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tv   [untitled]    May 26, 2012 10:30pm-11:00pm EDT

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doodle over the question whether in this brutal wrestling match that ensued that lincoln use add chokehold on armstrong. and if you want to nope the details of the wrestling match, they're covered very well in a book by douglas wilson called "honor's voice" and also the evidence that survives from this is sifted very well by michael burlingame. whatever lincoln -- whatever holds lincoln used, the outcome that most people saw at the time and reported to us later was that lincoln acquitted himself well against jack armstrong, and that he gained the respect and leadership aura that he retained among common men forever after. now historians all know that this armstrong incident had great significance. they usually point to its political significance as leader of men, but i don't think they noticed the military
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significance. basically lincoln thought of battle as a big wrestling match. with not much science to it. and here's my evidence. at one point in august 1864 while u.s. grant was besieging petersberg, grant received a kind of panicky letter from general halek in washington suggesting the need to divert as many as 20,000 soldiers to the home front because they feared resistance to the draft. and, well, grant didn't want to do this and he thought that any domestic troubles could be handled by the state militias, and when lincoln saw, he agreed with grant and couldn't help intervening. he sent grant a terse telegram
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on august 17, 1864. and he said, quote, i have seen your dispatch expressing your unwillingness to break your hold where you are. neither am i willing. hold on with a bulldog grip and chew and choke as much as possible. don't break your hold. use a bulldog grip. chew and choke. that is the imagery of wrestling in new salem, some 33 years previously. and i think, once again, that lincoln's early experiences were configurative of the strategy and statesmanship as commander in chief. most military historians talk about how much lincoln grew on the job as president and as commander in chief in the civil war.
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but i think that that's wrong. he didn't have to grow very much. and so all of the talk in modern biographies of lincoln about his capacity for growth is ultimately not really very helpful in understanding him. we do not need to understand him as a product of growth. all the great qualities in abraham lincoln were present from the beginning. [ applause ] it's a very familiar place for jefferson davis to come in second to abraham lincoln.
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[ laughter ] davis as president of the confederate states led his country in its war against the united states. the constitution followed the united states constitution in giving the president the power of commander in chief. in wartime the confederate president would take political lead of this country and military lead of this country. jefferson davis certainly possessed the requisite qualities to become commander in chief and a war leader. in fact, i would maintain that few presidents who led this nation in war from the war of 1812 right down to afghanistan, could match his pedigree prior to holding office. he had military, political and administrative experience that set him apart from other southern notables in 1861. his particular background was immensely influential to his being chosen the provisional
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president of the confederate states. he had gone to west point. he had served for seven years as an officer in the united states army. he had distinguished combat career as a regimental commander. moreover, he'd been a member of both united states house and united states senate. in the latter 1850s he served as chair for the military affairs committee. in addition between 1853 and 1857 he had served as secretary of war in franklin pierce's cabinet. despite these credentials davis has been harshly judged by historians in his starring role, the president of the confederate states. the judgment of davis almost makes a prima facie case for disregarding prior achievement and experience in awarding
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higher responsible office. give a man with his background a big job, he fails. why do you need a background? witness professor neely. of course davis is usually matched against his wartime opposite abraham lincoln and invariably he comes in second. usually quite a distant second. yet, to me, trailing lincoln does not automatically brand davis a failure. for, in my judgment, and lincoln was clearly the greatest war leader in our history, but even when viewed alone, outside the lincoln boundary, davis commonly receives poor marks. without going into an extended discussion, i'm confident that my fellow historians in the audience would agree with me that generally historians and still today are quite critical of davis. in general, they portray him as
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brittle, ill tempered, unwilling to grow with responsibility. according to this script these shortcomings were especially disastrous in his inability to appreciate the political dimensions of the war and in his micro-management of his generals. now before assessing davis as a war leader, it's essential, i think, to begin with the criteria used to judging in this capacity. now i make no claim that i will include every possible category, but i do believe you all would agree on the centrality of three characteristics. one, understanding the political situation and the strategic reality facing the country at war. two, articulating the war goals, the war aims, and relevant and understandable terms. and then conveying those to the citizenry of the country. and, finally, managing the war,
