[Jefferson Davis: Unconquerable Heart, by Felicity Allen (Columbia: University of Missouri Press) 808 pp., $34.95]

“As the tug bore him away from the ship, he stood with bared head between the files of undersized German and other foreign soldiers on either side of him, and as we looked, as we thought, our last upon his stately form and knightly bearing, he seemed a man of another and a higher race, upon whom ‘shame would not dare to sit.'”

Felicity Allen begins her superb biography of Jefferson Davis with this portrait, supplied by his wife, of the captured Confederate President as he was being conveyed to Fortress Monroe, where he was forced to endure indignity and mistreatment designed to kill his body and destroy his soul. The opening chapter reads more like a novel than what we have come to expect from a biography with nearly 200 pages of notes and bibliography. With the sure instinct of a good novelist, Mrs. Allen understands that Davis made his greatest impression on the world in defeat, and the rest of her magnificent book unfolds with something of the sense of inevitability conveyed by the novels of Thomas Hardy, with this important difference: Hardy’s tragic heroes get what they deserve.

From the first page of Jefferson Davis: Unconquerable Heart, the modern reader knows he has strayed into alien territory, into that strange world of loyalty courage, and honor that we used to know as America. Many will shrink away from the experience with fear and loathing, as at least one merely academic historian has done in a thoroughly dishonest review, suggesting that, because the latest bibliographical entry is from the 1980’s, Mrs. Allen has not done her homework, that her work is somehow tendentious. In fact, the truly remarkable accomplishment of this book is the fine interweaving of documents and quotations into a narrative that is always coherent and sometimes very beautiful. Unlike so many modern biographers who insist on putting themselves into their books, Mrs. Allen has modestly stayed out of the story. Normal Americans—an increasingly rare breed—will welcome this substantial volume as a new literary and historical classic.

This is by no means the first biography of Jefferson Davis. In addition to his wife, Varina Howells Davis, a long line of biographers, friend and foe, have undertaken the task, from Frank Alfriend’s fairminded attempt in 1868 to Allen Tate’s malicious exercise in historical revisionism to Hudson Strode’s romantic and unscholarly volumes published in the 1950’s and 60’s. Historians and biographers have not, on the whole, been kind to Mr. Davis, or even just. The pattern was set, immediately after the War Between the States, when newspaperman E.A. Pollard published his vindication of the South, The Lost Cause. As Felicity Allen points out. Pollard wanted to prove that the South was right and that the cause was only lost through the perfidy and weakness of the first and only President of the Confederate States.

Every losing side needs a scapegoat, and Jefferson Davis, with his loyalty to West Point officers, provided the conventional sacrificial victim. Davis was wrong to trust Robert E. Lee and not Nathan Bedford Forrest; wrong to draw the line in front of Richmond instead of defending the middle South; wrong to quarrel with Joe Johnston, wrong to trust Johnston’s capacity, wrong to replace him with Hood. More broadly, Davis has been viewed as a conceited prig, emotionally unstable, incapable of running a peaceful city, much less a new nation at war.

Some of the specific points are valid: If Joe Johnston knew anything, it was how to retreat. But President Davis was in an impossible situation: The South was undermanned and outgunned, outspent, and outproduced by the North. All the bravery, chivalry, and honor on the planet could not have won the war without the support of France or Britain. Without French assistance, there would have been no free and independent union of American states in the first place. In one sense, it was Charles Francis Adams, the Union’s ambassador to the Court of St. James, who won the war, not the Union butchers sent by the demagogue in the White House. Unlike most Southern fire-eaters (and Mrs. Allen makes it abundantly clear that Davis was no fire-eater), the President of the Confederacy knew the odds and accepted them calmly as a man is supposed to do. Davis’s brother-in-law, Gen. Dick Taylor, was acerbic on the question of armchair commanders who showed, from the comfort of their book-lined study, how the war should have been fought and could have been won.

In recent years, only Shelby Foote has attempted to paint a sympathetic portrait of Davis, and although some have foolishly accused the Lincoln-loving Foote of Confederate tendencies, they forget that the historian’s own kinsman, Sen. Henry Foote, had been Davis’s political nemesis in Mississippi. There was something in President Davis that caused even his enemies (like Seward) to admire him, and that was his character.

Even Davis’s warmest admirers have tended to portray him as a parody of the “iron man,” John C. Calhoun, as a man almost fanatical in his devotion to principle, admirable (if you like) but barely human. Mrs. Allen, however, reveals a three-dimensional Davis: a fun-loving young man getting in scrapes at West Point; the gallant officer falling in love with Zachary Taylor’s daughter, who became his short-lived first wife; the sorrowing widower. (Mrs. Allen dispels the myth that the marriage caused a serious rift with General Taylor or his family.) In time, he became the hero of the Mexican War and the passionate husband who just managed to keep his equally passionate (to the point of hysteria) and considerably younger wife, Varina Howells, under control.

Mrs. Allen keeps her novelistic eye open to the human dimensions of Davis’s career. He was well served by his loyalty to old friends and comrades like Dick Taylor, Albert Sidney Johnston, Robert E. Lee, and Leonidas Polk, but, straight as he was himself, he could never quite get to the bottom of more equivocal characters like W.H. Seward, Joseph Johnston, or Braxton Bragg. Davis’s constancy in principle and loyalty grew out of a character that was deeply rooted in religious faith. Attracted to the Roman Church as a boy, he never took the final step of conversion: He was repelled, he said, by what he saw of the priests in Cuba.

Even if he had made the change, Davis would have made a gospel-centered, not to say Calvinistic, Catholic. The moral teachings of the Christian Church, with its twin emphases on duty and humanity, inspired him in his daily life. Hearing a Northern politician predict that most blacks would perish once they were freed, Davis was shocked by the brutality of abolitionists who hated Southerners because they (the abolitionists) hated Africans. Of the abolitionists, perhaps only crazy Thad Stevens could endure the presence of African-Americans. But, unlike Abraham Lincoln and his colleagues, Davis had known and trusted black people all his life. He did not regard them as prepared, en masse, for emancipation; he did, however, regard them as fellow human beings deserving of kindness and respect.

In his sympathetic regard for blacks and Indians (Chief Blackhawk, after he was captured, said that this young war chief was the only American who knew how to treat another warrior), Davis revealed himself as a Christian. In the dignity and courage he displayed under sufferings and misfortunes that have broken many good men, he set an enduring example of how a Christian is to live and meet death. It is altogether fitting that a nation contemptuous of Christianity should vilify his name. Pope Pius IX, who understood Davis and what the South was fighting for, sent his own picture to the President; during the Risorgimento, when the Italian Lincolns made the Pope a prisoner in his own palace, the Davis family adorned the picture with a crown of thorns. Varina called it “a crown of thorns and glory.” (Robert E. Lee said that the Pope was “the only sovereign in Europe . . . who recognized our poor Confederacy.”)

In 1861, when Davis was being introduced to the people of Montgomery, William Lowndes Yancey declared, “The man and the hour are met.” In this volume, that declaration has been fulfilled, as President Davis finally receives the biography he deserves.