Pertinacity in the face of disaster?

Michael B. Ballard, A Long Shadow: Jefferson Davis and the Final Days of the Confederacy. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986.

Michael Ballard, professor and coordinator of collections at Mississippi State University, asks an interesting question about Jefferson Davis’ legacy. He wonders how an executive leader who failed so thoroughly as Davis became both a symbolic and influential figure in the post-Civil War era. In other words, how could Davis, highly criticized by a number of people throughout the Confederacy, emerge as an important part of the “Lost Cause?”

While Ballard offers a different answer to this question than many historians, I am not convinced that he is successful in prosecuting his thesis. Whereas most folks point towards Jefferson Davis’ capture, imprisonment, and martyrdom as the answer, Ballard suggests that this event was the last in a series which led to Davis’ growing influence. Davis was, argues Ballard, not a passive victim or martyr, but rather actively making decisions that crafted his own legacy.

For Ballard, these decisions include, but are not limited to, Davis facing down tough questions about states’ rights, his relationship with military leaders like Robert E. Lee and Joseph Johnston, whether or not to arm slaves, and more. Davis also sounded out in tough ways, demonstrating to the Southern population is willingness to “fight it out to the banks of the Mississippi” (52-70) or his refusal to concede defeat after both Lee and Johnston had surrendered their armies.

The text reads a bit like a group of separate journal articles or essays that are threaded together for the book, though that fact could be augmented by the style of endnote citation for each chapter. Also, there is a sense in the seventh chapter that Ballard is tying together the threads of his argument, but again, I am not certain he quite gets there. Is the “Lost Cause” truly embraced by Southerners as Davis passes by them, retreating from the advancing Union armies? Can a leader whose last months of official statements were not read by the majority of the literate public lay claim to such a connection to the symbol of the fading Old South? I will suggest no – but Ballard has given readers an interesting examination of the last months of Davis’ leadership that, when read in conjunction with Burke Davis, The Long Surrender is essential to understanding the end of the Confederacy.

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