It’s an exciting time for historians, especially as we get nearer to the opening of the film “Free State of Jones” on June 24th. Part of the excitement has been generated by the marketing of the film (including during Game 7 of the NBA Finals!), but also the real sense that the history is being told as carefully as possible through the medium of film, which doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to telling “the true story.”
Below are some links that will assist you in learning more about the story behind the film Free State of Jones.
Author and historian Victoria Bynum’s interview about Jones County, the Civil War, the Knight Company and other interesting facts about the Free State of Jones is available on Mississippi Public Broadcasting.
The New York Times calls this a “film with footnotes,” a reference to the intensive research that went into the making of the movie. Learn about the history in this extensive website that accompanies the movie.
My journey through the culture of the Lost Cause and what had been (still is?) the cult of Jefferson Davis came full circle years after my initial visit to Beauvoir upon learning about the creation of the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library. This project was initiated by the Mississippi Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), which owns and operates the site, and through its lobbying efforts became a financial beneficiary of the State of Mississippi. On their own, the Sons were not successful in their efforts to raise money for the library. In fact, the money they raised was not enough to renovate the house, much less build a presidential library.
So the Sons lobbied state officials, especially then Governor Kirk Fordice, who confirmed his support for Confederate history during each year of his two terms in office by officially declaring April as Confederate Heritage Month. The SCV’s lobbying efforts to garner funds for the library were rewarded in 1993 when the state gave $1.5 million in bond funds for the project. Then, two years later, Governor Fordice signed a bill giving the SCV an additional $3 million. Thus, the State of Mississippi awarded $4.5 million in taxpayer funds to a private institution to create (without a hint of irony) the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library. Not “Confederate Presidential Library,” mind you, but Presidential Library.
This kind of state support was common in the early twentieth century. Throughout the South, state legislatures and local governments gave today’s equivalent of millions of dollars to erect Confederate monuments, build soldiers’ and widows’ homes, and fund other Lost Cause projects.
As states poured funds into creating stone likenesses of Confederate soldiers, their black citizens suffered as schools were underfunded and many lived in abject poverty. Not much has changed in the last century. It may be 2015, but it wreaks of 1915.
In today’s Mississippi, most minorities and poor whites must attend substandard public schools where state expenditures on public education place the state at the bottom in nationwide rankings. And yet there always seems to be money for a historic site dedicated to a pro-slavery president of a defeated Confederate nation.
This was brought into sharp relief when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. It nearly wiped Beauvoir from the map and destroyed the library. But have no fear, both the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) and the Mississippi Emergency Management Association (MEMA) came to the rescue. From a report from the Department of Homeland Security:
“As of May 18, 2010, Beauvoir had received a public assistance award of $17.2 million from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), a FEMA grantee, for damages related to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.”
Not only was Beauvoir restored, the library was rebuilt to the tune of $17.2 million dollars. This on top of the original $4.5 million comes to $21.7 million for the site. Let that sink in.
Understanding Jeff Davis’s role in the Confederate tradition has, for me, meant truly knowing what a hold the Lost Cause still has on the South. Are white southerners, as my colleague David Goldfield writes, “still fighting the Civil War?” Certainly some of them are.
What’s more significant, I would argue, is that the white South continues to honor, revere, and value Confederate heritage without putting up a fight at all. It’s all around us if we look, and paid for by local, state, and even the Federal government–especially in the Deep South.
The price of Confederate heritage goes beyond the millions that were spent to commemorate it and the millions spent to preserve it. There’s a price to pay for honoring the heritage that I encountered through the memory of Jefferson Davis. It’s a heritage that has come at the expense of African American progress and the region’s poorest citizens, black and white. It’s a heritage that has hampered race relations and civil rights. And, it’s a heritage that has hurt the region’s reputation throughout the nation.
Simply put: Confederate heritage has cost the South too much.
In 1913, UDC President-General Rassie White conceived of a memorial project unlike any other. The organization’s success with monuments was evident throughout the South and in some northern cities, including Chicago. Even San Francisco had a Confederate memorial in the form of a park planted with southern trees.
But it was the opportunity to honor their man once again that led President-General White and the Daughters to suggest that a highway, named for Jefferson Davis, be created. The transcontinental route would extend from ocean to ocean and wind its way through southern states, beginning in Washington, DC, and ending in San Diego, California.
There would also be two auxiliary routes: one from Davis’s birthplace in Fairview, Kentucky, to his last residence, Beauvoir, on the coast of Mississippi. Surprisingly, the other route would follow Davis’s escape route through the South to the site of his capture in Irwinsville, Georgia. Surprising, since this route ended at the place where the controversy erupted over his capture in feminine attire.
The Daughters’ did not fully succeed in completing this highway memorial, as some sections of the road were built but not connected as a continuous coast to coast route. Today, only some parts of the highway carry the Davis name. One, ironically, is U.S. 80 in Alabama, particularly the segment from Selma to Montgomery. It was indeed on this road, named for Jefferson Davis, that the Reverend Martin Luther King led the march that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a story recently dramatized in the movie “Selma.”
The other route, U.S. 1 in Virginia, also carries the name Jefferson Davis Highway. It was through this section of the memorial that I again crossed paths, literally, with the memory of the Confederate president.
In 2001, I moved to Arlington, Virginia. Friends of mine directed me to some apartments in the area known as Crystal City, adjacent to National Airport (I’m one of those who still resists the name change to Reagan National for good reason.) Because I had to make a quick decision, I settled on an apartment in this section of Arlington.
