Tag Archives: Jefferson Davis

On Jefferson Davis’s Capture

Yesterday I finished reading Yael Sternhell’s wonderful book, Routes of War: The World of Movement in the Confederate South, which explores various aspects of mobility in the Confederate South.  The author argues that what could be seen on the roads throughout the South tells us quite a bit about Confederate nationalism, the collapse of slavery and a strictly defined racial hierarchy, and defeat.

Her brief discussion of the capture of Jefferson Davis caught my attention:

On May 10, while camping outdoors in the piney woods near Irwinville, Georgia, Davis and his party were captured.  Two Union cavalry regiments, searching for the presidential party, raided their camp at daybreak with no specific knowledge of who was staying there.  In the confusion of the raid, Davis tried to escape from his tent and into the woods, but a Federal officer noticed him attempting to get away and called him to stop.  With a carbine gun pointed at him, Davis had no choice but to surrender.  Much has been made of the fabricated story that he was dressed as a woman when caught.  Yet the true significance of the circumstances of his capture lies in the fact that he was apprehended not only in flight, but in the woods.  Davis was forced to follow the ways of his former slaves and take refuge within the alternative geography they had used for generations to hide from the bloodhounds and armed patrollers who chased them without mercy.  The Civil War did not end with Robert E. Lee’s dignified surrender at Appomattox.  It ended with Jefferson Davis, in the forest, staring in fear at a group of white men who were coming to get him.  The war had reduced even the most elevated of masters, the Confederate president, to a desperate runaway. [p. 192]

This is one of the most insightful books I’ve read about the Confederacy this year.  I only wish I had this when writing my own essay on the demobilization of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Trayvon Martin and Civil War Memory

Outrage over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin last month in Sanford, Florida can now be seen in the form of graffiti on Civil War monuments in New Orleans.  It should come as no surprise.  Monuments to both Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were spray painted with the names of Martin and two other local African American men, who recently died as a result of violent clashes with city police.  The spray painted names are themselves a form of memory, but the use of the Davis and Lee monuments add meaning that go far beyond confronting random graffiti on the side of a building.

Irregardless of whether the graffiti can be traced to the black community, the act itself serves to remind the surrounding community that this violence is perceived to be racial in nature.  The use of these particular monuments not only points to the history of racial tension in the community, but to the institutions themselves that were responsible for creating these public spaces and largely responsible for legally enforcing inequities within the public sector.  The damage to these structures reflects a sense of alienation from the community and a rejection of the community’s values as represented in these monuments.

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, the decision to deface these particular monuments reflects the extent to which memory of the Civil War has been eclipsed or shaped by our collective memory of the civil rights movement.  It is likely that the perpetrators of this act know very little about Davis and Lee, but they know enough to connect them to the history of race in the United States during the past 150 years.  That is clearly a recent development.  The appropriation of the meaning of these sites as stamped with a history of racial injustice is itself an attack on the values and preferred Civil War memory of previous generations.

It is unlikely that the monuments will be cleaned in time for the “Final Four” showdown this weekend.  That’s OK for at least one person:

Pastor Shawn Anglim of First Grace United Methodist Church has a different take on the graffiti that has focused on the controversy surrounding the meanings.“Right now, it’s a need for conversation. And whether done in proper way or not, maybe it’s OK it’s up for a week or so. And it gets some people talking a little bit,” Anglim said.

If only we knew how to talk about such things.

Sons of Confederate Veterans Forced to the Back of the Bus

Even in the “Heart of Dixie” the Sons of Confederate Veterans can muster little more than a few hundred people from its ranks to commemorate the inauguration of Jefferson Davis.  Based on the YouTube clip below yesterday’s event sounded more like a political rally than a reenactment.  The speaker’s comparison of the SCV’s challenges with Harry Potter and Rosa Parks reflects an intellectual bankruptcy that is bound to continue to marginalize the organization throughout the sesquicentennial.

The news coverage of the event thus far has been minimal and anything but flattering.  [Consider the Associated Press's coverage.]  Just about every article that I’ve read takes note of the Civil Rights history of Montgomery, the decision on the part of local and state officials not to participate, and the lack of interest among local business and civic leaders.  This stands in sharp contrast with the centennial commemoration of Davis’s inauguration.

There is something truly perverse about the SCV appropriating Rosa Parks and the memory of African Americans being forced to sit in the back of the bus.  African Americans were forced into the position of second class citizens by law and not of their own choosing.  At no time has the SCV operated under these conditions.  They have been free to make their case in the court of public opinion and in recent years they have failed miserably.  A partial list of recent SCV debacles include:

The most recent circus is centered on a proposal to offer a series of vanity license plates in Mississippi, one of which will feature Nathan Bedford Forrest.  Even the editorial board of the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Mississippi thinks this is a bad idea.  “What is appropriate is a proposal in the Legislature to designate a Civil Rights Memorial Day as a counterbalance to the state’s Confederate Memorial Day. This would be in keeping with earlier legislation that combined observances of Robert E. Lee’s birthday with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s.”  Did they really have to propose Forrest?  Consider Robert Moore’s recent suggestion, which would have had my support and I suspect many others as well.

It goes without saying that bad history and a memory of the war that few people embrace is not a recipe for success.  Our next stop on the sesquicentennial tour will be Fort Sumter in April.  The SCV will be lucky if they arrive on the back of the bus.  At this point I am imagining something more along the lines of a Go-Kart.

