Statue of Jefferson Davis
Four months ago I was fortunate enough to take an American Cruise Lines trip in a paddlewheel steamer on the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Vicksburg, Miss. Theme of the cruise was the Civil War and I felt it would be a great opportunity for me to learn more about America’s most shameful and awful war. I was especially delighted when I learned the principal lecturer on the trip would be Bertram Hayes Davis, the great grandson of the former President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.
Like a true Southerner, Bertram was charming, knowledgeable, good looking, articulate, soft spoken and proud, as well as distinctively factual about his great grand sire and the role he played in the war between the states, the growth of the nation, and the resolution of differences after the South was bowed.
He taught us all so much more the man itself than the Civil War. Ironically, the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, and the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, were born eight months apart, both in the state of Kentucky, and less than 100 miles distant from each other.
Like most Democrat plantation owners, the former Confederate President did own slaves in Kentucky, as did his brother. But after the war, when slaves were freed but never given the opportunity for education or self-betterment, Mr. Davis’ slaves chose to stay with him as faithful employees.
And Jefferson Davis has distinct ties to New Jersey especially in Monmouth County. Howell Township is named for New Jersey Governor Howell, who was the grandfather of Davis’ wife, Varina.
Davis was also a West Point graduate, a military leader in the Mexican American War, a congressman, a senator, President Franklin Pierce’s Secretary of War. Yet at one time after the war he was hunted, tracked down, abused and thrown in jail by the American government for alleged treason. He was never found guilty of it, in fact the charges were finally dismissed by President Andrew Johnson. But Davis suffered for many years thereafter from the abuses and illness he had incurred while in prison at Fort Monroe, Virginia. After the War, Davis led the move to reunite the beaten South with the North while at the same time holding dearly to the states rights so clearly defined by Thomas Jefferson a century before. His father, a Revolutionary War hero himself, had named his youngest son after the third President of the United States.
When the national government restored American citizenship to Confederate officers after the war, Jefferson Davis’ name was always specifically removed from the list.
It was Democrat Jimmy Carter, himself a southerner and conceivably a descendant of slave owners, who made the incredibly wise and generous decision in 1975 to sign the Congressional Resolution to restore President Davis’ citizenship in what he saw as the final act to dissolve ill feelings, hatred and anger of the Civil War. Carter said he signed the citizenry as a contribution to the final reconciliation of the South and the North.
So how does Bertram Hayes-Davis feel today about the wars in the streets being waged against his ancestor’s memory? I asked him this week and he wrote what he described as his “short answer to a large problem.”
“Statues are created to celebrate the lives of historical individuals who made contributions to their country, state or community,” Hayes-Davis wrote. “They promote history by the presence and encourage those who see them to learn about the history. Jefferson Davis has numerous statues through the south. Most people know only one thing about him. Using their limited knowledge and the fact he was the President of the Confederate States of America, they chose to judge him as a bad person. That can be the case with any statue if the person viewing it knows nothing of the figure that is represented.”
And Hayes Davis concluded, “These statues need to stay as an educational influence to the many who see them. It is important to preserve our statues and learn the history they represent. To eliminate these statues would end the opportunities to learn the facts and history of each person. We then lose the history of this country.”