James M. McPherson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his 1988 Battle Cry of Freedom, has now published Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief. This is neither McPherson’s finest book nor the best published treatment of Jefferson Davis. For my money, the best understanding of Davis may be pieced together from Shelby Foote’s three-volume epic, The Civil War: A Narrative. Still, there is much to be gleaned from McPherson’s book. He narrates the major events of the war, neatly summarizing Davis’s role in the failed Confederacy. And his book is surprisingly sympathetic toward the man on whose shoulders fell the thankless task of trying to make a go of an impossible undertaking.

This sympathetic attitude is not shared by the historian Steven Hahn, who reviewed McPherson’s book for The New York Times Book Review. McPherson should not, according to...


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