We’ll Always Have the Centennial

Update: I suspect that this is not the kind of coverage that the SCV is looking for. “They started at a fountain where slaves were once sold, past the church that Martin Luther King Jr. led during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and ended at the Capitol steps, where Alabama’s old and modern history often collide. It’s the spot where former Gov. George C. Wallace proclaimed “segregation forever” in 1963 and where King concluded the historic Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march in 1965.”

Centennial Commemoration of Jefferson Davis's Swearing In Ceremony

From Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965 (Making the Modern South)by Robert J. Cook:

“The pageant took place during the week of February 12, 1961.  Attended by an estimated 50,000 people, it was a colorful affair complete with voodoo dancers and minstrels.  The accompanying brochure bore witness to the business community’s support.  One advertisement–for Montgomery Fair, former employer of the bus boycott heroine Rosa Parks–featured drawings of Civil War regalia and a southern belle and boasted that it had been central Alabama’s “leading department store” since 1868.  Another, carrying a Rebel flag, proclaimed “Winn Dixie and Kwik-Chek Show Phenomenal Growth During a Century of Progress in Dixieland.”  Spectators who paid up to five dollars a ticket watched a sixteen-segment performance by a home-grown cast numbering over a thousand.  The two-hour pageant, a combination of the spoken word, music, and dancing, began with a salute to the Belle of the Confederacy an then took viewers through the major events of the secession crisis. In a section entitled “General Davis Speaks,” the audience heard an almost verbatim staging of the Confederate president’s inaugural in which he trumpeted the cause of states’ rights and the legitimacy of secession.  On leaving the coliseum, spectators were greeted with a crashing fireworks display to mark the founding of the southern nation.  A watching journalist pronounced the whole performance a genuine “spectacular,” though he did complain that in the inauguration scene Jefferson Davis had been portrayed “as a corn-pone politician at a Black Belt party rally.” (p. 81)

  • On February 17, a large crowd gathered at Union station to welcome a local attorney who played the part of Jefferson Davis.  Upon his arrival, Davis was escorted to the Exchange where he was met by the serving chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, J. Ed. Livingston.
  • The following day a large parade was held along Dexter Ave.  Carriages contained the sitting governors of Alabama, Virginia, and Mississippi.  For the reenactment of Davis’s swearing in, Alabama governor, John Patterson played secessionist governor A.B. Moore, city commissioners Lester B. Sullivan and Frank Parks acted the parts of the original reception committee, and state circuit judge Walter B. Jones played the role of Georgian Howell Cobb to administer the oath of office.
  • That night 5,000 people attended an elaborate secession ball.
  • Governor Patterson relayed shared the following assessment with Karl Betts: “…the Centennial observance here was most outstanding.  The entire city really got in on the act, and I do not believe that I can recall more community spirit and interest in any other event.”  A member of the chamber of commerce said that he had “never seen the people of Montgomery join in anything so wholeheartedly.” (p. 82)

The Washington Post reports the following:

“This Saturday, the 150th anniversary event will bear some similarities: Hundreds of men are expected to march through the heart of Montgomery. Some will parade in Confederate gray. Some will display the controversial battle flag. On the steps of the white-domed state Capitol, an ersatz Davis will place his hand on a Bible. A band will play “Dixie.”  But so far, this year’s festivities are generating scant buy-in from city and state officials, and relatively little buzz among locals.  Mayor Todd Strange said he probably won’t attend. Randy George, president of the Chamber of Commerce, doesn’t have the event on his to-do list. The office of Gov. Robert Bentley (R) – who, like Strange and George, is white – did not respond to a query on the matter.  “I hadn’t even heard it was happening,” Rhonda Campbell, 43, the manager of a payday loan business near the parade route, said, echoing many residents interviewed last week.”

We’ll always have the Centennial.

Celebrating the Soldier and Not the Cause?

Organizers of tomorrow’s “Heritage Rally” in Montgomery, Alabama are making every effort to accurately recreate Jefferson Davis’s swearing in ceremony.  They have stipulated which flags can be carried as well as guidelines for proper period clothing.  As in the case of the recent Secession Ball in Charleston, South Carolina, we are unlikely to hear anything about the importance of slavery and race, which will no doubt be made easier by the fact that Davis’s speech does not explicitly mention it.  I do find it interesting that the February 1861 event did not include Confederate soldiers nor did it include the flags that will likely be visible from every point along the parade route.

What I find interesting is the close identification that is implied between the presence of Confederate reenactors from various units and, arguably, one of the most important political events of the period.  After all, it’s the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who constantly remind us that the common soldier ought not to be understood in political terms.  In other words, they fought for hearth and home, but they certainly did not fight to maintain slavery.  What tomorrow’s march up Dexter Ave. represents – even if it is unintentional – is the fact that the Confederate army operated as the military arm of the Confederate government.  The army itself was an integral part of a political entity.  By default the soldiers in the ranks fought to protect and preserve a constitution that was crystal clear about the importance of slavery and white supremacy as a defining principle of the new nation.

This close connection between the soldier and state will be reinforced tomorrow by the thunderous roar of hundreds of enthusiastic Confederate reenactors.  We should be thankful that the cause for which they will cheer tomorrow was ultimately unsuccessful.