Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West. By Steven E. Woodworth. Lawrence, KA: University Press of Kansas, 1990. 380 pgs.

In his 1990 work Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West Steven Woodworth addresses the age old question of why the Confederacy lost the Civil War by focusing on the role of Confederate commander in chief Jefferson Davis. Historians well understand Abraham Lincoln’s role in the Union war effort, since T. Harry William’s volume Lincoln and His Generals (New York: Vantage Books, 1952). Lincoln was an expert commander in chief, an effective strategist, and an eventual master at guiding the successful Union military victory. Woodworth poses a converse question. Was the role of the Confederate head of state similar? How did Jefferson Davis impact his nation’s war effort? Did Davis’ activity as commander in chief hasten the Confederacy’s defeat? Woodworth seeks to answer this question by addressing first the failures of Confederate high command in the war’s critical western theater. Operating under the assumption that the Civil War was won and lost in the West, Woodworth illuminates Jefferson Davis’ heretofore unexamined role in the botching of the Confederate war effort in the West from the war’s beginnings to end.

Firstly, Woodworth addresses several critical characteristics of the Confederate President himself, which the author claims underlay several repeat mishandlings of the western theater by Davis that would prove fatal to the Confederate war effort. Woodworth argues that Davis had a strong commitment to the Southern cause, noble determination, and a political and military education. The author argues that though Davis did have certain flaws, particularly insecurity and indecisiveness, the Confederate President seems to have been the only man capable of attempting the mammoth role before him. Despite noble intentions, however, Davis exhibited at least three major and repeat errors as commander in chief. Firstly, Davis seems to have frequently placed faith in his pre-war friends that was often ill-deserved. In fact, Davis commonly appointed personal friends to military roles which were often quickly proven ill-suited for the President’s appointees. This observation ushers in the man’s second shortcoming, his indecisiveness. If Davis seems to have recurrently appointed the wrong men for some of the most critical jobs in the Confederate military, he displayed a fatal indecisiveness in his unwillingness to remove them from power when the time called for it. Perhaps to avoid dramatic infighting, or perhaps due to a lack of foresight, Davis’ repeated failure to remove certain Confederate generals as Leonidas Polk and Joseph E. Johnston meant that the Confederacy was doomed to suffer their repeated tactical blunders in a vast theater already short of men and material. Finally, despite a West Point education, Davis seems to have tragically mishandled the war in the West each time he personally interfered in it, costing the Confederacy strategic blunders from which it could not recover.

Davis’ most critical error concerning personnel seems to have been his appointment of the Episcopal Bishop, West point classmate, and personal friend Leonidas Polk as general over several major western armies. Polk botched the 1862 Kentucky campaign at Columbus, and was so insubordinate to his eventual commander Braxton Bragg that despite Woodworth’s claims of his extraordinary competence, the latter’s practical control over his army was eroded to the point of his reluctant removal by Davis. Davis repeatedly preferred personal friends over qualified or talented officers like Bragg or P.R. Cleburne in the West, and delayed the dismissal of incompetent officers until after their ineptitude had caused often irreparable loss of men and materials for the Confederacy. Davis’ only successful appointment of a personal friend was that of the potential hero Albert Sidney Johnston, who was killed at Shiloh. Concerning Davis’ indecisiveness, even before A.S. Johnston’s untimely death, the President had failed repeatedly to supply him with the necessary men and materials to hold the western theater.  Davis’ own knack at personal mismanagement was seen in the organization of the western theater into departments split at the Mississippi River, one example of the President’s meddling in military affairs that helped to erode the defense effort of Vicksburg and the Mississippi River. It was further demonstrated by his failure to hold Joseph E. Johnston accountable to a practical offensive campaign against William T. Sherman in Georgia, and later to remove Johnston from command. As Woodworth bluntly says, “No commander in chief was more reluctant to remove failed generals than Jefferson Davis. (303)”

Finally, Woodworth concisely divides Davis’ stint as commander in chief chronology into four periods of differing effectiveness. First came a period of excellent performance before the Battle of Shiloh, including the appointment of A.S. Johnston. Secondly, Davis seems to have paid less attention to the western front after Shiloh until his December 1862 visit to the west. During this period, Davis suffered from ill health and was occupied extensively by the eastern theater. Thirdly, Davis’ handling of the situation of insubordination in Bragg’s officer corps and his practical ignorance of the Vicksburg situation marks a period of inadequacy until the Battle of Missionary Ridge. After that battle in late 1863, Davis redoubled his labors in the western theater, but his efforts were too little and too late as a war of attrition took its toll on the South. Despite his replacement of Joe Johnston with John Bell Hood as commander of the army at Atlanta, the Confederate commander in chief had to suffer the quick collapse of his western front and the subsequent collapse of the Confederate nation.

