Assessing Davis’s Cabinet Members

“Although the members of the Confederate cabinet were, as individuals, talented and capable men, they were not particularly effective. The cabinet really never worked well together as a team. Some of them did not stay in office long enough to be effective. Others, arguably, were not effective because they stayed too long.”

(Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries, p. 24)


The Perspective of Time

Some events in life seem small at the time but later prove bigger than they at first seemed. On the other hand, some events seem, at the moment that they occur, bigger than they really are. Such was the case with an event that began 154 years ago today.

The Union army was besieged in Chattanooga, licking its wounds from its earlier whipping at the hands of the Confederate army at the Battle of Chickamauga. But it was also offering thanks that the Confederate commander, General Braxton Bragg, had not capped his pursuit of them with an immediate attack on Chattanooga. Had he done so, his generals griped, the Confederates could have defeated the battered Unionists and perhaps even turned the tide of the war. But Bragg had stopped his attack, thereby snatching ultimate defeat from the jaws of victory when, weeks later, General Grant’s Yankees attacked the Confederates at Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge and trounced them.

But that was yet in the future. Meanwhile, Bragg’s generals griped and complained, hardly any more than General James Longstreet (left), who had recently been transferred from Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to help Bragg. He had arrived at Chickamauga just in time to launch an assault through a gap in the Union lines and gain the victory for the South at that bloody site. Bragg, partially to rid himself of Longstreet’s disgruntledness after Bragg settled in to besiege Chattanooga, ordered Longstreet to advance northward against the Union forces that held Knoxville. Dragging his feet and continuing to gripe about nearly everything, Longstreet reluctantly moved northward.

At Campbell’s Station, just southwest of Knoxville, the Confederate forces clashed with Union troops under General Ambrose Burnside. Then Longstreet chased them right into Knoxville’s city limits, where, in a last-ditch stand by the Yankees, the commander of their rear guard, Lieutenant William P. Sanders (left), was killed by a Confederate sniper. The last of the Yankees scurried into the safety of the city’s defenses, particularly within a small salient on the west side of town called Fort Loudon, in the midst of what today is the University of Tennessee campus. The fortress had been built by the Confederates, but the city had changed hands, and the Union troops renamed it Fort Sanders in honor of their fallen lieutenant.

Thus began the Siege of Knoxville. Had Longstreet attacked immediately, the Confederates might have won. But he didn’t. Again he delayed, giving the Yankees time to strengthen their fortifications. Specifically, they strung telegraph wire from stump to stump in front of the fort and dug a deep ditch around the base of the walls. Seen from Longstreet’s headquarters at the Bleak House (now called Longstreet’s Headquarters or Confederate Memorial Hall), the ditch wasn’t very deep.

But then Longstreet received word from Bragg that Grant’s troops had broken out of the siege at Chattanooga, pushing the Confederates back into Georgia, and that General Sherman was on his way to Knoxville to rescue Burnside by lifting Longstreet’s siege of Knoxville. Knowing that he would be outnumbered when Sherman arrived, Longstreet decided to attack and capture Knoxville before that could happen.

He launched the attack in the freezing predawn darkness of November 29. The soldiers who surged forward, the rebel yell coming from their throats, tripped over the telegraph wires in the darkness, and the soldiers charging behind fell on them. It was a mass of confusion. Then those who managed to get through the wire obstructions reached the ditch and leaped into it. But it was deeper than they had thought. They tried to climb up the walls of the fort and found that they were almost too steep to climb. During the night, the Yankee defenders had poured water down them. As it ran down, it froze, making the walls even more treacherous. Adding to this confusion, the Union troops inside the fort were firing down point-blank upon the attackers.

In the roughly 20 minutes before Longstreet finally called off his attack, 129 Confederates were killed, 458 were wounded, and 226 were reported missing. Union losses were five killed and eight wounded. One newspaper of the time reported that the Battle of Fort Sanders ranked right up there with the Battle of Gettysburg in importance. Granted, after that 20 minutes of history, the Confederacy never again controlled East Tennessee, but to declare that event to be equal to Gettysburg was, we now know, an exaggeration.

But we must put ourselves into the shoes of the people who lived at the time and in that place. To them, it was equal to or greater than any other battle fought in the war. To the families of the Union and Confederate soldiers who fell that day, it was the greatest battle, the longest day.

