Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber: A Response to Richard Williams

Fellow Civil War blogger and author, Richard Williams, seems bewildered by some of the responses to the proposed statue of Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber by the SCV in Richmond.  [Read the article here.] It's impossible to know which academics he is referring to, but no doubt he read my earlier post on the subject, which included a number of objections.  Williams's objections are all over the place and for the most part make little sense.  First, let's dispense with his whining about the legality of the Lincoln-Tad statue.  Williams is indeed correct in pointing out that the organization responsible for the statue is having some difficulties with the IRS and have recently lost their status as a tax-exempt organization.  I'm not sure why this is important, but let's admit it and move on.

Second, Williams refers to the Museum of the Confederacy's year-long program to commemorate the life of Jefferson Davis.  No doubt, the MOC should be engaged in such programs and I only wish that other organizations were able to muster the resources and interest to mark the bicentennial of Davis's birth.  That said, it is not the case that the MOC is "celebrating" Davis's life as Williams points out.  Anyone who visits the MOC knows all too well that their mission is to present exhibits and public presentations which reflect the best in Civil War scholarship.  Their line-up for a recent symposium on Davis's life included, William Cooper, Joan Cashin, William C. Davis, and Donald Collins.  I've read all of their books on Davis and Mrs. Davis and I can state with confidence that they are not engaged in celebrating.  Again, it is hard to know what this has to do with a proposed monument to Davis at Tredegar.  Finally, Williams suggests that Gary Casteel, who has been hired to sculpt the statue, is a sufficient reason to approve the final product.  Williams is "confident [that Casteel] will produce a beautiful and historically accurate statue.

Not once does Williams comment on the design.  I have absolutely no problem with another statue of Davis in Richmond; the question, however, is whether this particular design, which acknowledges Davis's relationship with Jim Limber, is appropriate.  [Background on this story can be found here.]  I am willing to grant that everything in that story is true, though Davis scholars have noted that some of the details are sketchy. 

The question that I would like Williams to address is whether he believes that a statue depicting Davis holding hands with his adopted black child reflects his broader views on race.  I understand that race relations were incredibly complex in the antebellum and wartime South, and it is important to understand the context and background for this particular decision on the part of the Davis family.  I wonder, however, whether this is the best way to proceed since so little has been written about this incident.  What do you think Mr. Williams?  More to the point: What message does Williams believe that visitors with little background in American history will walk away with?  Does Williams and the SCV believe that this statue reflects Davis's overall beliefs about race?  Will visitors know that Davis was a large slaveowner, president of a government whose expressed purpose was the preservation of slavery, and that he remained committed to a racial hierarchy to the end of his life?  Does the SCV plan to include some kind of plaque that will assist visitors in their attempt to understand this statue?

As I stated in the earlier post, it is easy to see what is behind this particular statue.  The SCV is engaged in a conscious effort to distort the history of the South and the Confederacy to a point where issues of slavery and race are moved to the background.  Their world is inhabited by friendly slaveowners and loyal black slaves and soldiers.  This self-gratifying view of the past comes at a heavy price, however. 

One wonders what Jim Limber or one of Davis's own slaves would think of such a statue.  Unfortunately, in the hazy world of the SCV such questions have little weight.

3 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Jun 13, 2008 @ 12:19

    Chris, — I actually like the Longstreet statue. It’s different and I like different.

    Toby, — The goal is ultimately to gain parity with a perspective that Robert Penn Warren referred to as a “Treasury of Virtue”. The problem is that the idea of a perfectly moral North is equally absurd. His final Senate speech is but one example.

  • toby Jun 13, 2008 @ 11:53

    I ageee this statue would be a travesty if it suggests an “equivalent” relationship between Davis and Limber as existed between Lincoln and his son Tad.

    We know little or nothing (it seems) about how Limber was treated in the Davis family in the short period (just over 1 year) that he dwelt with them, or even if any sort of meaningful paternal/ filial connection existed between Davis and the young lad.

    It is an even worse travesty if it suggests that Davis had more than superficial sympathy or fellow-feeling for black people. In his last speech to the Senate, he justified slavery as based on the Bible (Noah’s curse on Shem) and there is no sign that he ever changed his views for the rest of his life.

  • chris Jun 13, 2008 @ 11:16

    Not really related, but that Gary Casteel statue of Longstreet at Gettysburg is terrible. If he were making a statue of me, I’d be worried.

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