I have privately shared my story of Jefferson Davis’s hair with friends and colleagues over the years and felt it was time that I came out so I can reveal it to others.
Historians who have studied Civil War memory, myself included, rarely make mention of its relation to Victorian culture. There are obvious connections, which I encountered regularly—particularly the Victorian passion for collecting human hair—hair as relic, hair as keepsake, hair as jewelry, and as sacred memento.
One particularly fascinating story involved the display of a “hair wreath” at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta in 1895. Jeff Davis’s hair was at the center of this wreath and was interwoven with the hair of several other Confederate heroes including Robert E. Lee, Raphael Semmes, Frank Cheatham, Nathan Bedford Forrest, D. H. Hill, Joseph E. Johnston, Edmund Kirby Smith, Bushrod Johnson, and James Longstreet–making it a literal treasure trove of Confederate hair. (I was unable to locate an image of the hair wreath. My apologies.)
Reading about hair is one thing. Encountering it firsthand is quite another. While I was working through a manuscript collection at Duke University, which contained the papers of a well-known UDC leader, I came across an envelope marked “Jeff Davis’ Hair.” This was, indeed, an archival moment. I paused, held my breath, and looked around to see if anyone had noticed what I had just found. I’m not sure why, but I thought someone might grab it and make a mad dash for the door.
I nervously lifted the fold of the envelope that revealed, honest to goodness it did . . . hair! I felt confident that this was indeed a lock of Davis’s hair, the older Davis to be sure, because it was gray. It had to be his: these were the Clement Clay Papers and the UDC member I was researching was Virginia Clay Clopton, a dear friend and frequent correspondent of the former Confederate president.
Did he clip it and send it to her himself, I wondered? When he got his hair cut, did he have a servant sweep up the locks to send to special friends? I didn’t notify anyone of my find at the time, and though shaken I continued my research when, what seemed a nanosecond later, I came to another envelope, similarly marked, and yes, hair again! Virginia was special, indeed.
As I came to learn, Confederate hair is a valuable commodity. The online auction site eBay has a category called “historic hair and hair collectibles.” Samples of Jeff’s hair are currently being auctioned in a range from $125 for a single “authenticated” strand, to $299 for 8 strands collected while he was imprisoned at Fort Monroe in Virginia, to $4,000 for an authenticated strand from the Upper Deck Company called “A Piece of History Hair Cuts.” Upper Deck is known for its sports-related trading cards, but branched out in 2008 with these hair collectibles you see to the right. I have no idea what makes this strand “authentic” and more valuable than the one that cost $125.
And so, friends, what this means is that the locks of Jeff Davis’s hair I encountered in the archives was a veritable Confederate hair bonanza that could have paid off my college loans! Alas, I am not a thief.
Next week, in Part V of “Me and Jeff Davis,” I’ll discuss the annual ritual in Richmond, Virginia, celebrating Davis’s natal day in a ceremony known as the “Massing of the Flags.”