Book Review: Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries


McFarland: 2016

My career in the publishing industry was a short one. Yet during that time, I was able to indulge my enjoyment of combing through resources and turning them into a narrative, a cohesive whole. My writings were small-time, my name on the contributing writers page printed in what was probably a size 6 font. After many history classes and many years of reading history books and biographies, I admit that I sometimes dream of writing a work of my own.

A colleague from my writing days, Dennis Peterson, recently realized the dream of having his own name on the cover of a published work. Dennis has long been an enthusiast for Southern history and the history of The War Between the States in particular. He found his niche in researching Jefferson Davis’s cabinet and bringing together all of the scattered knowledge of the secretaries and their accomplishments in one volume, Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries. I am thrilled for him that he achieved such an accomplishment and, of course, I am more than a little envious. He asked me to do the honor of reading and reviewing his book here.

Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries is perhaps the most thorough treatment of the subject available to historians today. As Mr. Peterson points out in his preface, authors who attempted a similar objective were published more than sixty years ago. Many personalities and cabinet positions continued to remain unknown. Mr. Peterson’s book is devoted to a detailed explanation of each cabinet department and sub-department and the men who filled the varying positions within them and a narrative of how each department operated during the war.

Certainly there are so many individuals catalogued here that, aside from the most influential personalities, it is hard to keep a firm grasp on them. Yet taken together, a pattern, or narrative arc, emerges; that is, the story of the Confederate cabinet is largely a story of failure. Many highly-educated and politically experienced men filled these positions, yet, nearly to a man, they were unsuccessful in their given task. Part of me wonders if this was largely because the Confederate government was thrown in over its head far too soon after its birth. There was no honeymoon period in which to streamline operations; it was immediately in crisis mode. Looking at the flip side of this situation, it’s obvious that the Union had a great advantage in its own momentum as a working government (all other advantages aside).

The greatest blame for the failure of the Confederate cabinet, however, appears to lie with Jefferson Davis himself, who had deeply flawed ideas about leadership. One of the recurring themes of Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries is that Davis could not or would not delegate; he micromanaged his deputies and, in many instances, purposely installed yes-men. He also chose men who he thought would be political assets, but who had no experience in their appointed field. These factors led to natural frustrations and a high turnover rate—another reason the Confederate government never gained any momentum. And he failed to understand the political dynamics at work in the states of the Confederacy; these states, which had felt so strongly about their rights as to leave the Union, were not eager to work again with a central government. I cannot help but contrast Davis’ management style with the way that Lincoln strategically assembled his cabinet. Whether or not we like the way Lincoln managed the war from his end, it’s apparent that Lincoln was an immense advantage to the Union, whereas Davis was a disadvantage to the Confederacy.

Aside from some of the intriguing and new-to-me information found in the book (my favorite being the history of torpedoes and submersibles), what I appreciate the most about Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries is that Mr. Peterson found a hole in history and he set out to fill it. Time and again in my casual reading of history I find mention of people whose stories are yet to be told. Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries goes a long way toward telling some of those stories.

Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries appears at an opportune time—or a very unfortunate one, if Americans are trying to run as fast as they can from any hint of the Confederacy. My opinion, however, is that now is the time to learn all that we can about our American past, approach historical people and their ideas with objectivity, and place the current American sociopolitical climate in context. In that case, works such as this one are necessary.