The Leadership of Jeff Davis

Afghanistan is not the first country that did not support its army. Other countries likewise did not or could not support its army. But, not all of those unsupported armies failed. The Confederate army also suffered from extreme lack of beans and bullets, clothing and more. Yet, up to the very end, the Confederate army performed superbly considering its limitations. Why? What made the Confederate army succeed where the Afghanistan army failed so miserably? One answer is sound leadership.

Robert E. Lee famously tried to lead his troops in a charge himself, not once, but three times. Each time, his own soldiers turned him back. Officers like John Bell Hood excelled at simply taking to his soldiers and listening to them.

Jefferson Davis, the much maligned President of the Confederate States, certainly had his faults. Davis did, however, practice effective leadership. He was a graduate of West Point. His regiment, the Mississippi Rifles performed brilliantly during the Mexican War. He knew how to display leadership.

Battle of Atlanta

After the fall of Atlanta, he showed what he had learned. Within six days of the loss of the city, Pres. Davis was with the Army of Tennessee. It took him six days of train travel, because the Federal troops had captured so much that he had embark on a complicated route. He wrote to a friend just days before he left Richmond that the “first effect of disaster is always to spread a deeper gloom than is due to the occasion.” By Sept. 26, 1864, he there with the army to dispel their gloom. Along his route, he took the time to make speeches to the local citizens. He likely received some not-so-subtle criticisms on these forays, but the undertook them all the same.

He did not come just to buck up the men. He also had to deal with generals with angry egos. But, doubtless, the troops appreciated his visit, all the same. He gave speeches to the soldiers. They held a grand review. With the President came Tennessee Governor Isham G. Harris, Texas Governor Francis R. Lubbock, Howell Cobb, the Georgia general and former Secretary of the Treasury in the U.S. government, and Robert Toombs, former U.S. Congressman and frequent critic of Jeff Davis. They all gave speeches, which was one of the chief entertainments of the time.

The Big Bugs

The morale of the men likely did perk up. One Tennessee soldier wrote home, “It was all hands round, swing the corner, and balance your partner” [a verse from a popular dance tune]. The same soldier recorded that Pres. Davis shook his hand, saying howdy Captain. Toombs shook his hand, saying howdy Major. “ . . . and every big bug that I shook hands with put another star on my collar and chicken guts on my sleeve.”

The soldiers, as all soldiers in the field do, complained about the lack of food, clothing, shoes and pay. At the outset of the grand review, the soldiers were called on to give a Rebel yell for Davis and Hood. Perhaps hearkening back to better days, they instead chanted, “Johnston! Give us Johnston! Give us our old commander!” Their officers fussed at them. But, the call persisted down the formation.

Speaking from personal experience, troops in the field appreciate visits from the “big bugs” enormously. It is easy to think the folks back home have forgotten about you. But, when presidents and governors come, you know that is not true.  


Russell S. Bonds, War Like a Thunderbolt (Pennsylvania: Westholme Publ. 2009), p. 327-332

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