Jefferson Davis

Although he had a distinguished career as U.S. senator and secretary of war, Jefferson Davis is best remembered as the president of the Confederate States of America. His biographer (no relation) accepts this judgement. All antebellum happenings, indications of personality, and human interactions are considered and valued only in so far as they throw light on the events of 1861-1865. William Davis then takes up nearly half the biography with an extremely detailed narrative and analysis of Jefferson Davis’ presidency.

Within these self-imposed limitations, Davis has provided an insightful study of an important American life. Relying heavily upon the manuscripts collected by the Papers of Jefferson Davis Project, many new to historians, the author presents a fresh view of his subject. Unlike many scholars, the author believes that Davis was ultimately an asset, not a liability to the Confederacy. In essence accepting the inevitability of the victory of the Union, William Davis concludes that for all his faults, Jefferson Davis kept the Confederacy alive far beyond expectation. He saved it from suicide from states’ rights.

However, this biography is far from uncritical. The author is aware of Jefferson Davis’ many faults. Time and again, as his biographer points out, Davis’ Confederacy suffered because of flaws in the personality of its leader.

This is a well-written book, as one might expect from an experienced biographer and narrative historian. William Davis skillfully integrates facts, quotations, and interpretations. His only fault is the occasional effort at mind-reading where documentary evidence is lacking.