Lincoln and Davis: A Clash of Personalities

Michael G. Stroud

'I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence." Abraham Lincoln

The elected leaders of the United States and the Confederate States of America during the Civil War could not have been more varied in appearance, personality, experience, and disposition, all of which played a factor in their leadership during the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was tall (roughly around six foot four inches), with a generally rugged appearance belying his backwoods upbringing. Often considered as having a sad disposition, Lincoln’s underlying strength was that of the military adage: mission above self. This is consistently reflected in Lincoln’s ability to not take matters personally, whether for his own political well-fare or for his own persona, but always putting the mission of keeping the United States united above all else. Putting the needs of the Union first went hand-in-hand with Lincoln’s adaptability, as he could not have had one without the other. This is evidenced in the North’s grand strategy at the outbreak of the war. In the beginning Lincoln and the North were focused on restoring the country to its antebellum pre-war makeup, but soon the realities on the ground demanded a 'hard war' focused on destroying the South’s ability to make war. Lincoln recognized the need for changing the war aims and acted accordingly, working with his personal and professional critics for the common good of the Union while also not hesitating to replace field commanders that did not fit his war aims.
Lincoln and Davis: A Clash of Personalities
Abraham Lincoln as seen from 1846-1865. His increasing stress is witnessed in the progression of the photos, especially the latter that was taken in 1865.

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Lincoln and Davis: A Clash of Personalities
Jefferson Davis had all of the qualifications on paper to have been an effective leader. His personality would trump experience in the end though.

Lincoln’s weaknesses when compared to his strengths, were not offsetting enough to have irrevocably changed the Union’s war fortunes.

He experienced many political and professional failures, personal losses, and next to no military experience (he did serve during the Black Hawk War of 1832 but saw no action) that would have properly prepared him, on paper, to have been an effective war-time leader. In fact, his overriding drive for the cause of restoring the Union worked against him as seen in his dismissal then reappointment of various generals (Pope, Burnside, and Hooker), which nearly destroyed the morale of the Army of the Potomac entirely. Though troublesome, these deficits were eclipsed by his resiliency and perseverance toward achieving the singular mission of making the United States whole again which he did. If Abraham Lincoln was the backwoodsman of the North, then Jefferson Finis Davis (1808-1889) was the dignified gentleman of the South. Standing a full five foot eleven with a slight build, Davis was typically well-dressed and was a full acolyte as to States’ rights and their cause as being one of independence. In contrast to Lincoln, Davis had a plethora of successes from which to build upon during his time as President of the C.S.A., ranging from having attended West Point (an average performance overall to be fair), to his service in the Black Hawk War under future President Zachary Taylor, and his combat experience in the Mexican-American War (which he was wounded) to his years on a cotton plantation in Mississippi. His experiences in government, from various seats in the U.S. House of Representatives to the U.S. Senate and eventually to an appointment as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce provided him with the needed political acumen to be effective if not successful in his role as president of the Confederacy and thus proving to be his greatest strength. Unlike Lincoln however, Davis’ strengths could not offset his weaknesses, some of which, were not of his doing, but rather the nature of his circumstances.
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Davis took everything personally thereby making most perceived and actual affronts as personal attacks on his character which frequently fired his already hot-temper.

Combined with persistent health problems (such as dyspepsia and neuralgia that nearly left him partially blind in one eye) that progressed as the pressures of the war did, and his unrealistic loyalty to friends in the face of battlefield realities for the greater good (Bragg comes to mind at Chattanooga), Davis’ weaknesses proved crippling to the C.S.A. Perhaps Davis’ greatest weakness and one which cost him the entire war, was not one of his making but rather that which he was elected to. The very nature of the Confederate States of America, a collection of independent states whose authority rested in those individual states and not a central government, created a lose-lose situation for Davis. Political viability rested on the integrity of southern territory which forced Davis to spread his forces over vast swathes of land, thus depleting their martial power. Public and political opinion as to southern lands forced Davis into a strategy of territorial defense, with Davis never forgetting 'the necessity of consulting public opinion instead of being guided simply by military principles.' Davis’s military experience told him that force concentration, especially with smaller Confederate armies than their Northern counterparts, was necessary to inflict the defeats that were required to compel the North to negotiate, but the very nature of the C.S.A. was a weakness that he could not overcome. This, when combined with Davis’s lack of leadership intervention (in both field commanders and grand strategy) spelled certain doom for the Confederate States of America.
Lincoln and Davis: A Clash of Personalities
Lincoln and Davis were both war-time president's, but Lincoln's adaptability won out over Davis' rigidness.
Lincoln and Davis: A Clash of Personalities

Michael G. Stroud

Michael G. Stroud is a energetic and passionate U.S. based Military Historian that has published dozens of military history articles in various mediums from print magazines to academic journals, as well as military history websites in both the UK and the U.S. He graduated Summa Cum Laude from American Military University with a bachelor’s degree in Military History and is currently finishing up a master’s degree in Military History with the same university. Michael has been a mentor to other historians throughout the world and has been an invited guest on many history themed podcasts from the UK and the US. He maintains a strong presence on LinkedIn where he can be followed at www.linkedin.com/in/michaelgstroud as well as on X (formerly Twitter) @StroudMichaelG.
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