I grew up and attended public school in Knox County. I never heard from my teachers anything about the Battle of Fort Sanders. I grew up thinking that Fort Sanders was simply a community with a hospital–Fort Sanders Presbyterian–in the middle of it. Not until I was in college did I learn of that historic 20-minute event. And the explanation for that studied omission of historical fact can only be that East Tennessee was so divided during the war that no one really wanted to remember or commemorate it. When Tennessee voted on the secession issue, East Tennessee voted overwhelmingly for the Union; only within the city of Knoxville did secession pass. And then, once war broke out, both sides drafted people from the area into their armies. People there really didn’t want to fight on either side; they just wanted to be left alone. Many of them fled to Kentucky or into the dark, high corners of the rugged Smoky Mountains to escape conscription. And every time the city changed hands, those who felt strongly wreaked vengeance on those who had mistreated them when the other side had been in control.

History is often a matter of perception. There are multiple viewpoints to every event. Just as multiple eyewitnesses to a traffic accident often give different stories about what happened and offer differing details, so it is with historical events. As we study history, we need to keep that in mind and avoid making simplistic conclusions or assessments.

The people who are so eager to tear down monuments need to keep that in mind, too. There’s no substitute for knowing all the sides to a story and recognizing that each perspective deserves its memories and monuments. The spot where Fort Sanders once stood and hundreds of soldiers on both sides fell in such a short period of time is now a quiet residential area. It includes two inconspicuous monuments, one to each side in the conflict, that most Knoxvillians never knew existed until the monument wreckers began their assault on historical memory.

Review in Journal of Southern History

Today’s mail brought the latest issue (November 2017) issue of The Journal of Southern History. Inside I discovered a review of my book Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries. (I tried, unsuccessfully, to find an online link, so if you’d like to read it, you’ll have to find a hard copy. Many libraries should have it.)

In Memorium: Thomas J. Jackson

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the tragic death of one who can truly be called a “Christian soldier.”

In the Battle of Chancellorsville, the Confederacy had not only one of its greatest victories but also one of its greatest losses. Although the Southern armies won the battle, they lost one of their greatest generals through the wounding, and ultimately the death, of Thomas J. Jackson.

Many of Jackson’s contemporaries considered him to be a rare bird, an eccentric, a fanatic. Many of them complained about his various personal quirks, but much of their dissatisfaction with him actually lay in their dislike of his strict adherence to his religious convictions. Some of them even blamed some of the South’s military reverses on Jackson’s reluctance to wage war on Sunday, or “the Lord’s Day,” as Jackson called it. At least one of them (Richard Ewell), however, later accepted Jackson’s Christ as his own, and his formerly foul and obscene life immediately changed for the better. (The story of Ewell’s conversion and the influence of Jackson’s life is portrayed in the movie Red Runs the River by Unusual Films.)

Jackson expert James I. Robertson called Jackson “a man of arms surrounded by tenets of faith” (Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend, p. ix). It was the courage that Jackson’s faith produced on the battlefield at Manassas (Bull Run) that produced his nickname “Stonewall.” Jackson said that he felt as safe on the battlefield as at home in his bed because he trusted in God to protect him until his time came.

But Jackson’s faith was not something that appeared just on the battlefield or on the Lord’s Day; it was part of his everyday life. As a young instructor at Virginia Military Institute, Jackson confided to his sister, “I have so fixed the habit [of prayer] in my own mind that I never raise a glass of water to my lips without a moment’s asking of God’s blessing. I never seal a letter without putting a word of prayer under the seal. I never take a letter from the post without a brief sending of my thoughts heavenward. I never change my classes . . . without a minute’s petition on the cadets who go out and those who come in.”

Jackson became a Christian in 1849 when he was a major in the U.S. Army. And from the very beginning, he took his religion seriously, and he grew in his faith. Whenever he discovered something in his life that Scripture condemned, he sought to rid himself of it. Whenever he saw something that Scripture required but that was lacking in his life, he strove to add it. Shortly after Jackson’s conversion, the pastor of the Presbyterian church he joined in Lexington, Virginia, called upon him to lead in public prayer. Shy and ill at ease when speaking in public, Jackson stammered and stumbled through his impromptu prayer. After the service, he apologized to the pastor but said that if public prayer was his duty as a believer, he would work to improve his praying. “Call on me whenever you think proper,” he said. “My personal comfort is not to be consulted in the matter.”

That attitude of doing one’s duty regardless of personal cost was a trait that Jackson exhibited in not only public worship but also combat. “Duty is ours; consequences are God’s,” he declared. This was just one of many maxims that Jackson collected and sought to apply to his own life. Here are a few other examples of his maxims:

  • “Never try to appear more wise or learned than the rest of the company.”
  • “Endeavor to do well everything which you undertake.”
  • “Sacrifice your life rather than your word.”
  • “Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”
  • “Lose no time; be always employed in something useful.”

