Lincoln vs. Davis
By
Professor Ernest Butner (Irish)

Define the Problem:

        Charles Beard, a noted historian said that the American Civil War was a conflict between industry and agriculture.
        Alexander Stephens, a southern statesman said that the war was about states rights.
        Horace Greeley, a northern newspaper man, and prominent abolitionist claimed the war was fought over the issue of slavery.
        Abraham Lincoln said it was a struggle "testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated can long endure."
        Lincoln said his paramount object was to save the Union, and if he could accomplish that by not freeing any slaves, he would free none; "if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union."
        What would have happened if Davis would have said that his paramount object was to save the Confederacy, and if he could accomplish that by not freeing any slaves, he would free none; if he could save it by freeing all the slaves he would do it; and if he could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone he would also do that. What if he would have taken the attitude that what he did about slavery and the colored race would be done to help save the Confederacy?
        Jefferson Davis was profoundly dedicated to the cause that he led. Many prominent Southerners, including Robert E. Lee, were troubled in conscience by slavery. Davis never manifested any qualms about either slavery or secession. His support of state sovereignty and the Southern way of life was based on deep conviction.
        When Lincoln composed the Gettysburg Address he did not talk much about the way most historians perceive the war. It was his perception...The men who had died at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chancellorsville, Balls Bluff, Big Bethel, Shiloh...had not given the last full measure of devotion to free the slaves, nor to establish a modern nation nor to create an industrial empire. They died for the Union, and beyond that for the idea of democracy, so that the ray of hope sent forth by the American Revolution would never dim (Stephen E. Ambrose).
        The issue of the Civil War was democracy. Lincoln saw to it that the North fought to insure "that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth."
        The constitution drawn up at Montgomery defined the new government as the creation of "sovereign and independent" states. Davis subscribed to the principles of state sovereignty but he was far less provincial in his views than were many of his fellow Confederates. As the South's chief executive he was tremendously handicapped by the deep and pervasive attachment of Southerners to states rights (Bell I. Wiley).
        Davis was also handicapped by the excessive individualism which characterized the South's ruling classes. The individualism was a product of the plantation system. Each planter was in effect a petty sovereign and his exalted status tended to make him self-reliant, proud, resentful of opposition, and averse to teamwork.
        Great men are never cruel without necessity. In war as in politics, no evil, even if it is permissible under the rules, is excusable unless it is absolutely necessary. Everything beyond that is a crime. Men who have changed the world never achieved their success by winning the chief citizens to their side, but always by stirring the masses. The first method is that of a schemer and leads only to mediocre results; the other method is the path of genius and changes the face of the world (Napoleon Bonaparte).
        According to his contemporary critics, Abraham Lincoln's Presidential record was notable for his despotic use of power and his blatant disregard for the Constitution. Lincoln ordered thousands of arrests, kept political enemies in prison without bringing charges against them, refused these hapless men their right to trial by a jury of their peers, and ignored orders from the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to release them. In his first few months in office he made the most direct violations of the Constitution in the Nation's history. He increased the size of the Regular Army without Congressional approval, spent money without Congressional authorization, suspended the writ of habeas corpus without authority and generally acted as if he had never heard of the other two branches of the government. He threw out the Constitution and retained popular appeal of the masses.
        Davis lacked popular appeal. At no time in his life did he mingle freely with the masses under circumstances that might have enabled him to develop an appreciation of their aspiration and virtues. He never felt close to them, nor they to him. Davis never succeeded in dramatizing the issues of the war or in arousing public enthusiasm for their support. Confederates like to compare their struggle with the Colonial revolt against England. But their President was never able to infuse the Southern movement with the lofty purposes and timeless qualities that Jefferson and Paine breathed into the American Revolution (Wiley).
        Jefferson Davis was known for his integrity. He was not always as forthright as he might have been in dealing with difficult persons and situations, but he observed a strict code of conduct with respect to money, favors and gifts. As President he repeatedly demonstrated his moral courage by unwavering support of unpopular individuals and measures. He had rich experiences in public affairs. He was an effective public speaker, known for their clarity and logic. He was profoundly dedicated to the Southern cause. It seems quite paradoxical when you think about it. Jefferson Davis was never known as "Honest Jeff," and the man who led the Union by basically ignoring the Constitution was known as "Honest Abe."
        When Lincoln felt it was necessary he could act in the most undemocratic manner (as he delivered the Gettysburg Address, his troops guarded the polls at a state election in Delaware, insuring a Republican victory). Realizing that the Constitution was not made for war, especially civil war, and knowing that it took too long to change it, he was willing to bypass it and create his own emergency powers in order to preserve it for peacetime. Events were moving too rapidly to stay within the due process of the law.
        Both presidents hovered closely to the War Department. Davis began to become very unpopular with the populace of the South for his persistent support of discredited officers such as Lucius B. Northrop, the Confederate commissary General, and Generals Theophilus Holmes, John Pemberton, and Braxton Bragg. Northrop and Bragg were grossly incompetent and their long retention in high position, against an ever- increasing tide of public criticism, cannot be justified on any reasonable ground. There was a great deal of criticism of Davis for his removal of General Beauregard. Also a major destructive relationship took place between Davis and Joe Johnston.
        Lincoln on the other hand either fired or sat back and let the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War fire popular or unpopular generals for perceived ineptitude. McClellan and Buell (too slow for the northern voters) -- Porter (we'll hang this one on the Joint Committee, thus keeping Lincoln clean) -- Pope (no one likes a braggart, especially one who nearly gets his army annihilated...easy call) -- Butler in New Orleans (good move, it places the Beast in the den of depravity...he can't lose battles and he can place his scorn and the contempt of the folks up north on the folks down south) -- Sigel brought in to command the 11th Corps when recruitment's were down-- (dismissed temporarily when campaigning began, brought back in 1864 only to be humiliated at New Market by the cadets...he could now remove him permanently). There were most definitely others, but Lincoln remained unscathed.
        Known to history as the Great Emancipator, Lincoln believed-and often said-that it was impossible for white and black men to live together in freedom. His only solution for America's greatest problem was for all the blacks to return to Africa. In his Emancipation Proclamation he carefully drew the boundaries within which it would operate, and deliberately excluded all areas in which his armies had control. However, it should be recalled that Congressional actions and the activities of certain generals had already freed thousands of blacks, and would continue to be more important as a source of emancipation.
        What Lincoln did for the war effort...was pure and simple manipulation of appeal. He is known as the Great emancipator...and yet who was freed? His Army of the Potomac...out manned the Army of Northern Virginia at Antietam and basically fought them to a draw...it was the right timing for the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation. A great proclamation hinged on a great Northern victory. Antietam - Emancipation Proclamation was the death nail of the Confederacy. Foreign support would never be realized by the South.
        Interesting to study--Antietam was also one of the many perfect times for the Confederacy to exercise some great diplomatic coup of their own. Their army was out numbered nearly three to one. They fought McClellan to a standstill with their backs up against the Potomac River. They remained on the field for another day, when they could have retreated. Lee gave Davis all of the ammunition required for a diplomatic stratagem.
        Nothing Lee or the other war heroes of the Confederacy did on the battlefield measured up to what Lincoln did with manipulating public opinion both home and abroad. In making comparisons with the Revolutionary War, which many historians prefer to do, it will be remembered that the future of the Revolution looked bleak until the Continental army's victory over the British and Hessians at Saratoga. However, this victory alone accomplished nothing. It was very important to have strong statesmen in foreign capitals extolling the accomplishments of the armies in the field. This the Continental Congress was very proficient...where was the Confederate Congress?
        Where were these accomplished statesmen from the South? Who went to Paris or London and made those governments understand the economic windfall their countries would achieve in supporting the Confederate States? Who was the ambassador from the South who demonstrated to the foreign leaders that the fighting on the Peninsula and at Manassas would keep Union aggression at a standstill? What ambassador confirmed how much these victories would mean to an ally who could trade freely with the South making the proper marriage of cotton with foreign textile mills? Where were the statesmen who were going to bring about a national effort to save sectional interests?
        What if roles had been reversed? Would Lincoln have freed the slaves in the South if that meant foreign intervention? Could Lincoln have manipulated the Southern population as he had done with the Northern populace? Could he sell share cropping to the Plantation Owners...or some other form of agriculture process that may have or may not have subjugated the laborers in order to preserve the new government? Perception is reality. He was perceived by the world as being the great emancipator. In reality...who did he emancipate?
        Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, Forrest, Taylor...and the list goes on and on did all they could do to win the war in the field. Their bold victories were enough to gain an international coalition. They did more than their forefathers in the Revolution ever did to achieve independence. They lost the war due to rigid, self righteous and excessive individualism of their own aristocracy.
        Could the Confederacy have achieved independence under other leadership? William H. Trescot, a distinguished South Carolina, wrote to a friend on March 1, 1862: "Lee...is the only man in the revolution whom I have met that at all rises to historical size." This discerning estimate, made while Lee was relatively obscure, was to be abundantly confirmed by subsequent events. Lee was not a politician, but he was remarkably intelligent and he grew rapidly as his responsibilities increased. His magnanimity, personal magnetism, and tact might have been a powerful force in combating the South's excessive individualism and molding its dissident elements into something approaching a team. Certainly he displayed more of first-rate statesmanship than any other person who rose to high position in the CSA (Wiley).
        What if the South would have realized that getting rid of slavery would have achieved independence? Would such a move have wrecked their economy?
        What if the South would never had carried the war into the North? At least four fatal flaws occurred in the strategy of the South early in the war:

