PETERSON: Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries (2016)

Posted: 10/19/2016
Reviewed By: C. Michael Harrington

Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries by Dennis L. Peterson.  McFarland, 2016.  Paper, ISBN: 978-1476665214.  $35.00.             
 

A quick trivia quiz:  Name any member of Jefferson Davis’ cabinet.

Even those who aced this quiz by identifying several of the 18 men who served at various times in the Confederate cabinet might enjoy reading Dennis L. Peterson’s new book, Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries. This is the first book in more than 70 years to provide an overview of the six departments of the executive branch of the Confederate government, as well as sketches of the men who headed each department. The last book to tackle this subject was Rembert Patrick’s Jefferson Davis and His Cabinet, published in 1944 and long out of print.

The first chapter of the book recounts the formation of the Confederate government in February 1861, the election of Jefferson Davis as president, and Davis’ selection of a cabinet. Like the Confederate constitution, the cabinet posts of the Confederacy drew on the U.S. model. The heads of six departments – Justice, Treasury, War, Navy, Post Office and State – comprised the cabinet.

For political reasons, the Mississippian Davis chose for his cabinet a resident of each of the other six founding states of the Confederacy: Louisiana’s Judah Benjamin, Attorney General; South Carolina’s Christopher Memminger, Secretary of the Treasury; Alabama’s Leroy Pope Walker, Secretary of War; Florida’s Stephen Mallory, Secretary of the Navy; Texas’ John Reagan, Postmaster General; and Georgia’s Robert Toombs, Secretary of State. This original cabinet was top heavy on lawyers, but it included a Jew (Benjamin) and a Roman Catholic (Mallory). Generations would pass before a U.S. cabinet was equally diverse.  

The remaining 24 chapters of the book are grouped into six parts, one for each of the Confederate cabinet departments. Each part begins with a broad overview of the functions, personnel, successes and failures of each department and, in some cases, its bureaus, offices or other sub-departments. Each part concludes with short biographies of the department head. The lengthiest of these biographies is only nine pages; some are little more than thumbnail sketches.

Like the Confederacy, of course, each department started from scratch. The Post Office was the first to get up and running. Reagan wisely retained former federal postal employees in the seceded states, and he lured to Richmond southerners who had worked at the departmental headquarters in Washington (and who brought along not only their expertise, but forms and papers for administering a postal service).  

Secretary Mallory was not so fortunate. He inherited no ready-made navy, but he showed great resourcefulness in procuring several English ships that wreaked havoc on U.S. commercial shipping. Mallory also backed innovations in naval warfare, including mines and submarines.

Ultimately, the decline of the Confederacy’s military fortunes impacted each department. The twin Confederate defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863, for instance, ended any further prospects of the Treasury Department’s obtaining foreign financing.

Congress also occasionally undermined the workings of the cabinet. For instance, the Congressional preference for financing budget deficits via the printing press instead of the tax hikes that Treasury recommended resulted in galloping inflation. Congressional obstinacy affected even the Justice Department. Although the Confederate Constitution called for the formation of a supreme court, Congress failed to organize one, largely because of the fear that a high court might overrule the decisions of state courts. The Attorney General wound up filling this legal vacuum through his office’s issuance of 200-odd opinions to the president and other departments.

Peterson’s brief biographies of the department heads are well written and generally well researched, but uneven in quality. He errs, for instance, is writing that Benjamin lost his “plantation, wife, and much of his wealth – during the war.” In fact, Benjamin sold his Louisiana plantation before the war, and when he died he was living with his wife in Paris. Judging from his bibliography, Peterson’s research into Benjamin’s life extended only to two articles that Robert Meade and Eli Evans wrote about Benjamin, and not to their full-length biographies of the man. Evans’ 1988 biography, The Jewish Confederate, details how Benjamin personally negotiated with the French Jewish banker Emile Erlanger—the Confederacy’s only major foreign loan and a fiscal coup that Peterson attributes to Treasury.

Also, better editing might have spared Peterson from a couple of erroneous generalizations, including his contention that all of the cabinet members “were, or had been … plantation owners.” Definitely, Davis and some of his cabinet members were substantial slaveholders, but Peterson’s own sketches of the lives of several others (especially Reagan and Mallory) should have convinced him otherwise.

The book concludes with Peterson’s assessment of Davis’ cabinet, which is basically critical. Peterson itemizes several problems with the cabinet, including the politics underlying its selection and composition, plus a lack in continuity of leadership in all but the Navy and Post Office departments. But Peterson finds Davis personally responsible for much of his cabinet’s problems. He faults Davis’ prickly personality and general coolness towards his co-workers, in addition to his indecisiveness in making cabinet decisions. Principally, Peterson blames what he terms Davis’ “tendency to meddle and micromanage” for the cabinet’s problems. While this criticism is not unfounded, Peterson’s analogy of Davis’ conduct towards his secretaries and generals to the way Adolf Hitler ran the Nazi war machine is strained at best.

The book includes photos of Davis and almost all of the cabinet secretaries. The Confederate Constitution appears in an appendix. A seven-page bibliography attests to the depth and scope of Peterson’s research.

Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries does not pretend to offer an exhaustive account of the executive branch of the Confederate government, let alone definitive biographies of its leaders. But it does provide a good, single-volume source for readers interested in this important but neglected subject.

 

C. Michael Harrington is a Houston lawyer who has degrees in economics from Yale and Cambridge and a law degree from Harvard. He has published several articles on South Carolina soldiers in the Civil War.

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