Davis Did Best With What He Had to Work With

Consider the situation of Edward John Smith. One day he hears words like these: “Congratulations, Edward! You are going to make history. You are going to command the newest, grandest, fastest, and most advanced ship of the line. The world will remember you as captain of the Titanic.” In fairness, this was roughly the situation of Jefferson Davis, though he performed better in his role than Edward John Smith did in his. Still, both met with disasters that have fixed their reputations in history.

To assess Jefferson Davis fairly, one should first consider the dimensions of the challenge he faced. Lists of the disadvantages he inherited normally begin with the North’s objective superiority in population, draft animals, railroad mileage, steel production, and multiple indices of industrial and economic strength. These daunting material deficiencies are so well known that I won’t recite them here. Instead, let me point out that Davis also led a new nation whose sense of nationalism was undeveloped and whose reflexive devotion to states rights suggested how unprepared the culture was for a massive war.

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