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The Papers of Jefferson Davis, vol. 7, 1861.

Since the founding of our republic, the year 1861 stands as the great dividing line in American history. Jefferson Davis stood in the center of the events that would determine the future of the united States, and this volume of his papers for that year gives us what no monograph can, however soundly researched and skillfully written - a place at Davis's desk, reading the letters that came in and the correspondence and other documents that he himself composed in response to them. In such a year, with the specter of separation and war edging ever closer with each passing week, the quantity of documents produced is too great to permit more than a small number to be published in full. The process of selection becomes critical. The editors' priorities, stated in a section on "Editorial Method," were to give special consideration to items not previously printed and to personal and political correspondence, speeches, recommendations, letters involving foreign affairs and polities, strategies, tactics, military organization and troop movements, in that order. In this case. the editors selected 124 letters and other documents to be printed with annotations, and calendared and described another 2500 items out of the nearly 3400 (not counting variants) found in some sixty-five repositories and in private collections and printed sources. (Dunbar Rowland, in his 1923 edition of Davis's letters, printed 108 items from eighteen repositories for 1861.) Beginning January 1, with a flurry of letters to Senator Davis anticipating conflict and the secession of more Southern states, to the end of December, when William Lowndes Yancey sent from London the latest report on Britain's and France's diplomatic stance toward the Confederate States, Davis's place at the center of the gathering and finally bursting storm is sharply focused by these well-selected and carefully annotated documents.

The cast of characters, the quarrels that signalled the political weakness of the Confederacy, and the economic and social fabric that politicians sought to defend and preserve, are clearly revealed as the year moves toward its close. Davis, P. G. T. Beauregard, Joseph E. Johnston, Joseph E. Brown, Judah Benjamin, Francis W. Pickens, Braxton Bragg show us their characters through their letters and writings, at their best and at their worst. Toward the end of the year, after the opening battles at Manassas, the figure of Robert E. Lee begins to move onto the stage, though in 1861 he was not yet the central military figure. From the vantage point of historical distance, we read these letters as an unfolding epic tragedy, seeing the vainglorious posturing of politicians and some military men and the destructive and debilitating system of slavery. Jefferson Davis writes to A. E. Carroll (March 1, 1861) of the encroaching events like "leaves torn from the book of fate."

Many of the letters and documents printed in full reveal the beginnings of Davis's quarrels with his military leaders and the financial plight of the new government. As a former military man and Secretary of War, Davis knew the science of warfare more than most politicians and did not hesitate to play a strong role as commander in chief. Responding to Davis's letter "suggesting" that he should defend the harbor and fort at Pensacola, Braxton Bragg wrote that such a goal was "difficult with an empty purse and a credit exhausted before I arrived here." There is a telling and accusatory exchange of letters with Johnston and Beauregard after the Battle of Manassas. The problem of twelve-month enlistments for the volunteer army plagued career officers who knew that a well-trained army would be needed to win even a short conflict. "It must be confessed, too," wrote Joseph E. Johnston to Davis, "that this victory (Manassas) disorganized our volunteers as utterly as a defeat would do in an army of regulars. Everybody, officer and private, seemed to think that he had fulfilled his obligations to his country ... ."

Letters from governors Pickens of South Carolina and Brown of Georgia presented other worries, the jealous guarding of state's rights and the reluctance to surrender troops or other goods to the Confederacy at the expense of their own states. The fervor of some Southerners' belief in the "cause" as well as their own lack of understanding of the opposition are brought out in letters such as one from Francis Pickens, who proclaims (April 16) that the "Northern government will fall to pieces because it has in itself the seeds of rottenness and decay." Voices of caution were few. Davis himself, though not seeking to lead the newly formed government, yet believed in the right of secession and the right of independence from the union and accepted his duty, as the most experienced politician and statesman on the national political scene, when Southern leaders selected him unanimously as president of the fledgling nation.

Beyond the obvious value of this volume for scholars interested in Jefferson Davis and the figures around him, and the coming of the Civil War, the editors have provided an excellent reference work. In the annotations, we are given satisfyingly full biographical treatments of minor and obscure figures and descriptions of places and events mentioned briefly in the letters. The annotations themselves make fascinating reading. The volume also includes a useful chronology of Davis's activities during the year, an extensive bibliography, as well as maps and illustrations. This volume is also more than a reference work for Civil War scholars. It can be read as a drama in which the character of the chief protagonists, the power and destructive force of a political obsession, and the fatal misreading of reality and history bring inevitable conflict.
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Author:Matthews, Linda M.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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