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Failure Of A President

March 2023
4min read

One American President usually gets omitted from the list of chief executives who have led their countrymen in time of war. Jefferson Davis was also a war President; and if he was not President of the United States, he was at least President of an American nation whose constitution, as far as war powers were concerned, was almost identical with that of the United States. Is it possible to shed any light on the general question of how a President must act in time of war by examining his experience?

Davis was no man to let any scrap of presidential authority go unused. He was commander in chief, and he worked at it day and night, in season and out of season; his trouble, as a matter of fact, may have been that he worked at it too much, concerning himself with masses of detail that clerks might have handled and reducing his Secretary of War to a limited and subordinate position. But in any event, no one in the Confederacy was ever in the least doubt about who was running things.

The question, then, is how all of this worked out; and a sharply critical answer is returned by Clifford Dowdey in Lee’s Last Campaign , which is of course principally a study of Robert E. Lee’s actions during the final year of the Civil War but which also, of necessity, is an examination of Davis’ actions as commander in chief.

Mr. Dowdey, studying the 1864 campaign in Virginia in great detail and with expert knowledge, concludes that General Lee was ruinously handicapped by President Davis’ supervision. The chief trouble was not that the President told Lee when, where, and how to fight; Davis was much too intelligent to try anything like that, and Lee would not have stood for it if he had tried it. But Davis had set up a rigid, compartmentalized system for the control of the Confederacy’s separate armies, and this system he refused to modify even when the enemy was at the gates. Not until it was too late was Lee able to exercise control over all of the forces that were resisting the Federal drive on Richmond. In effect, the Confederacy in its hour of supreme peril opposed a badly divided command to a command that had been grimly unified. The result was disaster.

General Ulysses S. Grant, supreme commander of the Federal forces, set out in May of 1864 to crush the Confederate armies in Virginia and take Richmond. His principal weapon was the powerful Army of the Potomac, which Grant led directly against Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. In addition, Grant had two other armies: one led by General Benjamin Butler, which came up the James River prepared to capture Petersburg, the railroad junction whose loss would involve the loss of Richmond; the other, General Franz Sigel’s Army of the Shenandoah, which was to move up the great valley of Virginia, cut off the principal source of Lee’s supplies, and eventually move east and come in on Richmond from the rear.

Against these, Lee could control only his own Army of Northern Virginia. The defense against Butler was out of his department, and he had nothing to do with it; similarly with the defense against Sigel. Luckily for Lee, both Butler and Sigel were generals of surpassing incompetence, who managed to fumble their assignments with an all-embracing woolliness of mind; the Federals failed to win an easy victory which two moderately skilled soldiers would have won without more than half an effort, and Lee was permitted to go on making his extremely skillful and devoted campaign against Grant’s principal army. But the fundamental flaw in the Confederate defense system proved ruinous. Lee put up, against the Army of the Potomac, a defense which should have been effective; but because he could not control the armies which resisted the other prongs of Grant’s offensive, this defense was practically nullified, and Lee was at last pinned within the lines at Petersburg, condemned to fight a war which he could not hope to win. The Federal superiority in man power and material resources was allowed to exert its force. Once the siege of Petersburg began, the outcome—as Lee himself had foreseen from the beginning—was simply a matter of time.

Lee’s Last Campaign: the Story of Lee and His Men Against Grant, 1864, by Clifford Dowdey. Little, Brown and Co. 415 pp. $6.00.

This, according to Mr. Dowdey, was principally Davis’ fault. He would not turn over supreme command of all the armies in Virginia to Lee—not until it was too late. He confined Lee to one small sector of the whole. In that sector Lee proved as effective as ever, but to be effective in this one area was not enough. The Federals were making an all-out push; Lee was condemned to make a limited reply, and despite his military genius a limited reply could not be good enough.

Davis was the constitutional commander in chief; he understood the exact scope of his powers, and he used them with courage and devotion. The real trouble, if Mr. Dowdey has it right—and it would be hard to quarrel with him very seriously—was that Davis used them in the wrong way.

An American President is responsible for everything his country does in time of war. He has been given extraordinary powers, and he is supposed to use them to win a victory. But that does not necessarily mean that he must exert constant, day-by-day control over the things his armies do. He controls high policy, which means that the victory which his armies win must at last be the kind of victory that will make his political aims secure, but he goes beyond that at his peril. Once he sees himself as primarily the strategist and the tactician, the man without whose consent no soldier may move, fire a musket, or button his coat, he begins to interfere with the experts who are supposed to be at his service but who must be allowed to achieve his aims in their own way.

The President, then, who is commander in chief, must understand and use his powers to the full, but he must not abuse them. Probably it is just as well that he usually is not a trained soldier himself; not being one, he is more likely to understand his own limitations. One of the fascinating aspects of the comparison between Davis and Lincoln is that Davis was a trained soldier and Lincoln was an unblemished amateur. Being a trained soldier, Davis tried to be a soldier, and the outcome was ruin for his cause. Being wholly untrained, Lincoln came before long to see that there were things he could not do, and so he let the soldiers do them. The result was victory.

Davis is a tragic and appealing figure in American history. He failed, mostly because the cards were stacked against him, but at least in part because he was too literal in his interpretation of the duties of the civilian commander in chief. Mr. Dowdey’s book makes an excellent companion piece to the study engineered by Mr. May.

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