Jefferson Davis' speech of September 23, 1864, was so bad that Americans North and South speculated that it was a spoof or a satire – but it was real and sincere. In this speech Davis greatly discouraged his own troops and vastly raised morale in the North; unpersuasively justified his removal of a popular, effective commander for one who had suffered unprecedented losses; viciously attacked one his critics without naming him, leading many of his opponents to believe themselves gravely insulted by the President; and through an unbelievable exercise of "loose lips" caused his army's strategic plans to be published in the newspapers, thereby contributing to the some of the most astonishing Union victories of the Civil War. Most importantly he revealed the principles that he thought the Confederacy stood for.
On September 23, 1864, Jefferson Davis addressed the Confederate Army of Tennessee at Macon, Georgia. The speech was published in the Macon Telegraph the following day. The speech itself is available here; an annotated version of the speech from The Papers of Jefferson Davis may be accessed here.
After Braxton Bragg, one of Jefferson Davis' favorite generals, inexplicably lost the State of Tennessee by being unable to hold impregnable positions at Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, the rugged but out-of-favor Joe Johnston held William Tecumseh Sherman off in northern Georgia throughout the spring and summer of 1864. Johnston, outnumbered 2 to 1, fought a wiley defensive battle, giving up ground grudgingly, slowly edging back toward the fortress of Atlanta, inflicting heavy casualties on Sherman whenever he attacked, extending Sherman's lines of communication, and never giving Sherman the opportunity to land a knockout blow that would threaten Atlanta. Most importantly, Johnston wanted to prevent the Union army from achieving a significant victory that would ensure Lincoln's reelection. If the war could be prolonged until after election day, the war-weary North might replace steadfast Lincoln with gutless McClellan, thus guaranteeing the independence of the Confederacy. Sherman could not have taken Atlanta by storm if he had had twice as many troops.
But Davis did not consider Johnston manly enough, and with Bragg whispering in his ear Davis replaced Johnson with John Bell Hood, the bravest and stupidest general of the Civil War. Hood, who had already sacrificed one arm and one leg for his fledgling country, now proceeded to sacrifice his troops, his army, the City of Atlanta, and the last hopes of the Confederacy. Hood launched a series of reckless attacks on Sherman's forces all around Atlanta. Each time his smaller force suffered far more casualties than they inflicted. Finally, exhausted and demoralized, his troops abandoned Atlanta and withdrew to Macon, where Davis delivered the speech that was intended to inspire the Army of Tennessee and the people of the South.
The Gettysburg Address it wasn't.
Davis bravely admitted that it was a time of "adversity." He confidently asserted that Sherman's army, like Napoleon at Moscow, would now be destroyed as it was compelled to retreat through enemy territory. But in doing so Davis betrayed the strategy that the Confederacy would pursue:
What, though misfortune has befallen our arms from Decatur to Jonesboro, our cause is not lost. Sherman cannot keep up his long line of communication, and retreat sooner or later, he must. And when that day comes, the fate that befel the army of the French Empire and its retreat from Moscow will be reacted. Our cavalry and our people will harass and destroy his army as did the Cossacks that of Napoleon, and the Yankee General, like him will escape with only a body guard.
Reading this speech in the newspapers, Sherman came to an important realization. Davis' plan was that Hood and the Army of Tennessee should busy themselves attacking Sherman's supply lines and intended to take back Tennessee. If he cut his supply lines, lived off the land, and led his army east to the Atlantic coast, he would face no opposition. Sherman responded:
If Hood will take his army into Tennessee I will supply him with rations!
Not satisfied with detailing the strategy that the Army of Tennessee intended to follow, Davis proceded to disclose his army's greatest weakness. He revealed that the army was greatly understrength, and, even worse, he attributed the cause to cowardice or a lack of patriotism:
It is not proper for me to speak of the number of men in the field. But this I will say, that two-thirds of our men are absent – some sick, some wounded, but most of them absent without leave.
Jeff, you should have stopped at "It is not proper to speak of the number of men in the field."
Davis' solution to the problem of widespread desertion was to appeal to men's consciences to return to the army, but in doing so he painted the most pathetic picture of his country, emphasizing "the wail of their suffering" and encouraging mothers to sacrifice all of their sons, even the little boys:
How can this be the most speedily effected? By the absentees of Hood's army returning to their posts And will they not? Can they see the banished exiles, can they hear the wail of their suffering country-women and children, and not come. By what influences they are made to stay away, it is not necessary to speak. If there is one who will stay away at this hour, he is unworthy of the name of a Georgian. To the women no appeal is necessary. They are like the Spartan mothers of old. I know of one who had lost all her sons, except one of eight years. She wrote me that she wanted me to reserve a place for him in the ranks. The venerable Gen. Polk, to whom I read the letter, knew that woman well, and said that it was characteristic of her. But I will not weary you by turning aside to relate the various incidents of giving up the last son to the cause of our country known to me. Wherever we go we find the heart and hands of our noble women enlisted. They are seen wherever the eye may fall, or step turn. They have one duty to perform – to buoy up the hearts of our people.
General Leonides Polk, of course, had been killed by Union artillary at long range a few months earlier. Attaway to bouy up the hearts of the people, Jeff!
