1863 to the battle of Chattanooga late that year; and then to war's end. Woodworth gives Davis the highest marks for the first and last periods, but claims that the middle two exposed the president's personal flaws - particularly his failure to issue peremptory orders. As such, the study challenges those who claim Davis interfered too much with his generals. Overall, Woodworth judges Davis as "a man of great ability and determination who stood head and shoulders above most of his contemporaries in the South" but who lacked "the final measure of greatness" (p. 314).

Even though (with the exception of the Davis papers at Rice University) many of the sources are familiar, Woodworth's analysis reorients thinking about the Western generals. Braxton Bragg has been a favored scapegoat for the Army of Tennessee, but here he becomes a capable, if flawed, commander who was a good judge of character and who could be given discretion to follow broadly stated orders. Bragg's biggest problem, according to Woodworth, came via the subordinate officers who undermined him, particularly Leonidas Polk. The book argues that Polk's incompetence as a corps commander, and his back-stabbing of Bragg, did much to discredit his chief and continued because of the protection of Jefferson Davis, a pre-war friend. Woodworth also judges Joseph E. Johnston harshly, portraying him as "weak-kneed" and needing to be threatened by Davis to fight on the Peninsula in 1862 (p. 178). And there is a wonderfully stated, if not new, assessment of P. G. T. Beauregard: "Realism and common sense were never Beauregard's strengths, just as lack of imagination was never one of his weaknesses" (p. 74). These depictions help readers understand the dilemma Davis faced when selecting a general to command the Western army.

Limiting analysis to the Western theater, however, makes it difficult to assess whether Davis appropriately balanced resources and talent in crafting the Confederacy's overall strategy. One wonders if studying the area in which he failed stacks the deck against Davis. Woodworth occasionally introduces the impact of the Eastern theater, but usually as a distraction that keeps the Confederate president from attending to the more important West. But these quibbles aside, the author fulfills his primary task - to showcase the interaction of Davis with his Western commanders - quite competently.

Overall, Jefferson Davis and His Generals deserves a place on the bookshelf. It introduces readers to the important Western theater, providing a neat synthesis of the significant works on the people and events there. Woodworth also offers provocative assessments of his subjects which should stimulate continued argument. Finally, in an age when historical writing tends toward the turgid and dull, Woodworth has produced a well-written book that argues his case clearly and, at times, vividly.
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Author:Blair, William Alan
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1992
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