Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis

Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis are examples of what might be called the fallacy of contemporary popularity in History. Lincoln was, for most of his presidency, widely derided as unfit for the job, ‘a tycoon’ or an ‘ape’. He was almost abandoned by his own party in 1864, and for most of that year expected to lose the presidential election. His Gettysburg Address of 1863, for which he has been memorialised, was treated as a prematurely concluded and unsatisfactory accompaniment to the oration of Edward Everett, and his Secretary of State, who came to admire him, believed that Lincoln’s administration had to be saved from the President until at least 1862. In 1860, had his northern and Southern Democrat opponents united, Lincoln may well have been remembered as an ‘also-ran’. Yet to most historians, he now ranks as amongst the top, if not the greatest, of the Presidents of the United States.

By contrast, Jefferson Davis seemed to have, according to contemporaries, lived his life in preparation for the presidency. Where Lincoln had served briefly and ingloriously in the Blackhawk war of the mid-1830s, Davis was a former Secretary of War and a man of immense dignity. Despite the ambitions of Southerners such as Howell Cobb and Alexander Stephens, ‘Jeff’ was the natural first President of the CSA and elected as such. However, he proved much less adept a leader than Lincoln. It was Lincoln who prevented foreign involvement, whereas Davis could not secure it, in the Civil War; Lincoln who got the South to fire the first shot at Sumter; Lincoln for whom Emancipation and drafting of African Americans united the Union, whereas it divided the Confederacy when mooted in 1864-5. Up and down the Union, Lincoln, unlike Davis, was tied organically to Senate, House and State candidates and representatives, and supported by them, whereas Davis became a fixed point of Confederate criticism.

This was partly because of the political context in which both men were located. The Confederate Constitution emphasised States rights, which meant that Davis could not enact measures such as General Order 38 to sweep up potential traitors, as Lincoln could. Davis was constitutionally limited to one, seven year term, and when he ran out of political capital he was seen as someone who was not going to run again and who could not drive a party one way or another. In fact, in another high-minded but ultimately disastrous illustration of the CSA’s weakness, Jefferson Davis had no party. He did have a line-item veto, which he used, and which tended to break up and undermine coalitions of interest in the Confederate Congress. Lincoln, by contrast, made sure to defer when possible to Republican leaders in Congress and had to use his veto power much more sparingly. It is interesting that Lincoln chose to use a ‘pocket veto’—an act of doing nothing, rather than aggressively striking something down—to deal with the potentially divisive Wade-Davis bill.
Lincoln and Davis differed both paradoxically and bizarrely in their military commanders. Lincoln saw at the start of the war that Winfield Scott’s anaconda plan, which was to gradually constrain the South, was not enough and that militant and aggressive strokes at the Confederates were required. He was forced in those circumstances to educate himself in matters of war and thence to put pressure on generals, whom he was quite able to fire, until he found in Grant, Sheridan, and Sherman men who would actually take the war to the South. Lincoln thereby ensured that defeats and casualties were his problem, and that the military would not be allowed to lose the war or to sap morale by indifference or fear of such killing.

Davis, on the other hand, had too many Generals who were well trained in war who wanted to fight. They were associated with strategies such as those of Jackson, Longstreet and Lee which were over time extremely wasteful of the South’s smaller numbers of men. They were also, like Lee, loyal to their States, or their Governors as in the case of the Georgians and North Carolinians. Davis was unable to hold back his generals into the defensive position which he had identified as necessary at the start of the war, and as a consequence was at permanent risk that his forces would be stretched, that the Confederacy’s landmass would be segmented, and that devastating defeats would result from over-reach. At Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and Atlanta, and Cold Harbor, that is precisely what happened. Whilst this was not wholly Davis’ fault, (and Cold harbour was technically a victory) it can be said that Davis did not restrain Lee enough, and did not ensure that Confederate troops were supplemented by an appropriate draft and the use of black resources. Lincoln did.

Both men were also creatures of their economic and social environments. Lincoln’s North was composed of the vast resources of the Northwest, Plains and Ohio Valley allied to New England Money and Pennsylvania steel. The population was constantly replenished by swelling immigration, and bounties made it possible to engineer draft replacements that stopped elites and the middle classes from rebelling against the draft. When riots over troop uptakes did occur, in New York in 1863, the Union proved able to hold them down at the same time as making war. The North was replete with artillery and gun factories, and it was said that the path of Union troops could be followed not by the devastation but by the discarded backpacks and materiel dropped by the soldiers in the knowledge that more could be acquired later. The South had one ironworks, at Tredegar. By emancipating slaves in slave areas—itself a show of Lincoln’s superior political abilities—Lincoln brought out a dilemma for the South of whether to arm blacks or to keep some whites back to guard slaves and not fight the Union. In addition, the Southern problem of fugitive labour running to the North and joining the Union ranks was perennial and worsened through the war.

Davis never quite managed to do to Northern morale and the northern war effort what Lincoln did to him. For instance, the Southern argument that the northern war was a ‘poor man’s fight’ was undermined by southern rhetoric about ‘greasy mudsills and wage-earners’ and by the contrast of slaveowning plantations with the possibility that any Northern citizen could become become a stakeholder in the West. When comparing Lincoln’s 1862 State of the Union address with Davis’ speeches that year, it is interesting that Lincoln mentioned the economy, the west, and relations with Europe long before he mentioned the war. As Shelby Foote has noted, Lincoln had the sense to see that the North could, given its power, fight the war with one arm tied up elsewhere and still win.

Nevertheless, there were still moments when morale or what might be termed ‘political integrity’ could have collapsed in the North. In 1861-2, for instance, either at Seward’s insistence or as a consequence of the Trent affair, the North could have got involved in a disastrous attempt to unify the broken nation by dragging European powers into the war via Canada and Mexico. Emancipation could have been mishandled, so the North looked desperate or seemed to be trying to start a race war. Lincoln could have lost Kentucky and the Border South early on by invading them, or put the Union in the wrong by firing on the South first. Maclellan’s career showed how an appeal to rescind emancipation, and reunify on Southern terms, might have broken over the head of a lesser leader. Lincoln could have lost in 1864. The South had reason to hope until the end, but the reason it ultimately despaired was Lincoln’s capacity to lead, to survive, to divert, and to delegate or devolve.


Jefferson Davis showed no such patience or flexibility. In fact, his attitude to his colleagues was described as neurasthenic. He alienated many of his Cabinet, and when presented with surrendered US flags appears to have been regretful and silent rather than grateful. His response to food riots in Richmond, which he encountered on the way to the Confederate White House one morning, was to throw a few coins at the starving. Where Lincoln was ruthless in ignoring his Supreme Court (in ex parte Milligan) or suspending habeas corpus, Davis was restrained. Where Lincoln took abuse, laughed, told stories, and then locked people up, Davis took offence and clammed up. This personality difference, in so far as it affected the contest between the giant North and the arguably doomed South, was one of the principal reasons why Lincoln ended up sitting at Davis’ desk in Richmond in 1865, whilst Davis spent the year after the Danville defeat imprisoned beneath Fort Monroe.

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