When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Northerners could hardly be blamed for feeling that their Southern brethren were more fortunate in their president’s prospects as commander-in-chief. Jefferson Davis was a West Point graduate and although his career at the military academy was less than stellar—he was placed under house arrest for joining other cadets in smuggling whiskey in to make eggnog—he did follow up his graduation (again, less than glorious, ranking 23rd in a class of 34), he had military experience which dwarfed his counterpart, Abraham Lincoln’s military resume. In the 1860 fractured presidential election, Abraham Lincoln emerged the winner but no one could claim that he had a mandate. As a Westerner, he was regarded as a rustic yokel by many, a man ill-suited to occupy the same office as his predecessors. When it came to the arts of war, Lincoln, it was believed, was decidedly outclassed by his Southern counterpart. Lincoln, who was so enamored of humor that he made himself the butt of his own jokes regarding his less-than-glorious military experience, was untroubled by his reputation. He wanted generals who knew how to win.
Both men had taken part in the Black Hawk War of 1832. Davis was assigned by his future father-in-law, (who also happened to be a future president) Colonel Zachary Taylor, to escort the Indian chief to prison. Abraham Lincoln volunteered for the Illinois Militia and was elected captain of the company, but played no role in the fighting, admitting that the blood he shed during his three-month stint came from the mosquitoes which whom he did battle.
Davis came away from the Black Hawk War with a bride. He fell in love with Colonel Taylor’s daughter, but was denied permission to marry her because Taylor had no illusions about the life of a military wife of a soldier serving on the frontier army posts. Choosing love over glory, Davis resigned his commission and married Sarah Knox Taylor without her father’s permission. Three months later, he was a widower after Sarah contracted malaria.
Abraham Lincoln, a year younger than Davis, began his political career in 1832, and two years later won election to the Illinois General Assembly, eleven years before Davis became a candidate for Mississippi’s House of Representatives. Davis would rise to national office while Lincoln’s efforts were devoted to Illinois, but in 1846, the United States declared war on Mexico. Davis became the colonel of a volunteer regiment which served under his former father-in-law, now General Zachary Taylor. He was wounded in the war and recognized for bravery, winning the admiration of Taylor who reputedly remarked that his late daughter had been superior to her father in the ability to judge men.
Lincoln’s career also thrived during this time and in 1846 he was elected to the House of Representatives. However, Lincoln opposed the war against Mexico, as did many abolitionists suspicious of the acquisition of new territory which could expand the presence of slavery in the country. Both men continued to rise in prominence and by the time each was elected to office, both Davis and Lincoln were national figures. Both men numbered enemies among their own ranks. But where they differed was in temperament, a variation that may have made a significant difference regarding the outcome of the war.
When the Confederate States of America was formed, Davis expected an appointment as general in charge of the war, not the presidency. But he accepted the office and the responsibility with an unswerving commitment to states’ rights, slavery, and the cause itself. In the beginning, Davis had the edge when it came to military commanders: Robert E. Lee was placed in charge of the Army of Northern Virginia while Lincoln suffered through a succession of generals who failed to win battles and, in the case of General George McClellan, seemed reluctant to engage the enemy. However, Davis fell prey to the belief that loyal allies would make peerless generals and was prone to supporting them, most notably General Leonidas Polk, even when they demonstrated no justification of his misplaced faith. But Davis lacked Lincoln’s ability to work with feuding, ambitious Cabinet officers, calculating generals, and the public. Davis, unlike Lincoln, wanted to out-general his generals and, despite his confidence in General Lee, he could not resist trying to run the war and his country instead of leaving the military decisions to the military experts.
Although Jefferson Davis had served as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, his knowledge of military matters never matched Lincoln’s knowledge of men. By the time the election of 1864, the Union was convinced that their commander-in-chief knew what he was doing and Lincoln was re-elected as president.
In the end, Lincoln won the war and lost his life. Davis was captured and imprisoned for two years, and in 1868 received a presidential pardon. Both presidents were complicated men who were tested by personal circumstances and their adherence to duty. In the end, a knowledge of military matters proved less important for a commander-in-chief than a willingness to follow the guidance of generals who knew how to fight.