Me and Jeff Davis, Part VII: His Crown of Thorns

JD's crown and the Confederate Museum's story that the Pope made it.
JD’s crown of thorns

Nothing says “Christian martyr” like a crown of thorns, but did you know that Jefferson Davis had one, too?  He did.

Preparing my manuscript on the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) often took me to the Museum of the Confederacy (MOC) in Richmond. In one final trip to search for images with which to illustrate my book, I traveled there in the spring of 2002. At the time, the MOC was hosting a special exhibit of items on loan from the Confederate Memorial Hall Museum in New Orleans, which opened in 1891 and is one of the oldest history museums in the South.

I walked through the exhibit, observing objects from several of the South’s heroes (General P.G.T. Beauregard‘s uniform, for example) and then was stopped in my tracks by the relic of all Lost Cause relics. There before me under plexiglas was a crown of thorns. Without reading the exhibit copy, I instinctively knew it was for Jeff. And, yes, I was right. Here before me rested the ultimate symbol of his martyrdom—a crown of thorns. I could hardly believe my eyes. I saw (but would not touch) the locks of his hair, and now I found myself gazing on his crown of thorns.

The martyrdom of Jeff Davis began to take shape during his imprisonment at Fort Monroe in Va.
The martyrdom of Jeff Davis began to take shape during his imprisonment at Fort Monroe in Va.

The thorny wreath, according to the Confederate Museum that owns it, was “sent to Davis by Pope Pius IX in sympathy for Davis’ post war treatment by the U.S. government while a prisoner at Fortress Monroe.” That seemed like a sacrilegious thing for a pope to do, but the representatives of the museum have yet to waiver from their story. However, the researchers at the Museum of the Confederacy documented their version, which is that his wife Varina Davis made the crown. An inventory of items donated by Varina to the Confederate Museum in New Orleans confirms that she made the crown, but I’ve yet to find out why. (Kevin Levin offers the documentation on his Civil War Memory site.)

This object, this relic of the Lost Cause, makes quite a statement about Davis as a martyr, because not every martyr gets a crown of thorns. Did the white South believe so whole-heartedly that his sacrifices were Christ-like?

I have no doubt that the early members of the UDC were on board with the “Davis as martyr” image, because it was in keeping with the stories written about women of the Confederate generation in the years following the Civil War.

Those “women of the sixties” were frequently compared to Mary and Martha of the Bible, “last at the cross and first at the grave.” Perhaps the UDC saw its role in preserving the image of Jeff Davis as similar in intent.

The crown of thorns, while made by Varina, served its purpose as the pièce de résistance in a much larger campaign by women to resurrect Davis’s image.

Check back for the final installment of Me and Jeff Davis: The Serial when I discuss the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library as well as the financial and political costs of the Lost Cause.

 

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Me and Jeff Davis, Part V: Massing Flags for Jeff’s Birthday

jdmassingSince 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.

Headquarters of the UDC in Richmond, VA.
Headquarters of the UDC in Richmond, VA.

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.

Image credit: Virginia UDC website.
Image credit: Virginia UDC website.

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.

Wells made national papers again in 2011 when an image of her appeared in USA Today as one of several South Carolinians participating in a Secession Ball.
Wells made national papers again in 2011 when an image of her appeared in USA Today as one of several South Carolinians participating in a Secession Ball.

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.