Jefferson Davis, Jim Limber, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans

It looks like 200th anniversary of Jefferson Davis’s birth is passing us by with very little interest.  This is no surprise given our tendency to concentrate on military leaders and ignore the broader political/racial issues that defined the Civil War.  Spend too much time on Davis and you raise the problem of slavery and race.  I recently came across a very brief reference to a plan on the part of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to erect a statue in memory of Davis and his adopted free black son, Jim Limber.  Limber’s story is very interesting from what little we know of it.  William J. Cooper makes no reference of the boy in his excellent biography of Davis.  I did locate a short article about Limber by Peggy Robbins which was published in Civil War Times Illustrated (Vol. 17) back in 1978.

It was Varina Davis who was introduced to the boy in the streets of
Richmond in February 1864.  Limber was apparently being severely beaten
by a black man and, although the article does not elaborate on how it
happened, Varina returned with the boy to the White House to take care
of his cuts and bruises.  Limber was welcomed as an equal member of the
family and took part in most family activities.  He was there during
the trials surrounding the loss of Joseph in April 1864 and along with
the rest of the family fled Richmond in April 1865.  Limber was still
with the family when they were captured in Irwinville, Georgia on May
10.  Shortly thereafter Limber was taken to Washington by Captain
Charles T. Hudson – he was never heard from again by the Davis family.
It looks like Limber’s story was used as propaganda against the Davis
family by Republicans who intended to prosecute Jefferson Davis on
charges of treason.  A few newspaper articles appeared, one quoting
Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton who concluded that Limber was one of
the family’s Brierfield slaves and therefore had been rescued by the
Union army.  Another suggested that Limber would bear the marks of the
pain and suffering caused by the Davis’s for the rest of his life.  So,
there seems little doubt that the Davis’s adopted a free black boy
during the war and cared for him as they did their other children.

So, what are we to make of the SCV’s plans to commemorate this act
of kindness with a statue?  On the one hand it would more than likely
be an accurate depiction of their relationship, but is that the
intention of the SCV?  No surprise that I believe there is much more
going on here.  The problem is that such a monument would ultimately
reflect a skewed understanding of Davis.  After all, he believed in the
superiority of the white race for his entire life; he led a nation in
war whose expressed goal was the protection of slavery and maintenance
of a racial hierarchy; and after the war Davis rejoiced in the end of
Reconstruction and the gradual withering away of black civil rights.
This is not to condemn Davis for not holding our values, but all are
salient points in understanding how race and slavery defined his life. 

Ultimately, this project – if it ever gets off the ground – must be
understood as just another example of the SCV’s goal of distorting the
place of race and slavery in our memory of the Civil War and Southern
history.  A monument to this act of kindness reinforces the myth of
paternalism and more importantly removes slavery and race from
Confederate history.  The SCV’s resolution for the "Year of Davis" makes no mention of his role as slaveowner.  The closest it comes is a reference to a "Mississippi cotton planter."   No doubt there is an interesting story here, but
unless you are willing to try to understand it within the broader
context of a slave society built along the lines of race you run the
risk of telling us more about your own values than anything having to
do with the past. 

6 thoughts on “Jefferson Davis, Jim Limber, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans

  1. Lisa

    Saw this book in the gift shop yesterday and it reminded me of this post:

    http://www.amazon.com/Jim-Limber-Davis-Orphan-Confederate/dp/158980435X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1212233289&sr=1-1

    I had no idea there was a Jim Limber story book. Haven’t had time to read it but since it’s a childrens book it shouldn’t take that long. I did flip through it though and agree with the reviewer from the School Library Journal when she says it shouldn’t be taken as a biography. It was written by an SCV member and definitely serves its purpose as you can see from the reader reviews.

    Reply
  2. Kevin Levin

    Lisa, — Thanks so much for passing this along. The story has credibility; on the other hand, the danger is that it will be used to generalize about race relations and slavery in the South.

    Reply
  3. C R Brantley

    Slavery was not an issue of the War of Northern Agression until made so in the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 years after the war had begun over states rights (mainly taxation of southern farmers and products). The northerners did not want the truth from Jim Limber and disposed of him somehow. The Davis family searched for him for years after the war.

    Reply
  4. Kevin Levin

    Mr. Brantley, — Always nice to hear from a first-time commenter. In the future, please make sure that you provide some kind of support for your claims. Failure to do so will more than likely mean that the comment in question will be deleted. This is a history blog and not a place to voice half-baked ideas. I hope you understand and thanks again for taking the time to comment.

    Reply
  5. Jeffry J Fitzpatrick Jr

    “The problem is that such a monument would ultimately reflect a skewed understanding of Davis. After all, he believed in the superiority of the white race for his entire life; he led a nation in war whose expressed goal was the protection of slavery and maintenance of a racial hierarchy; and after the war Davis rejoiced in the end of Reconstruction and the gradual withering away of black civil rights. This is not to condemn Davis for not holding our values, but all are salient points in understanding how race and slavery defined his life.” Well well, hypocrisy at its finest. Let me know if y’all have ever heard this speech from the “great emancipator” himself. “I will say then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races…I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” Mr. Levin,since you seem to know everything, how about looking up the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858.

    Reply
  6. Kevin Levin

    Mr. Fitzpatrich, — Thanks for the comment, though I fail to see its relevancy. The post is about a proposed statue to Jefferson Davis and not about Lincoln. I know that Lincoln speech quite well and can quote you plenty of others where he expresses what we would consider to be racist views.

    Please understand that if you expect to have your comments approved in the future you will need to address the issue at hand more directly.

    Thank you

    Reply

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