My new address, and a big surprise to me, was none other than Jeff Davis Highway. As serendipity would have it, it was there, with a Jeff Davis address, that I put the finishing touches on the manuscript that became Dixie’s Daughters.
Since 1965, the year the Voting Rights Act was passed, the headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in Richmond, Virginia, has hosted an annual ceremony known as the “Massing of the Flags.” The event, held each June, commemorates the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. It is the one time each year that the UDC opens its doors to the public, and in my many research trips to the city, I was told that it would be interesting for me to attend this event.
In 2000, my curiosity led me to Richmond to find out what massing of the flags–Confederate style–meant. As I approached the headquarters I saw men in reproduction Confederate uniforms and women in dresses that cascaded over hoop skirts. It was a sign of things to come.
Entering the building, one walks into the large central room where the ceremony is held. Stretching along the wall directly opposite the entrance is a row of chairs, reminiscent of Masonic chairs, which at one time likely hosted the officers of the Daughters’ general organization. Above the chairs on the wall is the UDC motto “Think, Love, Pray, Dare, Live” represented on a five-pointed star with a cotton boll at the center.
I took a seat on the right side of the aisle and waited for the day’s activities to begin. Leading the audience in prayer, the minister did what Lost Cause devotees of a century earlier had done—paid homage to Jefferson Davis by likening his sacrifices for the South to those of Christ for humanity. Another speaker led the crowd in a rousing rebel yell, followed by the singing of “Dixie.” The day’s speech, like every year’s ceremony, focused on some aspect of Davis’s life and career. Then, I learned about massing flags.
State by state (not all of which we know to be Confederate, like California) was represented by a man and woman dressed in period attire. The man carried the state’s flag, as commentary about the state’s sacrifices, commitment to, or sympathy with the Confederate cause was read aloud.
Chests swelled with pride and the ceremony was observed by many others dressed in period attire, dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs as the parade of flags passed by. Lest you think this was a ceremony of the aged, the Children of the Confederacy (the UDC’s official youth auxiliary) was also represented, just as in commemorations past.
This particular commemoration was marked with a speech by June Murray Wells, then president-general of the entire UDC organization. A resident of Charleston, South Carolina, Wells’ presence at that year’s massing came on the heels of the fight over the Confederate battle flag that flew atop the South Carolina State House in Columbia, which was subsequently removed.
In her speech recounting the year’s battles, however, Murray stayed true to Lost Cause form and painted the eventual outcome as a moral victory for Confederate organizations. She noted with pride that the flag, no longer flying out of view on top of the capitol, now appeared more visible to the state’s citizens, as it waved from a thirty-foot flagpole that stood directly in front of the building. “The pole is lit at night,” she told the enthusiastic crowd, and, she chuckled “should anyone try to remove the flag, it has an electric charge.”
That day Jefferson Davis’s birthday was marked in true Lost Cause fashion. A man who was a white supremacist was honored through modern day racist rhetoric. The NAACP, whose members Wells referred to as “that crowd,” and its boycott of South Carolina was, for those gathered to honor Davis, about “us” versus “them,” of white versus black.
And in their minds, the Confederate forces had won.
In Part VI of Me and Jeff Davis, I’ll talk about living on Jefferson Davis Highway.
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.”
Of the many bizarre stories about Jefferson Davis, the one about the renaming of his grandson takes the cake and gets a creep factor of 9 out of a possible 10.
The story of Davis’s death and subsequent funerals is made even more unusual by the reaction of the white South to the fact that once Davis died, there were no more direct descendents with the name Jefferson Davis. And this would not do. Junior died during the yellow fever epidemic of 1878. So responsibility for carrying on the name fell on the shoulders of little Jefferson Davis Hayes, the Confederate chieftain’s grandson by his daughter Margaret Howell Davis Hayes.
The story of his name change captured my attention, particularly when I read Margaret’s obituary, which described how the young boy “receiv[ed] the name in baptism over the coffin containing the body of President Davis.” Let me repeat. The name change occurred in a “baptism over the coffin” of the deceased Confederate president.
When Davis died in 1889, his body lay in state in New Orleans, and it was here that the name change was made. According to the account in the Confederate Veteran, Margaret Hayes “begged” Mississippi’s Governor Robert Lowry and other state officials to legalize the name change of her five-year old son to honor the Confederate president and preserve the name Jefferson Davis by changing his name from “Jefferson Davis Hayes” to “Jefferson Hayes Davis.” “The child was sent for,” the author wrote, “and the Governor, taking him on his knee, explained in simple language what he wished done.” The account suggests that little Jefferson understood what was being asked of him and, after a moment of silence, “burst into tears” and told the Governor “I specs I’ll dess have to be named for my poor dead dranpa, who isn’t dot anybody at all named for him.”
What followed in this retelling reveals some of the more macabre aspects of the Lost Cause, as Governor Lowry took the young boy into his arms, and walked over to the “dead chieftain.” He then lifted the Confederate flag that draped the coffin and proceeded to swaddle the child with it before making his pronouncement: “I name you ‘Jefferson Davis.’” And, soon after, the State of Mississippi followed through on its promise to confirm the name change, doing so by an act of the state legislature.
You can’t make this stuff up, folks.
In part IV of the serial “Me and Jeff Davis,” I’ll discuss the significance of Confederate hair. Yes, hair.
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.'”