In 1991, I moved to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to begin work on my Ph.D. My advisor was Marjorie Spruill, a women’s history scholar who is now a professor of history at the University of South Carolina. Knowing that my research interests centered on the Lost Cause, she told me even before I arrived at Southern Miss that I “must” see Beauvoir, the last home of the Confederate President.
Officially known as the “Shrine of Jefferson Davis,” Beauvoir is located on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast and lives up to its name “beautiful view,” as it looks out on the Gulf of Mexico. What intrigued me, however, were the exhibits in the museum adjacent to the home. During my initial visit, I toured the museum, operated by the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), and recall reading on one of the introductory exhibit panels the following: “During the dark days of Reconstruction. . .” The Lost Cause was alive and well.
One of the fascinating artifacts on display in the museum was one of the catafalques that, in 1893, carried Davis’s body in parades following his disinterment from Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans, as it made its way to Richmond, Virginia, for reburial in the Capitol of the Confederacy. This was my first encounter (there would be others) with the macabre aspects of the Lost Cause, Victorian in its fascination with death. In fact, I learned, Davis didn’t have just one funeral, he had two. One following his death in New Orleans in 1889, and then a second four years later.
This wasn’t all. Because he was the “one and only” Confederate President, Davis’s body was taken to Richmond on a funeral train decorated with black bunting–similar to the one that carried Abraham Lincoln back to Illinois following his assassination. As the Davis train it made its way north, from New Orleans to Richmond, it was often interrupted by mourners in small towns along the route who gathered along the tracks to offer flowers to the Davis family.
On the way to Davis’s final resting place in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery, there were designated stops in Birmingham, Alabama, and Raleigh, North Carolina. Beginning with New Orleans, Davis’s coffin was hoisted onto the catafalque and pulled through the streets of each city as part of a parade of men, women, and children who vied to be selected participants. (I have often thought about the unfortunate souls who rode in the wagon immediately downwind from the catafalque.) Then, on the day of this second burial–May 31st, 1893–75,000 people turned out to pay their respects. Mourning Davis’s death had clearly not been completed in 1889.
It was routine to cross paths with the memory of the Confederate president while living in Mississippi, the state he represented in the United States Senate. A year after my arrival I made a research trip to Tulane University, just two hours from Hattiesburg. Yet my most vivid memory of that time was not what I found in the archives, but what I saw on my drive there.
It was 1992, the year Bill Clinton became president, and bumper stickers with the phrase “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Bush,” were everywhere. But these Mississippians gave it new meaning with the message “Don’t Blame Me, I voted for Jeff Davis.” Here was another reminder of the hold the Lost Cause had on the Deep South.
There was also the time, while driving around Hattiesburg, I noticed something quite spectacular when I drove past a defunct elementary school that now headquartered a Head Start program, which served a population that was largely minority. It was one of those moments when you do a double-take and rub your eyes, because across the front door of the building a banner read “Jefferson Davis Head Start Program.”
As I came to learn, public schools in Mississippi and across the South were named or renamed for Confederate heroes, often at the behest of the local UDC chapter. In this case, Jefferson Davis Elementary School. I’m sure, dear reader, that the irony of this is not lost on you when you consider that the name of the Confederate President, an advocate of slavery, became associated with a program that helped black children get a head start. Think on that.
Return next week for Me and Jeff Davis, Part III: “I name you ‘Jefferson Davis.'”