Until February 1865, the only overall commander of Confederate forces was President Jefferson Davis. Different generals commanded various armies and departments throughout the war. The two major Confederate forces were the Army of Northern Virginia in the east, and the Army of Tennessee in the west.
Jefferson Davis as President and Commander-in-Chief
The Constitution of the Confederate States of America granted the president power as commander-in-chief of all military forces. Few seemed more qualified for that role than Jefferson Davis. A graduate of West Point with distinguished service during the Mexican War, a former member of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, Davis had been Secretary of War during the administration of President Franklin Pierce.
Until the end of the Civil War, Davis remained actively involved in strategy and command of the Confederate armies. Davis ultimately proved an ineffectual military leader. He stubbornly supported incompetent friends appointed to military commands while refusing the advice of those he disliked. His inordinate attention to defending the Confederate capital at Richmond at the expense of other theaters squandered the South's limited military resources.
Confederate Military Structure
The Confederate military began with three component forces. One was the regular army of the Confederate States; the second was the provisional army of the Confederate States and the third was state forces. Although divided into multiple regional commands, the war in the South evolved into the western and eastern theaters.
Leading Confederate Generals
On August 31, 1861, five men received the rank of full general. Most senior was Samuel Cooper, the Adjutant and Inspector General for the Confederacy. Next in line was Albert Sidney Johnston, killed at the Battle of Shiloh on April 6, 1862. The third full general, Robert E. Lee, initially served in a staff role as inspector of military fortifications and as an aide to President Davis. He later commanded the Army of Northern Virginia until the end of the war. Joseph E. Johnston, the only American general officer to resign from the U.S. Army and join the Confederate service, initially commanded forces in Virginia, but after recovering from wounds, led the Army of Tennessee. The general who gave the fateful order to fire on fort Sumter, South Carolina, was P.G.T. Beauregard. Like Joseph Johnston, he fell out of favor with the president and led forces in the western theater until relieved of command later in the war.
Robert E. Lee
The son of Revolutionary War general "Lighthorse" Harry Lee, General Robert E. Lee performed the dual role of commander of the South's Army of Northern Virginia and adviser to President Jefferson Davis on the overall conduct of the war. In February 1865, Lee was appointed general-in-chief of all Confederate forces. When Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, the remaining Southern forces quickly followed suit, ending the war.
- History.com: Jefferson Davis
- Encyclopedia of Virginia: Jefferson Davis
- National Park Service: From Regiment to President, the Structure and Command of Civil War Armies
- Texas Christian University: A series of reviews of " Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West by Steven E. Woodworth
- The Civil War Trust: Robert E. Lee
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images