Davis’ commitment to his cause was resolute and desperate; however to Woodworth, Jefferson Davis lacked the qualities that an effective wartime commander in chief must exercise in tough times. He lacked the qualities that his northern counterpart Abraham Lincoln possessed and used to great effect, most notably decisiveness and self confidence. Jefferson Davis was certainly “a brave, determined, hard-working, and intelligent man,” however, he “never quite succeeding to fill a role that was simply too big for him. (302)”

-Jonathan Jones


 Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West. By Steven E. Woodworth.  Modern War Studies.  (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990.  Pp. xvi, 380.)

In his political biography of Jefferson Davis, Steven E. Woodworth argues that Davis gave considerable attention to the western theater during the Civil War, but his numerous personnel and strategic mistakes kept the Confederacy from achieving desirable outcomes there.  Woodworth maintains that an examination of the war in the West reveals what sort of military leader Davis was, and helps illuminate why he ultimately failed in his role as commander in chief despite being well qualified for the position at the outbreak of war.  Woodworth does not believe that the established historiography on Davis—that either presents him as a hero or a villain—provides a useful or accurate picture of the man or his leadership.  It is not profitable to place Davis in one category or the other, Woodworth suggests, because he displayed notable abilities and dedication but also great shortcomings.  Although Davis attempted to fill the role set out for him, in the end he was simply overwhelmed and unable to carry out his duties successfully.  Jefferson Davis and His Generals is arranged chronologically, providing a narrative of command in the West from the outbreak of war through the fall of Atlanta.

Woodworth begins with a chapter providing an overview of Davis’s military and political career up to his inauguration as president of the Confederacy, but the core of the book is a narrative of the development of the war and Confederate policy in the western theater.  Distracted by the war in the East, Davis initially neglected the western theater and failed to keep his generals there adequately supplied.  Eventually, Davis understood the significance of the West, but continued to make unfortunate mistakes.  As Woodworth explains, “the western theater turned out to be far more of a problem area for the Confederacy than the East” (21).  Woodworth excels in describing key campaigns in the war, especially those leading to the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson, the battle at Shiloh, the fall of Vicksburg, and the loss of Chattanooga and Atlanta.  In his examination of the various campaigns, Woodworth offers analysis of key individuals involved—providing biographical sketches of important figures, investigating their strengths and weaknesses as military leaders, and observing how well or poorly they got along with one another and their subordinates.  The focus of his study, however, is the leadership of the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis.

As commander in chief, Davis made mistakes in both personnel appointments and in strategy.  According to Woodworth, Davis displayed qualities to both admire and criticize, but   his mistakes and personal flaws overshadowed any positive efforts he made.  One of Davis’s biggest problems that Woodworth identifies was his tendency to rely on friendship rather than ability when appointing his generals.  Personal loyalty caused problems for Davis because he refused to see the shortcomings of the friends he placed in leadership positions.  Woodworth only gives praise to a handful of generals, including Albert S. Johnston and Braxton Bragg.  Most, he believes, displayed poor qualities as leaders.  The appointments of Leonidas Polk, George B. Crittenden, and Theophilus Holmes, for example, turned out disastrously.  Davis also made strategic mistakes.  One of the most unfortunate was his decision to separate the trans-Mississippi from the rest of the western theater.  This move essentially ruined communication and cooperation between commands on either side of the Mississippi River.  Woodworth explains that many of Davis’s strategic failures resulted from his hesitancy to take quick and decisive action, something his counterpart in the North, Abraham Lincoln, did admirably. 

Woodworth’s concluding chapter provides an excellent overview of Davis’s most critical decisions and explains where and how he went wrong.  Woodworth’s division of the war into four phases is helpful in understanding why command in the West ultimately failed.  While Davis performed adequately and showed promise as a leader during the first phase of the war—lasting to the battle of Shiloh—by the second and third phases he was showing signs of increasing anxiety and stress.  According to Woodworth, this period of the war revealed a “decline in the quality of Davis’s strategic thinking” (123).  The fact that Davis refused to admit when he made mistakes, blaming others for his own mistakes, only compounded Davis’s command problems.  By the last phase of the war, Davis displayed bravery and perseverance, but it was simply too late to reverse the course of the war and save the Confederacy from his earlier mistakes.

