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 IV: A Confederate Hair Bonanza

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.

A hair wreath in honor of a Union soldier.
A hair wreath in honor of a Union soldier.

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.

58614966One 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.

For $4,000 you may have this single strand of Jeff's hair.
For $4,000 you may have this single strand of Jeff’s hair.

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.”

 

 

 

Me and Jeff Davis: The Serial

moijefferson-davis-portrait

This week, and for the next several weeks, Pop South will offer a serial called “Me and Jeff Davis,” based on an essay I wrote for fun but for which I never found the right publishing venue.  Now that I have a blog and we are still in the midst of the Civil War sesquicentennial, why not? What follows is Part 1.

As scholars we often develop a personal relationship with our work, feeling as if we know the people we study even though they have long since died. Early in my career, my research involved a study of the Lost Cause, more specifically, those women who helped to preserve it for generations—the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC).

UDCTN1900
UDC members in Jackson, Tennessee. 1900.

Through these women, and my fascination with the Confederate tradition in the New South, I became very familiar with Jefferson Davis, or “Jeff,” as I like to call him.

Lost Cause Jeff.
Lost Cause Jeff.

Jeff Davis of the Lost Cause was quite different from Jefferson Davis, one and only Confederate President. The postwar Davis is a man whose journey from despised loser to sacred martyr is the man I came to know through my research.

The UDC made sure of it, even if Davis had never participated in the resurrection of his own image, which he did. They built grand monuments to him in New Orleans and Richmond, and smaller places in between. His image is one of three Confederate leaders carved into Stone Mountain in Georgia. There’s even a highway named for him, compliments of these Daughters of the Confederacy.

And while Robert E. Lee may have been the South’s most beloved hero, Jefferson Davis was the Daughters’ “Man.” He symbolized the South in her loss, defending the cause of states’ rights and his, as well as the region’s, reputation. Moreover, for the devotees of the Lost Cause, especially women, he was THE martyr of a defeated southern nation.

In fact, he was often likened to Jesus Christ; just as Christianity’s martyr died for the sins of humanity, the South’s martyr—Jefferson Davis—was regarded as self-sacrificing, a man who went to prison and suffered in behalf of the entire region.

The Jefferson Davis Monument on Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA, was a result of UDC fundraising efforts.
The Jefferson Davis Monument on Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA, was a result of UDC fundraising efforts.

How did Davis’ reputation as a martyr play itself out in the South?

In fascinating, costly, and even bizarre ways. In fact, I often liken my own experience with Lost Cause Jeff as something like going to a sideshow at the annual fair—you don’t want to look, but you can’t help yourself. Indeed, from the first time I came to study the Lost Cause and the UDC, it was Jeff Davis who kept revealing himself to me, and not in the most conventional ways.

Return for Part 2 of Me and Jeff Davis: The Serial, entitled “Beauvoir, Catafalques, and Head Start.” Yes, you read that correctly.