“I do suspect that by the time of the flight from Richmond, Davis had become intermittently delusional, as he could not see, what all around him saw.”
WHAT: “A dramatic retelling of four months in 1865…; A true story full of political treachery and physical adventure; Author is arguably the foremost authority on the American Civil War; In February, 1865, the end was clearly in sight for the Confederacy. Lee was defeated at Gettysburg, Grant’s victory at Memphis had cut the South in two, and Sherman’s brutal march through Georgia had destroyed what was left of the Southern economy. With the land shattered, people starving, and no hope left, the reality for the secessionist government was grim. An Honorable Defeat is the story of four months in 1865, during which the South surrendered, the North triumphed, and President Lincoln was assassinated, told with style and with absolute historical accuracy.”
WHO: “William Charles “Jack” Davis (born 1946) is an American historian who was a professor of history at Virginia Tech and the former director of programs at that school’s Virginia Center for Civil War Studies. Specializing in the American Civil War, Davis has written more than 40 books on the American Civil War and other aspects of early southern U.S. history such as the Texas Revolution. He is the only three-time winner of the Jefferson Davis Prize for Confederate history and was awarded the Jules and Frances Landry Award for Southern history.”
Why ‘An Honorable Defeat’?
I have always found the story of the last days of the CSA government and the flight of Davis and the cabinet to be fascinating. Inevitable, tragic, at times comic, and at others suspenseful.
Did the CSA ever have a viable path to victory via an exclusively military route?
In a word, No. That is to say, I see no way the CSA was going to win independence on the battlefield so long as Lincoln and the people of the Union were willing to keep fighting, which they showed they were from the outset. Only massive foreign intervention might have turned the tables, and no European power regarded having an independent CSA as worth the potential cost of being at war with the Union’s huge army and modern navy.
Was Jefferson Davis too quick on the draw in 1861? Should he (could he) have exhausted
any of the other options – such as attempting to establish the legal right of states to exit the Union in the courts – before firing on Fort Sumter?
I think so. In fact, in February-March 19861, I think the CSA’s best chance was in the Supreme Court, which had a pro-Southern majority on the bench. Instead of seizing arsenals and other clearly warlike acts, they could have filed suits through the federal district court in Richmond or elsewhere, which they surely would have won, and then Washington would have appealed it to the supreme court. Of course, like Andrew Jackson before him, Lincoln could simply have ignored a court ruling.
Could Davis have made a worse job of leading his government into exile? Does this chapter typify his wartime presidency, or did everything in his public life become him EXCEPT the leaving of it? Were you ever tempted into thinking he was trying to be captured and put on trial?
I do suspect that by the time of the flight from Richmond, Davis had become intermittently delusional, as he could not see, what all around him saw. He was simply too invested in the CSA mentally and emotionally to admit it was dead. Consequently, I think it possible that he even hoped to be killed during the flight rather than outlive it. Failing that, he very definitely wanted a trial so he could make the case that secession was lawful, and there he and the seceding states were not traitors. Fear of such a court ruling was a bit part of why Washington chose not to prosecute him.
Who was John C. Breckinridge? You seem to suggest that had he been at the helm the CSA
might have stood a better chance of winning its independence. Why’s that?
I don’t think the CSA would have won independence had Breckinridge bene president. No one was going to make that happen given the determination of Lincoln and his people. However, I think it probable that had he been president in 1865, he would have negotiated a peaceful surrender and gotten some concessions in return that might have made the transition to reconstruction easier on the South.
“He had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war.” Was Mark Twain right about Walter Scott?
Twain, as often, was being glib and hyperbolic.
In Europe we live our daily lives amid the physical reminders of our past political follies and once trendy cultural foibles. Do you think Americans could ever learn to live with their past rather than in it?
Perhaps not. We—or our leaders—are too fond of making political and social capital out of misstating the past to further contemporary aims.
If you could personally possess one physical item described in your narrative, what would it
be and why?
I’d like to have the pocket compass Breckinridge carried. I believe it is at the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, though not on exhibit.
If you could interview just one character from your drama (without changing the course of
history), who would they be, what would you ask them, and what would you tell them?
Breckinridge of course. I have studied him for more than fifty years, and still find him interesting. I would ask him his innermost feelings about slavery and secession. He was opposed to both personally, but regarded them as lawful and therefore beyond interference. I wonder if he let ambition cloud his judgment when he went over to the CSA.
What are you currently working on?
No books. I am restoring a 1928 Pierce-Arrow convertible coupe to running order. Don’t really know what I’m doing, but I am enjoying it!
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