NYT praises James McPherson for finding a way to remain objective about Jeff Davis

Historians in the News
tags: Civil War, Jefferson Davis

Steven Hahn is the author, most recently, of “The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom.”

Among the verses Union Army soldiers sang to the tune of “John Brown’s Body” as they marched through the rebellious South was one about hanging Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree. For many of them, as for Abraham Lincoln and his administration, Davis was a rebel and a traitor who was waging bloody war against the United States in defense of slavery and the world it made possible. Who better deserved the punishment that treason customarily imposed? But from the rebel point of view, Davis was president of what they called the Confederate States of America — Lincoln and others referred to it as the “so-called Confederacy” — and thus, according to their constitution, the “commander in chief” of the rebellion and the government they had hastily ­established.

There is a large literature devoted to evaluating Jefferson Davis’s performance as Confederate commander in chief. Yet James M. McPherson is not just another historian. He is, perhaps, our most distinguished scholar of the Civil War era, whose “Battle Cry of Freedom” is the go-to book on the period for academic and general readers alike. With good reason. McPherson has been able to combine the military with the social and political in a way that sets him apart; his early scholarship in fact had little to do with military history. McPherson also unabashedly, and correctly, insists that slavery was the cause of the war, and he has always been a great partisan of Abraham Lincoln and the Union cause. So why write an entire book about Jefferson Davis?

McPherson is not interested in comparing Davis and Lincoln or in building a case against Davis for treason or anything else. Rather, he is interested in the challenge of transcending his own convictions and understanding Davis as a “product of his time and circumstances.” This could not have been easy. Davis was a major slaveowning planter in Mississippi, a staunch defender of slavery and the imperial ambitions of slaveholders, a believer in state sovereignty even while benefiting from federal largess, and a bitter foe of Lincoln and all he was presumed to represent. To make matters worse, Davis had few charms or virtues. He was a lovely amalgam of haughty, prickly, humorless, argumentative, cold and thin-skinned. His poor state of health may have accounted for some of this, while his workaholic tendencies may have exacerbated his many maladies. But, somehow, McPherson found himself “becoming less inimical toward Davis” than he expected, and clearly more engaged with the challenges that Davis himself had to face. The result is the best concise book we have on the subject....

[However, treating] Davis as commander in chief risks lending the Confederacy a legitimacy it never achieved at the time. No foreign country accorded the Confederacy diplomatic recognition, at least in part because of an unwillingness to openly support a slaveholders’ rebellion. Only after the war, as part of a reconciliation process, were Confederates spared serious punishment and then tendered respect as a cause and a state, enabling men like Davis and subsequent devotees of the “lost cause” to get a hearing for their version of events.

To be sure, McPherson calls Davis a “rebel” and avoids comparing him to Lincoln, but like most historians who write on the war, he effectively structures the struggle in a way Lincoln never would: between two states and countries. Over time, this has enabled some Americans brazenly to fly the Confederate flag while denying its association with slavery and treason. Union soldiers had a better take when they sang of hanging Jeff Davis.

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