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The Turbulent Life and Times of a Fire-Eater

William C. Davis

The first full-length biography of "the Father of Secession"

William C. Davis's biography of Robert Barnwell Rhett provides a definitive picture of South Carolina's most prominent secessionist and arguably the best known in the nation during the two decades leading up to the Civil War. Dubbed the "Father of Secession," Rhett attached himself to South Carolina statesman John C. Calhoun, but grew more zealous than his mentor on the secession issue. Rhett first raised the possibility of secession in 1826, well before Calhoun adopted the notion, and would ever after hold fast to his one great idea. In this examination of Rhett's personal and political endeavors, Davis draws upon many newly found sources to reveal the extremism that would make and mar Rhett's adult life.

Davis traces the statesman's obsession with a separation from the union, which he initially associated with a protective tariff and internal improvements but by the 1840s had unabashedly connected with slavery. Davis details Rhett's seven terms in Congress, his short-lived stint as a United States Senator, and his leading role in the South's newly energized movement toward secession after the 1860 election. Davis reveals Rhett's ambition to be rewarded with the presidency of the new Confederacy or, at least, a premier cabinet post, and his disappointment when he received neither. Rhett became a lightning rod for disaffected men like himself and a leader of the Confederate anti–Jefferson Davis faction, a group that, as the author demonstrates, contributed to the disintegration of Southern morale. Impoverished and embittered at war's end, Rhett spent his last eleven years planting and writing, devoting himself primarily to a caustic personal memoir that he would never complete.

Davis evaluates Rhett's place in history as the hungriest of the "fire-eaters" and finds that such rabid extremism rendered Rhett largely ineffectual, with even South Carolinians refusing to march to his most radical drumbeats.

William C. Davis is the author or editor of nearly fifty books on Civil War and Southern history. For many years the editor and publisher of Civil War Times magazine, he divides his time between consulting on the production of film and television documentaries and on books for publishers in the United States and England. He is currently director of programs for the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies, and professor of history at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virgina. Davis lives in Blacksburg.

"Provides a definitive picture of South Carolina's most prominent secessionist and arguably the best known during the two decades leading up to the Civil War."—Civil War Book Reviews

"Libraries desiring a comprehensive Civil War collection will want this."—Library Journal

"Davis has provided a monumental work on the life of his subject."—Charleston Post & Courier

"In this book, William C. Davis has provided us with a long overdue biography of Robert Barnwell Rhett, the South Carolinian secessionist par excellence. At over six hundred pages it will, no doubt, replace Laura White's now dated work, Robert Barnwell Rhett (1931), as the definitive biography of Rhett."—Journal of American History

"Far overshadows the only previously published biography of [Rhett] …Davis has given us much to mull over."—Journal of Southern History

"Students of the secession movement and the Civil War will find much of value in this extremely well-researched volume."—Alabama Review

"Thoroughly researched, well crafted, and will undoubtedly serve as the seminal work on Rhett for a long time to come."—Civil War History



book jacket for Rhett


6 x 9
788 pages
9 illustrations
ISBN 978-1-57003-439-8
hardcover, $59.95t

2003 George C. Rogers Book Award, South Carolina Historical Society for the best book on South Carolina history


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