To add to his message of hope, Davis then confessed that there weren't many men of military age left to fight the war, and that the ranks must now be filled by boys and old men:
You have not many men between 18 and 45 left. The boys – God bless the boys – are as rapidly as they become old enough going to the field. The city of Macon is filled with stores, sick and wounded. It must not be abandoned, when threatened, but when the enemy come, instead of calling upon Hood's army for defence, the old men must fight, and when the enemy is driven beyond Chattanooga, they too can join in the general rejoicing.
Having painted this rosy future for an army of old men and little boys (and again disclosing the army's plans to retake Tennessee), Davis turned to an even more critical topic – how right he had been to replace Joe Johnston with John Bell Hood as head of the Army of Tennessee. He first spoke of Johnston's pattern of holding Sherman off as a "disgrace," and then praised Hood's "honest and manly blow" against the Union army:
I know the deep disgrace felt by Georgia at our army falling back from Dalton to the interior of the State, but I was not of those who considered Atlanta lost when our army crossed the Chattahoochee. I resolved that it should not, and I then put a man in command who I knew would strike an honest and manly blow for the city, and many a Yankee's blood was made to nourish the soil before the prize was won.
Okay. Johnston was a disgrace and a coward, Hood both honest and manly. But in case you missed the point about Johnston, Davis explained his decision further:
If I knew that a General did not possess the right qualities to command, would I not be wrong if he was not removed? Why, when our army was falling back from Northern Georgia, I even heard that I had sent Bragg with pontoons to cross into Cuba. But we must be charitable.
I'm not sure that Davis' understanding of the concept "charity" is the same that Lincoln expressed in the Second Inaugural.
Having established his wisdom in replacing Johnston with Hood, Davis then chose to defend himself against his many critics. Well, actually Davis pretended that he had only one critic; and, for good measure, that solitary individual was a person of dastardly nature and despicable character:
It has been said that I abandoned Georgia to her fate. Shame upon such a falsehood. Where could the author have been when Walker, when Polk, and when Gen. Stephen D. Lee was sent to her assistance. Miserable man. The man who uttered this was a scoundrel. He was not a man to save our country.
There are a couple of minor problems with this complaint. First, it was not one "scoundrel" but several prominent Confederate leaders who had publicly criticized Davis' leadership, including Joseph E. Brown (Governor of Georgia) and Alexander Stephens (the Vice-President of the Confederacy), as well as several leading southern newpaper editors. Second, by following the strategy outlined in this speech Davis did abandon Georgia to her fate. Sherman's brutal and destructive March to the Sea met no significant opposition.
In the most hopeful portion of his speech, Davis attempted to portray the just rewards that would await the soldier who returned to the battle. It was here that he failed most spectactularly:
The man who can speculate ought to be made to take up his musket. When the war is over and our independence won, (and we will establish our independence,) who will be our aristocracy? I hope the limping soldier. To the young ladies I would say when choosing between an empty sleeve and the man who had remained at home and grown rich, always take the empty sleeve. Let the old men remain at home and make bread. But should they know of any young men keeping away from the service who cannot be made to go any other way, let them write to the Executive. I read all letters sent me from the people, but have not the time to reply to them.
In this passage Davis tells his soldiers that if they fight on they will be "limping" with "an empty sleeve," and that the men who remain home will "grow rich." He adds that the old men who stay home effeminitely "making bread" should write President Davis to inform on any young men avoiding military service – but that he, Davis, would have no time to answer those letters.
The speech is a testament to the courage of the Americans who fought to gain their independence from the United States, but it is also an admission of the hopelessness of that struggle. Davis' imagery unintentionally reflected the fact that so many Confederate soldiers had been grievously wounded and called into question the impaired leadership of General Hood:
Let us with one arm and one effort endeavor to crush Sherman.
In my opinion the most demoralizing aspect of Davis' speech – the worst mistake he made – was to use the word "aristocracy" to describe Confederate society. This was probably Davis' honest opinion, his vision of what his country should be. In his utopian society wealthy planters and slaveholders would dominate, blacks would labor unremittingly, and poor whites would serve as peasants and cannon fodder. This vision stands in stark contrast to Lincoln's vision of a country "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." Here is what Lincoln said to a departing Ohio regiment a month earlier, encouraging them to return to the fighting after a visit home:
I suppose you are going home to see your families and friends. For the service you have done in this great struggle in which we are engaged I present you sincere thanks for myself and the country. I almost always feel inclined, when I happen to say anything to soldiers, to impress upon them in a few brief remarks the importance of success in this contest. It is not merely for to-day, but for all time to come that we should perpetuate for our children's children this great and free government, which we have enjoyed all our lives. I beg you to remember this, not merely for my sake, but for yours. I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House. I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father's child has. It is in order that each of you may have through this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations. It is for this the struggle should be maintained, that we may not lose our birthright—not only for one, but for two or three years. The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel. (Speech to 166th Ohio Regiment, August 22, 1864, 7 Collected Works, at 512)
The contrasting speeches by Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis sharply illustrated to all of the people of the United States what the differences were between the societies of the United States and the Confederacy, and demonstrated why it was necessary to preserve the Union and abolish slavery.