Jackson was a stern disciplinarian. He did his duty, and he expected his men to do theirs. And they responded with alacrity to his demands upon them. He was a master of surprise and envelopment, and his First Brigade became known as his “foot cavalry” because they made so many rapid, forced marches, catching the enemy by surprise and often producing resounding victories for the Southerners. And his men loved him as troops did no other general other than Lee.

But Jackson was concerned with more than military victory. He was concerned about the spiritual condition of people, including both blacks and the men under his command. Even before the war, he sought the spiritual welfare of slaves as he taught the Bible to them in a Sunday school class for them that he started in his church. Some people laughed at him; others opposed him. Jackson was actually “on the perimeter of the law” of the times, which prohibited teaching of blacks. But he knew their spiritual need, and he taught them the Bible anyway.

During the war, Jackson encouraged his soldiers to attend worship services conducted by chaplains of various denominations. He continually sought more chaplains and did everything he could to support their ministrations among his men. He encouraged attendance at revival meetings. Yet, he forced nothing religious on them. His most severe requirements of religious conviction were those he placed on and expected of himself. He led in religion by example, and many an officer entered Jackson’s tent to find their general on his knees in prayer.

Yes, all that Jackson was seemed fanatical and extreme to his contemporaries, just as it does to his critics today. But his life holds forth important lessons for us.

Jackson was accidentally shot in the darkness by his own men in the waning minutes of the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville. When Lee learned of Jackson’s being wounded, he exclaimed, “He has lost his left arm but I my right arm.” Jackson’s wounds did not kill him; the pneumonia that set in did. His last words were, “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”

Jackson crossed over his final river at 3:15 p.m., Sunday, May 10, 1863, and rested in the arms of Jesus Christ. But he left a legacy and many life lessons for those who are wise enough to learn them.

[For more information on Jackson’s religious views and practices, see David T. Myers, Stonewall Jackson: The Spiritual Side, Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle Publications, 2003.]

Review in December Civil War News

DSC_0590 - CopyThe December 2016 issue of Civil War News includes an independent, unsolicited review of my book Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries (p. 28, Vol. 42, No. 11) for anyone who might be interested in reading it. (Just a hint: There are now only 13 shopping days till Christmas, excluding Sundays, of course!)

A Confederate Cabinet Quiz

Here’s a little trivia quiz for all you history buffs (and nonbuffs, too).

Q.:  Which two members of the Confederate cabinet gained distinction as generals in the Confederate army?

A.:  Robert Toombs was the first Secretary of State for the Confederacy. But he quickly became dissatisfied with his job at State. He resigned on July 24, 1861, after only five months in the office.

robert-toombsWhen Toombs got back home to Georgia, he had a spot reserved for him as brigadier general in the Georgia militia. His first combat was in the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) under generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Joseph Johnston. His subsequent actions in the Seven Days’ Battle and Malvern Hill were undistinguished and even criticized. But he earned his keep, so to speak, at Sharpsburg (Antietam) when his men repelled five consecutive assaults on what later became known as Burnside’s Bridge over Antietam Creek. His last combat occurred during the siege of Savannah on December 20, 1864.

Robert Toombs might have been a more effective general than he was a Secretary of State.

Now for the second part of the answer. (The question did ask for the names of two men.)

John C. Breckinridge gained fame as a general before he joined the Confederate cabinet. The former Kentucky senator and U.S. presidential candidate (1860) was commissioned a brigadier general although he had little military experience and no combat experience. His command was the 1st Kentucky Brigade, also later known as the “Orphan Brigade.” The list of battles in which he saw action reads like a battle chronology of the Western Theater: Shiloh, Vicksburg, Baton Rouge, Port Hudson, Stone’s River, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, New Market, Cold Harbor, and elsewhere.

When James Seddon resigned as Secretary of the War Department, President Jefferson Davis named Breckinridge to the post in January 1865. He had only about four months to serve, the Confederacy ceasing to exist in May of that year.

Book Cover Peterson_978-1-4766-6521-4To learn more about the roles that these two men played in the history of the Confederacy, including their stints as cabinet secretaries, check out my book Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries. It is available in both paperback and e-book formats from the publisher, McFarland & Company, at or by phone at 1-800-253-2187. It is also available online from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other reputable book dealers.