Strangely America’s worst president never served in the White House. Instead, the worst head of government in American history was Confederate President Jefferson Davis (D-Mississippi).
Davis’s incompetence and bungling was of epic proportions. For instance, Davis; more than anybody else, was the architect of Confederate defeat in the American Civil War.
Thus, Davis did America a great service. Jefferson Davis did more to destroy American slavery; an institution he loved, than any abolitionist. Moreover, Davis was responsible for the destruction of the Southern Society he loved.
Jefferson Davis, a Failure who Looked Great on Paper
In common with three other bad presidents; James Monroe (R-Virginia), Andrew Jackson (D-Tennessee), and James Buchanan (D-Pennsylvania), Davis “looked great on paper.”
Jefferson Finis Davis (D-Mississippi) had a tremendous resume when the Confederate Congress elected him provisional President of the Confederacy. Davis was a West Point Graduate, a former Army Officer, and a war hero. In addition, Davis had served as a Congressman, a U.S. Senator, and U.S. Secretary of War before the Civil War.
Despite all that great experience; and a fanatical dedication to the Confederate cause, Davis failed miserably as president. In particular, Davis displayed incredible ignorance of foreign policy, economics, and military affairs throughout his presidency.
Few leaders have had a greater misunderstanding of the political, economic, and military situation his nation faced than Davis. Notably, Davis completely misunderstand the Confederacy’s diplomatic and military situation.
How Jefferson Davis Lost the Civil War
As President Davis made three miscalculations that laid the groundwork for Confederate defeat.
First, Davis assumed the Confederacy was incapable of defeating the Union on the battlefield. Confederate Armies proved Davis wrong by inflicting defeat after defeat on Union forces.
Second, Davis believed the Confederacy could not win without foreign intervention. The Confederacy; however, held out for nearly four years until 1865, with no foreign aid. Indeed, the Confederacy came close to winning the War without foreign intervention in 1862, 1863, and 1864.
Third, Davis thought he could force the world’s greatest military power the British Empire to intervene on the Confederacy’s side. To clarify, Davis thought British industry and the British economy could not survive without Southern Cotton.
Jefferson Davis’s British Delusion
Cotton was the “oil of the 19th Century” the raw material upon which industry depended.
Davis believed Britain’s lucrative textile industry would shut down without Southern Cotton. The hope was Manchester’s mills could close and mobs of unemployed textile workers would march on London.
Fortunately for Southern blacks, Davis misunderstood British society and the economic situation. Additionally, Davis did not realize what Cotton was. Incredibly, Davis forgot that Cotton is a plant that farmers can grow all over the world.
Instead of sending troops to help the South, the British began buying Egyptian and Indian cotton. Sadly, one result of the Civil War was a cotton boom in Egypt, and the redirection of the African slave trade to provide workers for Egypt’s cotton fields.
Second, Davis underestimated the British people’s hatred for slavery. In fact, Parliament had abolished slavery with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 and freed over 800,000 black slaves in the Caribbean, Canada, and South Africa. They accomplished British abolition despite opposition from powerful economic forces including sugar growers.
Yet Davis ignored history and believed Her Majesty’s Government would come to his aid. Thus, Jefferson Davis had little faith in the Confederate Army but vast amounts of faith in an imaginary British intervention.
King Cotton Fails the South
Davis’s first attempt to force British intervention was the “Cotton Embargo” in 1861. Under Davis’s orders the Confederate government tried to stop the export of cotton.
Davis thought he could throw the United Kingdom into recession by starving Lancashire’s cotton mills. The embargo failed because there had been record cotton harvests in 1859 and 1860. Consequently, cheap cotton flooded the market, so the mills kept operating.
A better Southern Strategy could have been to export as much as cotton to Europe as fast as possible. To explain, the Confederacy could have sold the cotton, and bought arms and munitions with the proceeds. Or bartered the cotton for weapons and ammo.
The South could have imported vast amounts of weaponry and munitions before the Union blockaded or captured its ports. In addition, the South could have imported machinery to make weapons and ammunition before the Union blockaded its ports. This could have given the Confederate Army the firepower it needed to defeat Union forces.
Instead, the Confederacy did not get serious about selling cotton until 1863. By then the Union had captured the South’s largest port; New Orleans, and blockaded its coasts.
As a result of Davis’s bad foreign policy and faulty economics victorious Confederate Armies were suffering shortages of weapons and ammunition by 1863. By 1865, thousands of poorly equipped and hungry Confederate soldiers deserted the war effort.
Jefferson Davis’s Plot to Trigger a War between the Union and the British Empire
Jefferson Davis’s British delusion lasted until the end of the Civil War. After the Cotton Embargo’s failure, Davis came up with an even worse plan.
The President dispatched Confederate agents to Canada to trigger a war between the Union and the British Empire. Davis’s hopes were to divert Union troops from Southern battlefields and provoke a British attack on the Union.
Davis’s plan was to attack the Union from Canada; a British colony. The Confederate hope was that the Union could attack Canada in retaliation leading to war.
During the Civil War, there were 11,000 British troops in Canada with orders to march on New York City, if war broke out. In addition, Britain’s Royal Navy had the firepower to sink the Union Navy and end the blockade.
To trigger a war between the Empire and the Union, Davis dispatched a small cell of covert operators to Canada in May 1864. Former U.S Secretary of the Interior Jacob Thompson led Davis’s agents. Davis gave Thompson $1 million to finance the covert operations.*
Thompson’s mission conducted several covert operations against from Canada. Those operations included a 19 October 1864 raid on St. Alban’s, Vermont, a plot to to burn New York City, and plots to free and arm Confederate prisoners of war held in the North.
The covert operations failed; President Abraham Lincoln (R-New York) refused to attack Canada, and Britain stayed neutral. Instead of British intervention, the Confederacy faced collapse and defeat in 1865.
The Madness of Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Davis’s delusions continued until the bitter end of the Confederacy.
Incredibly, Davis thought he could continue the war even after Robert E. Lee had surrendered the main Confederate fighting force, the Army of Northern Virginia in April 1865. Even though most Confederate officials and officers joined Lee in surrendering, Davis fought on.
The main Confederate Armies had surrendered; and Union forces occupied most of the South, but Davis believed he could fight on. The president and a small group of followers wandered around the South for weeks trying to organize resistance.
Eventually, Union cavalry captured Davis in Georgia in May 1865. By then the presidential party was in such sorry shape that Davis was wearing his wife’s shawl for warmth. That led Northern newspapers to claim Davis disguised himself as a woman.
After the Civil War, Davis spent two years in federal prison awaiting trial. Federal prosecutors eventually concluded trying Davis was a waste of time so they released him on bail in 1867. After the war, Davis became a minor celebrity living in poverty and writing his memoirs.
What we can Learn from Jefferson Davis
Davis’s experience shows that supposedly sophisticated leaders can totally misread the situation and delude themselves into thinking blunders are successful policy.
Finally, Davis shows that some political leaders will rather go down in defeat than admit they are wrong. The Confederacy’s experience shows that blindly following a bad leader will lead your cause to destruction.
* See Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil Warby S.C. Gwynne Chapter 13, page 165 for details of Davis’s covert operations in Canada.