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acting as a military commander i think if you look at davis in all three of these areas, you can form some perspective for making a reasonable judgment of him as a commander in chief. now let's start with number one, understanding the political situation. davis was convinced that an armed struggle between the south striving for its independence and the north would be long and bitter. from his tenure as secretary of war and leader of the united states senate, he understood the potential law making power of the north in both human and material terms. the formation of the confederate states did not alter his outlook. when war broke out, only two months after he was inaugurated as provisional president, he acted accordingly, expecting a lengthy conflict in which the
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confederates would have, in his words, many bitter experiences. he called for congress to accept enlistments for the duration of the war or for at least three years. in contrast the congress man, confident of a short, happy war, rejected that. they would permit only a -- only six months. they finally agreed for at least one year. as the war progressed, davis moved smartly to try to make his side more competitive. now there is neither time here nor the place for an extended discussion of his actions, but two examples i think will suffice to make my point, one from early in the war and one from very late. in the spring of 1862, as these one-year enlistments were expiring, davis proposed and obtained from the confederate congress the first national conscription act in american history. then in the final winter of the
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war, in those bleak months of late december and january, february, '64-'65, davis moved against considerable opposition to sever the powerful bond that had bound black slavery and white liberty. he advocated putting slaves in confederate uniforms, realizing fully that such an act would mean emancipation, at least for those who served. and, of course, that would fundamentally rich confederate society. he was willing basically to jettison slavery in order to save confederate independence. davis also understood that material limitations sharply restricted his options. early on many confederates clamored for their troops to
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take the offensive. they wanted their soldiers to strike to the north. but davis agreed in principle but davis recognized that he couldn't equip his armies for such an undertaking, said he could see no good in announcing that the confederates had shifted to an all-out offensive when he could not back up his words with actions. that situation, he explained to his generals but not to the confederate public. even in the face of fierce criticism, he did not think he could explain his reasoning because he said he had born this reproach because to give away why he couldn't attack would tell too much to his enemy. he could only, as he put it, pine for the day when our soil shall be free from invasion and our banners float over the fields are for the enemy. simply put, reality governed. now davis involved more than objectivity concerning military
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resources. from the outset, he realized that he led a nation in the making. that confederate nationalism was being constructed during the war. in the summer of 1861, for example, he urged commanders to brigade their soldiers by states because he saw state pride, using his words, as the highest incentive for gallant and faithful service. moreover, he perceived that the fragility of confederate nationalism, even confederate loyalty, was military strategy. he felt that he had to temper the military maxim of concentration. he believed that he had to maintain a visible, a tangible military presence throughout his country or he would face what he called dissatisfaction, distress, desertion of soldiers,
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opposition of state governments. in 1863, he wrote to one of his commanders, and i quote, the general truth that power is increased by concentration of an army is under our peculiar circumstances subject to modification. the evacuation of any territory, davis continued, that involves other than the loss of supplies but in every instance truce or if you pull out of arkansas, arkansas soldiers would no longer fight. he could envision a reaction so vigorous that it would cause a disintegration of the confederacy. he struggled throughout the war, he struggled constantly with a vexing problem of concentration because you didn't have enough people to defend every place, but not defending some place meant losing not only ground but soldiers and loyalty. this tenuous nationalism did not shake, however, davis' conviction about the ultimate outcome.
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we always look to the american revolution which in his mind was the caldron of american nationalism and certainly during the american revolution the american or the patriot cause as david saw it suffered is many setbacks. in a public address in january of 1863, davis admitted that war was utterly evil. but he defined this event, as he called it, as essential for only this could submit us together. he believed the horrors of war and, again, i quote,s we have been subjected to in common and the glory which encircles our brow has made us a band of brothers and i trust we will be united forever. now he asserted soldiers in every state have become linked in the defense of a most sacred cause.
