Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Jefferson Davis: the Donald Rumsfeld of the Confederacy

My take, from reading on the American Civil War, is that Jefferson Davis was the Donald Rumsfeld of the Confederacy. He made bizarre personnel decisions based upon personality rather than upon whether people were doing the right thing. He utterly ignored significant logistical problems such as the state of the Confederate railroads, diverting all resources needed to keep the Confederate logistical and communications infrastructure going into building ironclads that made no (zero) difference in the outcome of the war. He relieved generals who were doing a good job with limited resources, such as Joe Johnson who was trying to keep Sherman from marching anywhere Sherman wanted, and micromanaged things that did not need micromanaging such as the operations of the Army of Virginia. He appointed people because they were yes-men rather than because they were the best man for the job, he was arrogant, he was a tyrant towards his subordinates, in short, it is unclear how this man could have ever been considered qualified to be President of the Confederate States of America. Except, well, he had been Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce so everybody apparently assumed he would know how to run a war better than some random joe off the street. But he didn't.

My take: Jefferson Davis shows that a military background is no guarantee that a man can lead. The Confederacy's logistical problems were enormous. At the beginning of the war, for example, the Confederacy had only one ironworks capable of building locomotives (in Richmand VA). Yet Davis pursued a quick and glorious victory while ignoring the logistical problems entirely, diverting that ironworks to building ironclads rather than maintaining the Confederate railroads, eventually leading to the collapse of the Confederate rail network, and, therefore, the collapse of the Confederate armies as they literally starved while thousands of tons of food rotted at railheads for lack of trains to move them to where the armies needed them. Tactics win battles. Logistics win wars. By ignoring logistics, by putting the railroads way down on the priority list to where he didn't even give his "railroad czar" a staff or any power to nationalize recalcitrant railroads the way Lincoln did, President Davis insured the collapse of the Confederacy as its armies literally starved to death.

What is bizarre is the cult that Southerners built around Jefferson Davis after the war. He had clearly been incompetent and inept as President of the Confederacy. Yet every single Southern state has counties named after him, monuments all over the place to him, and so forth. It is to laugh, how the losers build a cult around the person who led them to disaster.

-- Badtux the Puzzling Penguin


  1. Well, how many things are now named after Reagan? Same idea...

  2. But Ronnie RayGun had at least two glorious victories to his name. There was the glorious victory of the U.S. over that most powerful threat to America, Grenada, where a few hundred Cuban combat engineers threatened the foundations of our very nation (presumably the same way that termites do, by boring into them). Then there was his astonishing victory over the poor and middle class, where he hiked their taxes significantly (via a massive hike in payroll taxes, specifically the FICA tax) while giving the rich huge tax cuts. Glory!

    But Jefferson Davis was a disaster from beginning to end. He had no (zero) real political skills, and would have never won an election to be President of the Confederacy if there had ever been a real one (he was basically appointed by the secession convention because they wanted a war hero as President). As a national leader he was an utter failure, leading the Confederacy into complete national disaster with his mismanagement and incompetence. I suppose the South embraced him with such furor after the Civil War for the same reason they embrace the Republican Party today despite the utter failure of Republican policies over the past thirty years -- because they have a fondness for embracing failure. It is to laugh. A bitter, sarcastic laugh, but a laugh nonetheless.

    - Badtux the Laughing Penguin

  3. You can't fix stupid, BT. The cult of Jefferson Davis is little different from the cult of birthers today. None of them can be reached...

  4. Not being from the south of anything I can only guess at their motivations . It seems that besides their very limited views of Jesus they worship obstructionship . Thus Davis , after all he 'fought back' win or lose . The current crop of wanna be Davis' in the Senate all seem to worship obstruction . They do not seem to have come up anything positive since thier rule by slavery was abolished and they seem to want to impede any kind of progress like it was a religion .
    Their mindset seems to go way back , I wonder if they will ever decide as a group to catch up with the rest of the country ?
    a curious w3ski

  5. Davis was mostly incompetent, but I don't really see how the south could have expected to win in any case. The industrial base wasn't present to fight a sustained war. The north could out produce the south industrially, and even though the norther soldiers were mostly inept at the beginning while the southern soldiers were usually quite good, it didn't take long for the northern soldiers to learn the necessary tactics, while let the overwhelming number of the north's army to decimate the south.

    As for diverting the Iron production from that of rail engines to Iron-clad ships may not have been that bad of a strategy. Given that the south was significantly lacking in industrial resources of all kinds, there was some sense in developing an early form of "battleship" that could break the naval blockade of the south that the north was doing. By breaking the naval blockade, there was some thought that foreign industrial countries could import the needed industrial goods to the south, in exchange for the agricultural items the south was producing. This may have been quite a bit more beneficial than a few more rail engines.

    As for embracing Jefferson Davis, even after the collapse of the south, this may be due to the "heroic" struggle he epitomized. Don't forget that the War Between the States wasn't just about slavery; it was also about states rights versus national rights [1].

    [1] Don't get me wrong. I'm not a proponent of states rights versus national rights. If the south had won, it would have been an even worse disaster than them losing.


  6. The notion that the South could build more and better ironclads than the North was nonsense of the first order. France and Britain had already proven that ironclads were the next wave, and when war broke out it should have been clear that the North was going to build them too, and could build them in far larger number than the South ever could with the pitifully inadequate resources of the Tredegar Ironworks, the only plant the South had capable of building steam engines and steam locomotives. Instead the South spent an enormous amount of resources building ironclads in ports that were overrun by Federal troops long before said ironclads could be useful, in the meantime squandering the mobility advantage of their interior lines of communication by running their rail system into the ground.

    The South didn't have to win. They just had to keep the North from conquering them for long enough that the North got tired of trying to do so. It was always a long shot whether they could do so, but Jefferson Davis's incompetence sealed their doom. Alas. Because if they'd stayed independent, the collective IQ of the nation would go up by 30 points, at least :).

    - Badtux the Southern Penguin

  7. The Tredegar Works was also the South's supplier of munitions. When Richmond fell, the war was over within a few weeks.

    JzB the occasionally Virgina-visiting trombonist

  8. Davis, like Rummy, was a zealot who believed that his way was not only right but indeed the ONLY way. He was also a West Point graduate; unlike many of his classmates, he spent his career as a politician but never gave up on the idea that he should be in charge.

    As for post-war adoration,it's all part of What Should Have Been.

    Rumsfeld is easlity Davis' equal in driving toward disaster but Davis is a piker when it comes to the scope and scale of the catastrophe.


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