Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Cooper: "Jefferson Davis and the Civil War Era"

[Jefferson Davis and the Civil War Era by William J. Cooper, Jr. (Louisiana State University Press, 2008). Cloth, illustrations, notes, index. Pages main/total: 108/144. ISBN: 978-0-8071-3371-2 $24.95]

Confederate President Jefferson Davis has been the subject of a number of biographies, but historian William J. Cooper's decorated Jefferson Davis, American is widely considered the best of them all. Marking the 200th anniversary of Davis's birth, Cooper's latest work Jefferson Davis and the Civil War Era is an essay collection that critically examines the Mississippian's antebellum political career, as well as his performance as Confederate president and commander-in-chief.

Based on a series of lectures, Cooper's nine chapters are standalone essays. Short in length and direct in nature, each examines a specific facet of Davis's political life. Contrary to his reputation as an 'anti'-politician, Davis is clearly portrayed in Cooper's writing as a dedicated and ambitious office seeker, and also a man keenly aware of the political needs of others. Considering the extreme wartime pressures the new nation was placed under, Cooper finds little contradiction in Davis's seeming transformation from an ardent States Rights supporter in the antebellum period to a strong nationalist upon assumption of the Confederate presidency. He correctly notes that nearly all of Davis's controversial proposals were ultimately supported by the Confederate legislature. Davis almost always got what he wanted.

As much as Davis is criticized in the literature for his policy of employing a broad forward frontier defense, as opposed to a concentration of forces at key points, Cooper maintains that Davis's strategy, flawed as it was in pure military terms, was required by the political realities of the time. Where the president failed most egregiously as commander-in-chief was in his command relationships. He neglected to exert his ultimate authority where needed and did not intervene decisively enough in command disputes. Obviously, the role of commander-in-chief has a political side and a military side. In giving Davis generally high marks for the former and a decidedly mixed grade for the latter, I think Cooper makes a pretty persuasive case overall. In his final chapter, the author marks Davis's participation in the 1886 commemoration of the soldier monument in Montgomery (a "second inaugural", to use Cooper's term) as a watershed moment in the rise of the "Lost Cause" interpretation of the war.

As a persuasively argued and focused primer, Jefferson Davis and the Civil War Era will appeal to a range of readers. New students interested in learning about Davis's presidency and his connection to the important political issues of the day will find Cooper's essay compilation a useful introduction. Likewise, more experienced readers will gain a valuable refresher course from an authoritative source.

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