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now let's turn to number two. his articulating of war aims and his conveying those aims to a public. for jefferson davis, his country had but a single major goal, independence or liberty. he viewed the confederacy as engaged in a struggle that matched the american revolution. liberty versus despotism. and defining this contest he proclaimed in his inaugural as provisional president of the confederacy that the confederacy itself, and i quote again, illustrated the american idea that governments rest upon the consent of the government and it is the right of the people to alter or abolish government whatever they become destructive or the ends for which they were established. he emphasized to a confederate -- to his fellow con
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federal rats that they were defining the rights they had inherited from the revolutionary generation. throughout the war he accentuated the intimate relationship between the patriots of the founding generation and the patriots endeavoring to create the confederacy. as a seasoned professional politician before 1861, davis was aware that public support was necessary for the success of public policy as well as for the success of public officials. his emphasis on liberty and the sacred link between two generations of founders certainly resonated with his constituency, with the citizens of the confederate states. some of us had liberty and the holiness of the revolution since the founding fathers. davis always to the rust of southern heroes from george washington forward who had defended their liberty. now to the confederate banner their sons and daughters were emulating their example and he always defined himself as a
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biological as well as ideological son of the american revolution for his father had fought in the patriot cause. in this clarion call to defend liberty davis did not dodge slavery. he knew full well that slavery was at the center of southern society, at the center of the confederate states. even so, he insisted he was not directing a war for slave owners but rather a war for white liberty. white southerners understood perfectly. at least since the revolution white southerners had considered their liberty inextricably tied to black slavery. to them only southern whites could make decisions about slavery. any outsider interfering with the institution threatened white liberty by enslaving whites. in this context, jefferson davis stood on traditional ground when he condemned lincoln's emancipation proclamation. he interpreted lincoln's edict
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as a manifestation of the brutal war being waged against the confederacy. he asserted that the confederates had thwarted all legitimate actions by the lincoln government, that the lincoln armies had not been able to subjugate the confederacy, unable then to vanquish a people fighting with what davis called heroic devotion, the union according to him turned to barbarity even the possibility of massacring the countryside. for all white southerners believed that any general uprising of slaves would result in a race war. in davis' judgment, the confederates faced stark alternatives. victory and liberty or defeat and slavery. although davis clung to liberty as the confederate goal, he responded to a changing war. by 1863 the course of the war
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had brought much hardship to the home front. in his holy quest for liberty, davis led the confederates in directions inconceivable only two years earlier. he told the confederates they must embrace liberty, their cause, no matter the cost from cause, no matter the cost from conscription to safe soldiers -- to slave soldiers davis asked the previously unthinkable. but he was no dictator. yes, he did lead, but he also heeded. he heard. he heeded both leaders and private citizens in an effort to ensure that governmental policy did not stray too far from public opinion. let me give you an example. the confederate conscription law included a provision for substitution. which meant that if you didn't care to be drafted and you could pay for somebody else to take your place that was fine. the united states also had that provision in its conscription law.
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this created an outcry in the confederacy claiming it would lead to a rich man's war but a poor man's fight. and so davis and the congress abolished this substitution provision in 1863, and the abolition of substitution also said all those who bought substitution, they were now liable for the draft. so they didn't escape. the united states, on the other hand, never gape up the substitution provision. as a veteran of antebellum mississippi politics, davis knew full well, full well the danger of seeming to even favor the rich. he never envisioned a rich man's war with poor man doing the fighting. tax policy in the confederacy also shifted. congress enacted a progressive income tax and placed a 10% tax on agricultural products with the proceeds to be distributed among slave -- among soldiers' families. in addition, the president hailed efforts by the states and
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localities to assist those deprived by the war. the confederacy surely did fall short of fulfilling needs for assistance. yet seven decades before the new deal, under extremely difficult circumstances, it tried, however stumblingly. for davis and his administration, significant relief could only come in the battlefield and could relieve pressure on the home front. from all the letters that crossed his desk, davis had no doubt about the profound sacrifices many confederates were making. in his public statements especially of 1864 he always praised the commitment and devotion of confederates, though he admitted he couldn't predict how many sacrifices would ultimately be required, acknowledging in 1864 that many confederate soldiers had absoluted themselves from the army, davis never cast
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aspersions on their patriotism. he realized they went to protect liberty to protect home and family. by late 1863 with home and family often undefendsed while confronting privation, social disorganization, and advancing federals, many soldiers rethought their primary duty. on one occasion davis was reviewing a court-martial conviction, which the record showed this soldier had left the army of northern virginia to go home because his wife had written him she was sick, the children were sick, there was nothing to eat and the home had been destroyed. the soldier went home. after a time he came back. when he returned to the army he was arrested, court-martialed and convicted. davis overturned the conviction and told the army to restore this man to the ranks as told his cabinet, "would have done the same thing." attempting to cope with this kind of desperate reality, davis urged these men to return to their units. homes and families could be
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ultimately defended, he maintained, only, only by battlefield success. in his mind there was but a single alternative. victor or slavish submission to despotic usurpation. as president davis strove to get his message before the confederate government, his messages to congress, public speeches, appeared in newspapers, published in pamphlets. he went further. on three occasions, the winter of '62 and '63, and the fall of '63 and the fall of '64 he traveled from his capital, richmond, virginia across much of his country, the first two occasions all the way to mississippi. the third occasion he stopped at alabama because the federals had mississippi. these trips had a military purpose, where he visited with armies and their commanders but he also met with civilian authorities and with the public. he made countless public appearances and delivered
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numerous speeches from formal presentations to legislatures to impromptu remarks at railroad stops. he didn't hide in richmond. he tried to make himself seen and heard by his fellow confederates. on the whole davis succeeded, although a multitude of political adversaries slashed at him, especially from 1863 on. no single politician rose to challenge seriously his leadership. his shrill opponents howled and accomplished very little. they were strongest in georgia where his inveterate antagonist, his own vice president alexander stevens and the governor of the state, joseph brown, led the assault. still, georgia remained stalwartly for the president. as late as 1864 vice president stevens and governor brown could not turn the state legislature against davis. until the bitter end davis remained the dominant political force in the confederacy.
