An Honorable Defeat: The Last Days of the Confederate Government

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Jefferson Davis was never loved by his fellow Confederates. He presided over the defeat, humiliation, and destruction of the Southern Confederacy, and he finally bore most of the blame from his countrymen. Davis does not fare much better in William C. Davis’ new book, but author Davis is not so much concerned with rendering a verdict on President Davis as he is with comparing Davis to the younger, more dashing, and more capable John C. Breckinridge. Breckinridge was appointed Secretary of War in the conflict’s final days after serving most of the war as a general in the Shenandoah Valley. By the time he was appointed, Breckinridge was already convinced that the war was lost, and thus William C. Davis’ tale of a struggle between two strong and able men begins.

Central to the book is the belief held by many Southerners in the waning days of the war that independence was a lost cause and that an armistice brought about while the Southern armies could still fight would be preferable to total surrender. Breckenridge was one who believed this, but Davis was not. Davis’ almost fanatical commitment to fight on fills the book with a feeling of tragic inevitability as events hurtle toward the annihilation of Lee’s and Johnston’s armies ending in unconditional surrender.

Jefferson Davis refused to consider an armistice and would not allow his generals to negotiate on the basis of reunification with the Union. Author Davis contends that this was a fatal mistake. With independence already a thing of the past, President Davis was giving up valuable time and leverage by insisting on independence. If he had been willing to sacrifice independence, Davis may have been able to preserve the State governments and even secure reparations for the abolition of slavery.

It was precisely these terms that Breckinridge had worked tirelessly for, but was never able to convince Davis to give up on independence. As the Confederacy continued to unravel, Lee’s army surrendered to Grant and North Carolina began to secretly work to rejoin the Union under special terms. Breckenridge’s last hope was to secure terms that would allow the Southern Armies to surrender their arms to the state civil authorities rather than to the Northern armies. Breckinridge knew this was a key provision since it would have allowed the formation of Southern state militias avoiding a situation of military occupation of the South, and preserving most Southern property.

Surprisingly, Breckinridge managed to negotiate such terms with General Sherman, but his hopes were dashed when the Radical Republicans, newly in power after Lincoln’s assassination, refused the terms. Interestingly, Lincoln is just a far off figure in this book, but author Davis goes out of his way to illustrate that for all of Lincoln’s dictatorial abuses, his colleagues in the Republican Congress were far worse. While Lincoln had dangled reparations or even rescinding the emancipation proclamation in front of Davis in return for surrender, the Republicans in Congress were bent on complete abolition and occupation of the Confederacy. In the end, the most extreme extremism won out.

William C. Davis leaves the reader playing numerous scenarios over and over in his head. What if the South had settled earlier? Would state governments have remained in power? Could military occupation have been avoided? Certainly, had Sherman’s offer to Breckinridge been allowed to stand, American civilization would look quite different today.

It is always pleasant to discover a new and respectable historical figure. William C. Davis presents John C. Breckinridge as just such a figure. While President Davis dreamed of starting up a new rebellion in Texas, Breckinridge sought desperately to salvage some remnants of local sovereignty in the South. Although a moderate on slavery and the secession question, Breckinridge fled his home in Kentucky to avoid arrest by Union soldiers and committed himself to the Confederacy where he was an able general, administrator, and negotiator. Restrained by the single-minded Davis, Breckinridge would ultimately fail in his efforts to preserve the rights of his fellow Southerners. It was a tragic end to a tragic episode in American history.

June 18, 2001

Ryan McMaken [send him mail] lives in Denver, Colorado. He edits the Western Mercury.

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