Book review by ACWRT (UK) member Keith Steiner: September 2020
David J. Eicher: Little, Brown And Company: 2006: 341 pages: Illustrated
“Revolutions are much easier started than controlled, and the men who begin them, even for the best purposes and objects, seldom end them….The selfish, the ambitious, and the bad will generally take the lead.”
The title of the above publication may prove a provocation or stumbling block too far for some potential readers. Those who reason that the passage of over 150 years has been time enough to settle any doubts, or those whose engagement with the history of the civil war is wholly the matter of unfurled banners and booming cannon, might, however, halt in their retreat and turn the pages of this illuminating book, for, within, there is fire and fury enough for even the most jaded martial palette.
This is the story of the struggle to establish, from 1861, the political and civic structures of the Confederate States of America. The figure of Jefferson Davis is central to this narrative and he is the focal point around which this publication is built.
Few redeemable figures circle in the orbit of Jefferson Davis in a vortex of a Confederate capital riven with mistrust, personal ambition, back-stabbing and endless political conflict. Richmond is a stage of gaudy, vivid intrigue, fit to match any modern drama of politics. Even Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, and a distant, sickly individual, is counted in the litany of ambitious characters the author’s diligent researches reveal as arch-opponents of the president. In contrast to all this, even the couriers and spies of the Washington DC Confederate spy network appear models of patriotic coherence and function.
In this book, although the war is to some degree, noises-off-stage, Eicher reveals the astonishing level of interference in the detail and minutiae of the tactics and conduct of Confederate generals, by Jefferson Davis; to the extent of his occasional frontline presence and interference on the battlefield. It is this tendency, in part, that the author locates as fatal to the conduct of the war. At the outset of the Confederacy, Davis’s original protocol for the appointment and ranking of senior officers, helped fuel an internecine conflict, within the command structure, that ran the course of the war, and beyond. Some senior officers whose ranking did not, to them, reflect their competence or seniority, groused and obfuscated their way through the length of the conflict, thus failing in their duty to their Commander in Chief.
Robert E. Lee emerges as the estimable military figure of consequence. Irredeemable, however, is the dysfunction and incompetence that bled and starved the Confederate army of supply, and Eicher’s narrative reveals in transcript the pleas from the field to Richmond for the re-supply of men and materiel.
Even as U. S. Grant advanced on Petersburg, and W. T. Sherman wasted Georgia and the Carolinas, the inter-state and inter-personal rivalries of the Confederacy were busy sapping energy and helping undermine the sacrifice of the Confederate armies. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book title Team Of Rivals (2005) provides an apt descriptor of the corrosive divides and power struggles between Jefferson Davis and the legislature, between Davis and his Cabinet, and between Confederate House and Confederate Senate.
The author also writes poignantly about the final days of Richmond as capital of the Confederacy. The precipitate abandonment of Richmond by Jefferson Davis in the face of the advancing blue tide, as well as the bewilderment, confusion, terror and baleful resignation of its inhabitants forms as a shadow of pathos to the conclusion of the narrative.
We all know how the nascent Confederate States of America finally disintegrated. We do not have as clear a view of the early days of the construction of its civic and political system. In this regard, David J. Eicher’s publication is invaluable in its meticulous description and record.
David J. Eicher’s book will refresh and inform even the most jaded student or aficionado of the lost cause, and is a distinct and worthy contribution to the literature of the American Civil War.