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finally, let's turn to davis as specific military commander in chief. davis never shunned his role as leaders of the confederate people and nations, as i tried to show. at the same time he took quite seriously his position as a military commander in chief as the head of the confederate armed forces. davis considered himself an expert in military matters and he believed himself eminently qualified to command an army or to command commanders of armies. he never doubted his own military ability or judgment. and directly the confederate war efforts, davis adopted hands-on tactics, his own predilection as well as his sense of duty involved in all aspects of confederate military from the trivial to the deadly serious. his administrative style dated back to his time as the u.s. secretary of the war, and then
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presiding over a small establishment he wanted to know about everything and to see every document. he brought the same practice to the confederate presidency. nothing changed, even by 1862 when he was directing a great war. the minutia that regularly occupied his attention boggles the mind. we know he saw these items because he has endorsements on all these kinds of documents. what kinds of documents? whether to send two pieces of artillery to the navy or to charleston -- the defenses to charleston. whether a captain wanted to transfer from virginia to the mississippi valley, whether it should be given him. he looked at these kinds of things. davis quite simply was his own secretary of war. he did have men, all but one quite able, in that position. he did not create areas of responsibility for them, nor did he delegate authority to them. he wished for their advice. he liked to talk to them, and they recount lengthy conversations with him about all kinds of military matters.
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but he made the decisions. although directives that left richmond carried various signatories, sent them to the secretary of war, all the decisions were made by jefferson davis. running the war office or the high command, jefferson davis was definitely a micromanager. yet. yet he did not deal with his generals in the field in the same manner at all. yes, he appointed the general officers that commanded his army, but once he put them in place he rarely told them what to do. his approach was sharply different. june of 1861, general joseph johnston was up at harpers ferry, and a message to johnston set the tone. johnston was told that davis wanted harpers ferry held as long as possible. but he said davis said that his commander on the scene, johnston, had to make the final decision.
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kentucky, a few months later in september, kentucky as i'm sure you know claimed neutrality. not siding with the union or the confederacy. and davis did not want confederate soldiers to be the first to enter the state, his birth state as it was lincoln's. yet his commander out there, former episcopal bishop of louisiana leonimus pope decided he had to go into kentucky and occupy columbus on the mississippi river before the federals got there. so pope broke the neutrality. political uproar. the governor of tennessee writes davis and says, look, this is going to ruin us in kentucky. you've got to get that man out of there. davis immediately sent a telegram to pope. you've got to come back. pope remonday straited, no, i need to do this. what did davis tell him?
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davis says the necessity must justify the action. the military necessity. he let polk make the final decision, and polk said he wasn't going to leave. this didn't change after these early months. in 1862 he suggested to general albert sydney johnston that johnston might isolate one element of the enemy and inflict a mighty blow. it was a suggestion and not a directive. again, in the winter of 1862-63 he urged general theeophilus holmes chanding in arkansas to make a connection with general joseph johnston in mississippi and to assist johnston. he tempered his language to general holmes by telling him he must use his own judgment. additional examples could be brought forth, but i hope i made my point. it's difficult to explain the contrast between davis's handling of his field commanders and his management of the war department. it was certainly not because he didn't comprehend the change


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