Treating Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief

Steven Hahn reviewed James McPherson’s new book about Jefferson Davis in yesterday’s New York Times. It includes nothing out of the ordinary from a typical academic review in a popular publication until you reach the very end.

I found this to be somewhat curious.

Yet, there is a larger and more unsettling issue. Treating Davis as commander in chief risks lending the Confederacy a legitimacy it never achieved at the time. No foreign country accorded the Confederacy diplomatic recognition, at least in part because of an unwillingness to openly support a slaveholders’ rebellion. Only after the war, as part of a reconciliation process, were Confederates spared serious punishment and then tendered respect as a cause and a state, enabling men like Davis and subsequent devotees of the “lost cause” to get a hearing for their version of events.

To be sure, McPherson calls Davis a “rebel” and avoids comparing him to Lincoln, but like most historians who write on the war, he effectively structures the struggle in a way Lincoln never would: between two states and countries. Over time, this has enabled some Americans brazenly to fly the Confederate flag while denying its association with slavery and treason. Union soldiers had a better take when they sang of hanging Jeff Davis.

How else are we suppose to ‘treat’ Davis other than as a commander in chief? That is what he was elected to do  and that is exactly how he served throughout the life of the Confederacy. I do not understand why historians need to privilege Lincoln’s outlook to frame our analysis. Whether a foreign nation acknowledged the independence of the Confederacy seems less relevant than the fact that the constituent states and a significant segment of the population behaved as if they had established an independent nation.

Of course, this does not preclude acknowledging the fact that the southern states engaged in what ultimately was a failed rebellion, but as an analytical framework I don’t see how historians can get around the fact that for a few short years Davis served as the one and only president of the Confederacy.

Civil War Memory has moved to Substack! Don’t miss a single post. Subscribe below.

13 comments… add one
  • H.S. Anderson Jan 19, 2016 @ 10:57

    Thanks to Mr. Levin and this blog entry for inspiring me to check this book out of the library today. I only had a few minutes to read so far, but It’s off to a good start, and I’ve already learned a few facts that I wasn’t aware of.

  • Paul W Dec 16, 2014 @ 3:22

    I’ll be honest, I never thought I’d ever hear Kevin make these sort of statements.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 16, 2014 @ 3:30

      What statements. Perhaps you could clarify your point for me.

  • Lyle Smith Nov 30, 2014 @ 22:09

    Lincoln, by blockading Confederate ports, tacitly recognized the Confederacy as a lawful belligerent, which is to say Lincoln acted as if a state of war existed between the United States and the Confederate States. European powers also recognized the blockade as making the Confederates lawful belligerents against the United States.

    Jefferson Davis was most definitely the Commander in Chief of the Confederate armed forces.

  • Craig L. Nov 28, 2014 @ 18:05

    The Philippines was occupied by Japan from the end of 1941 until the early part of 1945 and an occupation government was formed and currency was issued in large enough quantities that it is still sold to tourists as souvenirs. The current president is the grandson of one of the occupation government’s top ranking officials. Cory Aquino succeeded Marcos after his ouster and was the daughter-in-law of that same official. Her martyred husband would likely have won a fair election if Marcos had not declared martial law.

  • Jack Nov 27, 2014 @ 7:32

    Using primary sources, the Confederacy was a nation as the diaries of Confederate soldiers repeatedly reference fighting for “my country”. The Confederacy, a collection of legitimate states, had its own government, its own currency, its own military and even raised money through international banking instruments such as the Erlanger bond. And I’m sure Union soldiers reveled in thoughts of hanging Davis as much as southerners rejoiced at the assassination of Lincoln.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 27, 2014 @ 8:11

      I think these are all reasons why the Confederacy ought to be treated as a nascent nation.

      And I’m sure Union soldiers reveled in thoughts of hanging Davis as much as southerners rejoiced at the assassination of Lincoln.

      Attitudes varied on both sides.

    • James Harrigan Nov 28, 2014 @ 8:55

      southerners rejoiced at the assassination of Lincoln.
      Jack, you mean white Southerners, of course. It is clear from your comments on this blog that black Southerners don’t count for you. Why is that, Jack?

      • hugh lawson Nov 30, 2014 @ 13:13

        James Harrigan reminds me of my practice. I refer to Confederates as “Confederates” and not Southerners. Mutatis mutandis for the army, leaders, and soldiers. It required a little practice to stop calling csa troops as southern troops, etc. I invite others to join me in this practice.Because it is common practice to equate the csa with the south, it is obvious that i call for a change in usage. For myself the change is already underway.

