“Physicians of the Public Weal”: Jefferson Davis, His Cabinet, and Confederate Identity, Nationalism, and Morale



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The Confederate States of America was dependent on the success of its military. Civilian leaders stood behind the military, creating and dictating policy at all levels of Confederate society. President Jefferson Davis assembled a Cabinet designed to unite separate States behind a single national government. Composed of state politicians of varying influence, the Cabinet of Jefferson Davis failed to engage in defining a national Confederate identity. Additionally, these men focused on the administrative work of the new government, leaving the creation of national identity and loyalty to President Davis who was consistently undermined by military failures. Examining the papers, diaries, speeches, and letters of Jefferson Davis and members of his Cabinet (and other observers of life in the Confederate capital) revealed that the Cabinet engaged in no public statements of national purpose. Additionally, Cabinet officers and key government leaders confided to private diaries and journals their belief as early as 1862 that the Confederate national experiment was doomed. Nationalism in the Confederacy was strong, relying on a pre-existing American nationalism, redirected to the new Confederate government. The Confederate nation was tied to the fight for self-government epitomized in the mind of Davis in the American Revolution. Firmly engaged in a struggle to preserve the past gains of the Revolution, Davis could never articulate a forward-looking national identity that inspired loyalty. As vast portions of the Confederacy fell to Union occupation, his words rang hollow. Efforts beginning in 1864 to redefine Confederate national identity based on independence removed the homogenizing effect of slavery and race. In Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, Varina Davis, the wives of Cabinet officers, and other elite women engaged in the extra-official politics of social functions. In the early years of American independence, similar social functions hosted by First Ladies helped to give the young nation a sense of legitimacy, especially on the world stage. In the Confederacy, a lukewarm First Lady and a sickly President limited social functions. When these functions did occur, they exacerbated class tensions.



Jefferson Davis, Cabinet, Confederate States of America, Nationalism