Jefferson Davis and His Generals is a thoroughly researched and well written book.  As part biography and part narrative of the war, it provides a thorough account of the Civil War in the West, and explains why command there failed by identifying the mistakes Davis made as commander in chief.  Davis’s commendable decisions were simply too little or too late to secure a Confederate victory.  Although Davis is not completely to blame for the Confederate loss, without the mistakes he made Woodworth opines that it might have been possible for the South to achieve victory.

Jensen Branscombe                                                                             Texas Christian University


 Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West. By Steven E. Woodworth.  (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990.  Pp. 380.  Cloth.)

            Steven E. Woodworth’s first book, Jefferson Davis and His Generals:  The Failure of Confederate Command in the West, places the Southern failure in the Western theater of the Civil War clearly on the backs on Jefferson Davis and the generals he picked to lead the struggle for Southern Independence.  Much like some of the generals discussed herein, the author is fearless in his opinions and judgments, willing to criticize long-admired heroes as well as uplift would be dogs and villains.   Moreover, Woodworth includes additional bits regarding social issues such as balls, courtships, spa vacations, and weddings, leading some readers to wonder whether the Confederate generals were not more concerned with their place in Southern society then with victory.  Ultimately, blame falls over most of those involved in the conduct of the war in the West.

            Jefferson Davis receives both praise and criticism throughout the work.  Jefferson Davis wanted no more than to be a general in the Civil War and most certainly did not expect to become president of the Confederacy.  In establishing the command structure, he utilized his prior experience as Secretary of War to good use, creating a more modern staff then the North.  However, one of Davis’s primary faults appears immediately.  Davis picked most of his generals in the West based upon politics and friendship, with the worst example of this being the bishop-general, Leonidas Polk.  Polk, a very old friend of Davis who had not served in the military following his graduation at West Point, becomes the symbol of the all the errors which Davis committed.  Davis picked the inexperience Episcopalian bishop as major general largely because of established friendship, then rationalized his usefulness.  Polk proceeded to invade Kentucky, driving the necessary border state into Northern hands.  He then repeatedly disobeys his commanding officers, executes commands poorly, and leads other generals into distrust of their commanding officer, until he finally dies.  Generals like Polk gave the Western command an appearance of old ladies bickering over recipes and old slights.  Only a few generals receive praise in the book:  Albert S. Johnston, Braxton Bragg, Pat Cleburne, and Nathan Bedford Forrest, though are still presented with their faults. 

            The many follies and foibles of the generals appear related to the very causes of the war itself.  Southern Honor and Southern Pride led these generals and Davis to hold to principals and values which sometimes prevented them from engaging in the most effective campaign.  Each general believed in his own strength and genius, even if they lacked command experience, which most all of them did.  Generals such as Pierre G. T. Beauregard, Joseph E. Johnston, and John B. Hood received substantial criticism for their various shortcomings, whether too much creativity, too much timidity, or vision limited to attacking.

            For all that Woodworth reviews the entire Western Campaign and its generals, the focus of the work is on President Davis.  Davis receives praise for some of his strategic decisions, but receives considerable criticism for his decision to divide the Western and Trans-Mississippi commands.  This unnatural separation allowed Union to divide the South, as the divided command could not work together.  Davis appointed weak generals to supervise weak generals and separated division artificially, leading to dangerous disputes as to authority and command.  Davis remained loyal to his friends, well past the point where they caused considerable damage to his cause.  He also failed to support his commanders adequately, whether with sufficient men and supplies, or supporting officers such as Bragg against unwarranted malicious campaigns.  Overall, it was his choice of generals which paid horrendous dividends.

            Davis could not admit error.  Full of pride, he always felt he had to be right at all times.  Any decision he made was the correct one.  He believed in his own military genius, but failed to fully understand the evolving nature of warfare.  The author notes that Davis never understood Grant success at Vicksburg, even twenty years after the war.  In the end, Davis is best summed up here:  “He was a brave, determined, hard-working, and intelligent man, trying desperately, but never quite succeeding, to fill a role that was simply too big for him.” (pg 301-302)  Davis comes out as a near-great whose failures compounded other problems which the South faced.

            Overall, Woodworth has crafted a very readable review of the leadership of the Western campaign for the Confederacy.  Ultimately, his work presents the shortcomings of the generals in such a way as to cause the reader to wonder whether correct decisions by Davis, especially regarding commanders, would have resulted in a different result.  At the very least, the Union benefited from the failures of the Southern leaders and thereby these failures assisted in the ultimate defeat of the South.

Peter Pratt         

Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West. By Steven E. Woodworth.  (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990.  Pp. 380.  Cloth.)

Steven E. Woodworth, an associate professor of history at Texas Christian University, is among the growing number of historians who profess that the Union and Confederacy won and lost the American Civil War in the vast expanse between the Appalachian Mountains and the valley of the Mississippi River.  While the Eastern Theater, the realm of Robert Edward Lee and his legendary Army of Northern Virginia, has received more attention from Civil War historians, it has become customary to accept the prevailing argument that Civil War armies determined the future of the United States in the Western Theater.  Drawing on the extensive holdings of the Jefferson Davis Association at Rice University, Woodworth examines the problems of Confederate command and the role of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the decisive theater of the war in Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West, winner of the New York Civil War Round Table’s distinguished Fletcher Pratt Award.                      

Woodworth begins his assessment of Davis’s handling of the West by outlining his subject’s credentials, establishing a central question, and explaining his methodology.  At the war’s inception, few Southerners seemed better qualified for the position of commander-in-chief than Kentucky-native Jefferson Davis.  He was a West Point graduate, a Mexican War veteran, a three-time Mississippi senator, and an innovative secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce.  Despite Davis’s experience, the Confederacy failed in its bid for independence, and it is the fundamental purpose of Jefferson Davis and His Generals to explain “how a man of his obvious qualifications could fall short of the goal he seemed so well prepared to attain” (p. xii).  In analyzing this problem, Woodworth dismisses the Confederate president’s previous supporters and detractors as either too hagiographic or overly critical and provides “a broad in-depth study on the interaction of the unique personality of Jefferson Davis with the equally unique personalities of his generals within the crucible of war” (p. xiii). 

Throughout the narrative, Woodworth examines nearly every controversy that arose concerning the Western Theater, including the violation of Kentucky neutrality, the failure to defend Tennessee, the inability to exploit the initial success at the battle of Shiloh, the clumsy division of the Western and Trans-Mississippi Theaters along the Mississippi River, the collapse of cooperation at Vicksburg, the defeat at Chattanooga, and the loss of Atlanta.  According to Woodworth, the ultimate responsibility for all of these failures rests on the shoulders of President Davis, but he does not dismiss the role the department generals played.  It is clear that field commanders shouldered some of the blame.  After all, Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, Braxton Bragg, Simon Bolivar Buckner, George Bibb Crittenden, Earl Van Dorn, Nathan Bedford Forrest, John Bell Hood, Albert Sidney Johnston, Joseph Eggleston Johnston, John Hunt Morgan, John Clifford Pemberton, Gideon Johnson Pillow, Edmund Kirby Smith, Felix Zollicoffer, and others were a contentious and fastidious group.  Davis hand picked a number of these men, and it was his responsibility as commander-in-chief to make sure they cooperated.

While Woodworth defends Davis to an extent, referring to him as “a man of great abilities and great determination,” the Confederate president is the pivotal character in the author’s estimation of the Confederacy’s failure to win the war (p. 314).  Jefferson Davis and His Generals outlines four flaws that led to Davis’s demise.  First, Davis showcased a tendency to have too much faith in his friends.  His failure to be objective in matters that concerned his comrades did immeasurable damage to the Confederate cause, especially in the cases of A. S. Johnston and Polk. Second, Davis demonstrated a propensity to quibble over technicalities and a desire “to be recognized as always being right” (p. 315).  Davis occasionally let his pride distract him, and at one point he even allowed a disagreement with Secretary of War George Wythe Randolph to determine the overall strategy for dividing the Western and Trans-Mississippi Theaters along the Mississippi River.  Davis also exhibited a proclivity to overwork himself to the point of illness.  Physically weak and susceptible to bouts of neuralgia and dyspepsia, Davis was often bedridden and incapable of making sound decisions.  Finally, “[t]he Confederate president found it almost impossibly difficult not to be hesitant and indecisive” (p. 316).  Burdened with an amazing responsibility with almost no margin for error, Davis lacked “the ability to make excruciatingly difficult decisions quickly, surely, and correctly” (p. 316). 

 In the end, Woodworth provides a well-written and impeccably-researched account of Confederate difficulties in the West. Jefferson Davis and His Generals presents a captivating portrait of the Confederate president and does well to capture the complicated nature of Davis’s personality. Ultimately, Woodworth concludes that Jefferson Davis “was a brave, determined, hard-working, and intelligent man, trying desperately, but never quite succeeding, to fill a role that was simply too big for him” (pp. 301-302).

 Jason Mann Frawley

Texas Christian University