“This was our hero and his cause was ours”: Richmond’s Confederates Honor Their Ex-President
This is the first in a series of posts offering brief backstories on the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue.
Observers frequently point out that Jefferson Davis is the only man memorialized on Monument Avenue who was not a Virginian. Why then is he there?
Davis was born in Kentucky in 1808 and spent the bulk of his life in his adoptive state of Mississippi. A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he served in the U.S. Army for seven years, primarily in remote posts on the western frontier, and became a national hero leading Mississippi volunteers in the Mexican War. The 1850s found him in Washington, D.C., serving the U.S. as a member of the House of Representatives and Senate, and as the U.S. secretary of war in the cabinet of President Franklin Pierce.
Although the four years he spent in Richmond, Virginia, as president of the Confederacy, are the years for which posterity best remembers Jefferson Davis, they were not exactly the happiest of his life or the most successful of his long, distinguished, and controversial career. Nevertheless, when Davis died in December 1889, prominent Richmond citizens were determined that the former Confederate capital was to be paramount in commemorating the Confederacy’s only president, and they stole a march on other cities to make that determination a reality.
Richmond City Council sent Mayor (and Confederate veteran) J. Taylor Ellyson to Davis’s funeral in New Orleans, and asked Mrs. Davis make Richmond her husband’s permanent burial place. A December 21, 1889 mass meeting in Richmond formed the Jefferson Davis Monument Association (JDMA) to build a statue of Davis and lobby for the transfer of Davis’s body. Apparently impressed by the overtures and tempted by the opportunity to reunite her family in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery, where her 5-year-old son had been buried in 1864, Varina Davis consented in early 1891.
This coup d’etat gave Richmond the upper hand when the United Confederate Veterans (UCV) met in 1892 to plan what was essentially the South’s memorial to Davis. The UCV delegated to the Richmond-based JDMA the ambitious plan to raise $250,000 (the equivalent of at least $6 million dollars in modern money) for “an everlasting memorial, not only of the patriot and statesman who purely and bravely led souls, but of the ineffable valor and devotion of the most heroic soldiery which the world ever saw, whom he typified while he commanded.” It would be located in Monroe Park, the city’s former parade ground on what had been the western edge of wartime Richmond.
“This monument will rise, and soon,” promised a joint UCV and JDMA address “To the Southern People” in September 1892. That promise proved cruelly ironic. In the best of circumstances, the officers of the JDMA would have been hard pressed to find time for their work. Within a few months, the nation plunged into its worst-ever economic depression, and the campaign to raise $250,000 ground to a halt.
As its emissaries promised Varina Davis, the JDMA focused its initial efforts on transferring Davis’s body from New Orleans to Richmond in June 1893. (Varina Davis and her daughter arranged and paid for a life-size statue of Davis unveiled at the grave in 1899.)
After several years of inactivity, the Richmond leaders, fearful of having the prize taken from them, hastened to arrange for the laying of the monument’s cornerstone during the 1896 UCV reunion in Richmond. Only after the cornerstone laying did the JDMA reveal what kind of monument would be built upon it: a massive Classical-style temple (designed by a New York architect) suspiciously resembling Grant’s tomb, then nearing completion in Manhattan.
The temple in Monroe Park never materialized. Indeed, the prominent Confederate veterans who formed the Jefferson Davis Monument Association were compelled to admit that they would not be able to complete the work they began. Instead, they petitioned the United Daughters of the Confederacy to take over the work; in November 1899, the Daughters accepted the task. After another hiatus of two years, a committee of women appointed by the UDC formally assumed control of the JDMA and of the $20,000 in its treasury.
Even without an economic depression, the job did not prove easy for the new “lady managers.” They scaled back the ambitious project from $250,000 to “no less than $50,000” and struggled to meet that goal.
After holding a new design competition and selecting a new site for the monument (an arch spanning Broad St.), the ladies ran into an unexpected source of opposition: Jefferson Davis’s widow, Varina. Already at odds with the UDC over other issues, the former Confederate first lady expressed discontent with the “triumphal arch” proposal preferring instead an equestrian statue of her husband.
When the dust settled from the prolonged and very public dispute, the ladies scuttled the arch, abandoned the Broad St. location, fired the Connecticut-born architect, and grasped a life-line offered by Richmond sculptor Edward V. Valentine and architect William C. Noland. They also accepted a suggestion to locate the statue on Monument Ave. at Cedar St. (now Davis Ave.).
Valentine and Noland’s concept featured a broad semi-circular colonnade and central Doric column bearing symbols and inscriptions and topped by an allegorical female figure named “Vindicatrix.” The ladies also requested that the monument include a figure of Davis himself, depicted as “a standing statesman.” Vindicating the Confederacy, not Jefferson Davis, was clearly the monument’s central focus.
Accordingly, the text on the finished monument was unusually long and featured quotes from Davis about the righteousness of the Confederate cause. The JDMA’s Inscription Committee had cut through a thick forest of proposed verbiage, ruling out a detailed history of American constitutionalism and defeating divisive proposals to recognize several states important in Davis’s life.
On June 3, 1907, the 99th anniversary of Davis’s birth, his only surviving child, Margaret Davis Hayes, unveiled the statue (still missing a few details) on Monument Avenue. The ceremony and parade were the highlight of the annual United Confederate Veterans reunion. Attended by a crowd estimated between 80,000-200,000 people, it was probably the largest such gathering in the “Lost Cause” era.
A parade of speakers praised Jefferson Davis’s character, life, service to both the United States and to the Confederacy, and his devotion throughout to Constitutional principle. Missing from all of the speeches (and from the minutes of the JDMA) was any reference to Davis as the owner of more than 100 enslaved African Americans or his belief – shared nearly universally among Confederate statesmen – that the institution of slavery was the paramount Constitutional right to be defended by Southern secession.
The only passing reference to slavery came in a speech by Tennessee Senator Edward W. Carmack (1858-1908), who noted how defeated Southerners “could give up slavery without a sigh” and resign themselves to “what they deemed the legitimate results of the war.” In return for that acquiescence, Southerners (by which he meant white Southerners) claimed the right to “proudly front the world and proclaim to the present and the coming time: ‘This was our hero and his cause was ours.’”
Not only in the ceremony dedicating it, but also in its design and inscriptions, the Jefferson Davis monument was more than a memorial to the one and only Confederate president. Even more than most Confederate monuments, the Davis monument aimed to vindicate a cause as well as a man.