n war, Napoleon wrote, "three-quarters turns on personal character and . . . the balance of manpower and materials counts only for the remaining quarter." In notable biographies of Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy's president, and John C. Breckinridge, its last secretary of war, and in dozens of other books on the Civil War, historian William C. Davis has underscored the prominence of "personal character" in shaping the Confederacy's rise and fall.
In his engaging and well written An Honorable Defeat, Davis focuses closely on the last four months (January-April 1865) of the Confederacy's existence. He frames the South's defeat around the differing visions and personalities of Jefferson Davis and Breckinridge. William C. Davis knows the history of the Confederacy as well as any historian today, and his penetrating analysis of Jefferson Davis and Breckinridge provides a fresh look at their contrasting emotions, differing world views and divergent conceptions of southern honor and defeat.
Jefferson Davis was a cold, combative, distant autocrat. He meddled constantly in his generals' affairs, gave his cabinet secretaries little authority and frittered away the Confederacy's one economic ace in the hole "King Cotton." Yet for all his shortcomings as president, Jefferson Davis was totally dedicated perhaps too dedicated to the southern cause. "If only Davis' personality and temperament had been more winning," writes William C. Davis, "and his grasp of human nature more keen . . . those who became his enemies might have forgiven him a multitude of lesser shortcomings."In contrast to Davis, Breckinridge was flexible, balanced and popular, and the Kentuckian rose rapidly through the hierarchy of the Confederate Army to the rank of major general. "Charming and engaging, diplomatic, the least egotistical or confrontational of men," William C. Davis explains, Breckinridge "never sought conflict, and yet even [Jefferson] Davis, so often undiscerning, saw well enough that this was a man he could not dominate."The conflict of wills erupted in March 1865, as Union troops encircled Richmond, and the Confederacy disintegrated from within. President Davis, unwilling to accept anything short of independence and refusing to surrender, admonished white southerners to fight a guerilla war and to rally around remaining Confederate troops in Texas. Secretary of War Breckinridge disagreed, favoring an honorable, negotiated peace. "This has been a magnificent epic," Breckinridge lectured a delegation of Confederate senators, urging them "in God's name let it not terminate in a farce."Though the Confederacy ultimately received a lenient peace, Davis spent two years in prison and remained "unreconstructed" long after Appomattox. Breckinridge escaped to Cuba, relocated to Canada and returned to the U.
S. in 1869. He urged southerners to accept the war's verdict and move forward. Fortunately for America and the South, Breckinridge's vision of Confederate defeat and Reconstruction, not Jefferson Davis', prevailed.
John David Smith has written or edited 14 books, including Black Judas: William Hannibal Thomas and The American Negro (University of Georgia Press).