        • Ken Noe Nov 30, 2014 @ 14:21

          Once we factor in the four southern states where white majorities opposed secession, the problem with Confederates = south becomes even starker. Indeed we have shelves of books on how Confederate leaders toiled to develop a very specifically _Confederate_ nationalism. But even then, there’s another flaw in the original point, in that a majority of white Confederates did not celebrate Lincoln’s assassination anyway, sometimes out of fear but often because they preferred Lincoln to Johnson or Congress.

  • M.D. Blough Nov 21, 2014 @ 18:49

    Kevin-Apparently, the reviewer is not aware of something called “belligerent” status under both the customary international laws of war and under the modern conventions. I can’t do better in describing it than to quote the words of Justice Grier, author of the opinion of the US Supreme Court in the Prize Cases, 67 US 635 (1862)

    >>>>Let us enquire whether, at the time this blockade was instituted, a state of war existed which would justify a resort to these means of subduing the hostile force.
    War has been well defined to be, ‘That state in which a nation prosecutes its right by force.’
    The parties belligerent in a public war are independent nations. But it is not necessary to constitute war, that both parties should be acknowledged as independent nations or sovereign States. A war may exist where one of the belligerents, claims sovereign rights as against the other.
    Insurrection against a government may or may not culminate in an organized rebellion, but a civil war always begins by insurrection against the lawful authority of the Government. A civil war is never solemnly declared; it becomes such by its accidents-the number, power, and organization of the persons who originate and carry it on.
    When the party in rebellion occupy and hold in a hostile manner a certain portion of territory; have declared their independence; have cast off their allegiance; have organized armies; have commenced hostilities [67 U.S. 635, 667] against their former sovereign, the world acknowledges them as belligerents, and the contest a war. They claim to be in arms to establish their liberty and independence, in order to become a sovereign State, while the sovereign party treats them as insurgents and rebels who owe allegiance, and who should be punished with death for their treason.
    The laws of war, as established among nations, have their foundation in reason, and all tend to mitigate the cruelties and misery produced by the scourge of war. Hence the parties to a civil war usually concede to each other belligerent rights. They exchange prisoners, and adopt the other courtesies and rules common to public or national wars.
    ‘A civil war,’ says Vattel, ‘breaks the bands of society and government, or at least suspends their force and effect; it produces in the nation two independent parties, who consider each other as enemies, and acknowledge no common judge. Those two parties, therefore, must necessarily be considered as constituting, at least for a time, two separate bodies, two distinct societies. Having no common superior to judge between them, they stand in precisely the same predicament as two nations who engage in a contest and have recourse to arms.
    ‘This being the case, it is very evident that the common laws of war- those maxims of humanity, moderation, and honor-ought to be observed by both parties in every civil war. Should the sovereign conceive he has a right to hang up his prisoners as rebels, the opposite party will make reprisals, &c., &c.; the war will become cruel, horrible, and every day more destructive to the nation.’
    As a civil war is never publicly proclaimed, eo nomine, against insurgents, its actual existence is a fact in our domestic history which the Court is bound to notice and to know. <<
    66 U.S. 635, 666-667
    As a matter of fact, President Lincoln and the U.S. government DID treat the Confederacy as a belligerent during the Civil War. It, among other things, negotiated prisoner exchange cartels with it. This, as the US Supreme Court recognized in the Prize Cases did not either directly, or by implication, mean that the US government recognized the Confederacy as an independent nation. The fact that foreign governments realized that international law governing the status and behavior of neutrals had been triggered did not mean, without further action on their part, mean that they recognized the Confederacy as an independent nation.

  • Freedmen's Patrol Nov 21, 2014 @ 10:30

    What else would one call the man who acted as commander-in-chief of the Confederate military? Furthermore, if the objection is persuasive in the case of Davis than we have a problem referring to anybody who held any kind of Confederate office or appointment. Calling Lee a general, or what he commanded an army, raises the same issue. States commission generals and field armies, after all.

    • Pat Young Nov 21, 2014 @ 20:21

      Non-independent state entities create armies as well. George Washington commanded the Continental Army in 1775, a full year before Congress declared the United States an independent country. The existence of a Confederate army does not create a Confederate state.

Leave a Reply to Pat YoungCancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *