Jefferson Davis as a war president

I’m reading a book on the American Civil War and the author makes an intersting point in passing.

If you went back to 1860 and was looking for a person to run the country during a war, Jefferson Davis looked like the ideal man. In addition to his political career, he was a West Point graduate, had served as an Army officer including seeing combat during the Mexican War, had served on the Senate Military Affairs Committee, and had been Secretary of War. The delegates meeting at Montgomery to found the CSA looked over his resume and appointed him provisional president, which was quickly confirmed in a general election.

Lincoln’s experience, on the other hand, was minimal. He was a one-term Congressman who had briefly served as a militia officer.

But the author (Archer Jones) made the point that Davis’ vastly greater military experience may have hurt the Confederacy. The CSA obviously needed a President who could lead in wartime. But it also needed a President who could manage the country’s other critical affairs: like politics, economics, diplomacy, legal affairs, and general administration. Davis however saw himself primarily in the role of Commander-in-Chief and put his other presidential duties on the back burner. And while he was competent in military affairs, his knowledge made him reluctant to delegate his authority too far down to his generals. (Lee was named as general-in-chief of all Confederate troops until 1865.)

Lincoln, again in contrast, knew he was not a military expert. So he relied upon the advice of generals like Scott and Halleck (and later Grant) and didn’t try to micromanage the war. That gave him the time to pay attention to the other business needed to run the nation.

Davis’ biggest weakness was economic incompetence.
When he was US Sec. of War, he transferred cannon, shot & powder to Southern States, pre-Civil War.

But he was US Sec. of Treasury pre-war too, & could legally have transferred gold to Southern banks, as well. He didn’t.

The South had a critical shortage of gold during the War.

He also forbade shipping cotton to Europe during the war, on the delusional basis that this would get Euro-business on his side. Thus damaging his fledgling economy even more.

Davis knew nothing of economics.

His wikipedia entry doesn’t have anything about him being Sec of Treasury.

Well, I’m sure he knew enough economics to know that not selling cotton would hurt the Souths cotton based economy, so this seems more of a gamble that didn’t pay off. (plus, wasn’t the south embargoed by the north anyways).

In retrospect, the smart thing would have been to ship as much cotton as possible to European warehouses before the north could make their blockade effective. The Confederates could have then sold the cotton and used it as collateral for loans.

Err…I meant blockaded, of course.

I think Lincoln is such an exceptional figure in history that it’s hard to generalize about the role of the presidency based on how Lincoln filled it.

Foe example, he actually did try to meddle in the conduct of the war. His first bumbling investigations led to him quickly forming the correct military theory the North should be using (indeed, the one that eventually did win the war):

“I state my general idea of the war,” he wrote to both Halleck and Buell, “that we have the greater numbers, and the enemy has the greater facility of concentrating forces upon points of collision; that we must fail, unless we can find some way to making our advantage an over-match for his; and that this can be only done by menacing him with superior forces at different points, at the same time; so that we can safely attack, one, or both, if he makes no change; and if he weakens one to strengthen the other, forbear to attack the strengthened one, but seize and hold the weakened one, gaining so much.”

See Lincoln as Commander in Chief, Smithsonian, for an interesting writeup.

Of course Lincoln also handled the rest of the nation’s business pretty well, probably because of his conscience and his noted capacity for hard work. It may be that few other men could have done as much without becoming embittered or deranged.

Davis’ big problem was that he acted as his own Sec’y of War and not as the President. As part of revisionist history, the CSA wanted its first president to be elected unanimously as Washington was in the first presidential election in the US. Because it was erroneously believed that one state (I can’t remember which) wouldn’t vote for Robert Toombs, an unnecessary compromise was made to elect Davis. I don’t know that President Toombs would have been a good wartime president as he was very conciliatory and known to hold grudges as well. Quite possibly he would have tried to win in the political arena (Britain & France and negotiating with the USA) and not on the battlefield.

Also, Davis let his hatred of Joe Johnston overrule his decision-making. This may not have lost the war for the CSA but it certainly didn’t help.

Toombs could not hold his liquor, and when the delegates to the provisional Confederate Congress were in Montgomery to draft the Confederate Constitution and pick a provisional President, he got drunk at a party thrown by James Chesnut, a member of the South Carolina delegation, and embarrassed himself in front of the delegates, which took himself out of the running.

Was there really any realistic approach that could have caused a different result, though? The fully military one came close to succeeding breaking the North’s will to fight by 1863, yes, but what else could the CSA have done that would have worked anywhere nearly as well as what they did?

The problem was that the military experts were all basing their ideas on the last big wars - the Napoleonic Wars. They thought the key to winning a war was winning the big battle. But that strategy was already starting to wear thin by 1815 and was outmoded by 1860. Generals now had to manage the entire war and individual battles were the equivalent of minor skirmishes. You didn’t win the war by winning battles; you won by maintaining your ability to fight battles. Eventually one side ran out of troops and supplies and then the other side won the war - even if they had lost all the battles up to that point.

So the Confederates, who were numerically much weaker than the Union, needed to save its resources. Keeping an army in the field was more important than winning any battle. They should have avoided battles as much as possible while building their economy up (and they were fortunate here in facing a general like MacClellan who wouldn’t have pushed the issue). And they should have reached out to northern peace sympathizers and European diplomatic interests and tried to put political pressure on the Lincoln administration. They couldn’t hope for a military win so they needed a political win. They had to convince the north that the cost of fighting the war was too high and the cost of negotiating was acceptable. This was basically the strategy the Americans successfully used to win the Revolutionary War.

It was indeed unlikely that the Confederacy could ever win the war militarily, due to the vast differences in population, railroad capacity and economies. But there were several times - at Antietam, Gettysburg and Atlanta, especially - when a Confederate victory might’ve been enough to force a change in Union policy due to war-weariness and/or British/French intervention. That ultimately could have led to Confederate independence, but those victories eluded the South.

Davis was a micromanager and thought himself more of a military genius than he was. He relied too much on idiots like Braxton Bragg, and was stiff-necked enough to be cordially loathed by many in the Confederate Congress, to say nothing of several state governors who begrudged the “national” government their troops, supplies, etc. His resume looked much more impressive than Lincoln’s before the war, but he was not nearly as talented as Lincoln as either a politico or as a leader, and had much less to work with.

An interesting what-if would be if Albert Sidney Johnston hadn’t been killed at the Battle of Shiloh. It was a very close-fought battle and if Johnston hadn’t died in the middle of it, he might have won it.

First, such a defeat might have disgraced the Union leaders, Grant and Sherman (and Buell), and prevented their rise. Secondly, Johnston was a respected and competent general, including by Davis. With the added prestige of a victory at Shiloh, Davis might have been willing to appoint him to overall command, thereby getting himself out of the day-to-day running of the war. At the very least, Johnston might have been named the overall commander of the western Confederate forces with Lee commanding the eastern forces. This would have made it much more difficult for the Union to advance in Tennessee and down the Mississippi as they did historically.

Lincoln didn’t rely all that much on his generals’ ideas; if he had strongly supported Winfield Scott’s “Anaconda Plan” at the start of the war, the South could have been crippled sooner and a lot of bloodshed avoided. Politically though it’s hard to see how even Lincoln’s strong support could have overcome the desire of other politicians for prompt, conclusive military action. And it took Lincoln quite a while to lose faith in McClellan, who was a fine organizer of troops but a lousy field general. Again in Lincoln’s defense, there wasn’t a viable alternative at the time.

Lincoln’s major advantage over Jefferson Davis was being on the side that held overwhelming moral superiority, and for believing enough in Ulysses Grant to put him on the $50 bill.

Maybe not for long: Reagan On The $50 Bill? Ohioans Say Not So Fast - ABC News

Given the deliberate weakness of the central Confederate government at the outset of the war, I’m not sure that Davis had much authority to exercise other than in the conduct of the war.

I’m okay with Reagan on the three-dollar bill.

States rights were never as big a principle with the south as was later claimed. In practice, federal power over the states was higher in the CSA than it was in the USA during the war.

Eventually. But that increasing federal control was tied to the conduct of the war, so it wasn’t a basis for a separate domestic policy as such, as contemplated by your OP. That’s the only point I was trying to get across.

As Little Nemo pointed out, Davis did not grasp how costly war with the North would be. Davis had a secretary of the treasury (Judah Benjamin-who was an unsung genius) who advised Davis to seek massive loans from European powers. Davis refused, which meant that the South had little credit.
Had Davis followed Benjamin’s advice (securing early loans), the threat of default would have spurred the european banks to advance more materiel to the South.
Unfortunately for Benjamin, Davis rebuffed and eventually turned on him.

Benjamin was a very smart guy indeed, and he served as Confederate AG, SecState and SecWar, but never as SecTreas.