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.