1. Placing much of their military assets into defending the Mississippi River with large fortifications (ala Professor Mahan the master engineer at West Point).

2. Trying to do too much with too little...the two invasions into the North brought about Antietam and Gettysburg both were not only perceived as military victories for the North...but also were perceived as great political victories for Lincoln.

3. They needed a fine tuned defensive strategy in maintaining control of Kentucky. The strategy here could have been offensive. What if?

4. Probably the most important flaw...they failed to achieve a successful diplomatic relationship with potential foreign allies.

        War takes on a barbaric nature very quickly. When looking at the problems facing the leaders of the North and South we quickly see that their perception of why the war was fought was different. An old axiom of war is "know your enemy." An axiom for successful businesses is "know the problem." The South believed whole heartily that Lincoln wanted to free the slaves and that their state rights were being subjugated to national interests. Lincoln set out to preserve the Union...that was all. He knew what the problem was and he knew his enemy...they didn't know him. And really who does know Mr. Lincoln?
        Some have said, that Lincoln was a man in a class by himself and was unequaled in his ability to maneuver and manipulate. At the time, no man in America could compare with him in political maneuvering. He took on the best both the Democrats and the Republicans had to offer as well as the problems of the Rebels from the South...and foreign diplomats. He handled each carefully and with great distinction. To the Democrats and Republicans his nature produced a policy which essentially stated that if you couldn't be a part of the team...you went to jail...thus you were no longer a problem. He used slavery to win public appeal in England and France...and to win a war.
        It has been said by many well-known historians and military experts that by the second week of July of 1863 the South had only one real chance of winning the war. That chance was the assassination of President Lincoln. This may be true and it may not, but what if?   Just an old man's opinion!
Source: From the papers of the late Dr. Ernest Butner

This Page last updated 02/23/02

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