Small steps in a larger story
Personal and historical reflections on this past week
In three U.S. states, his birthday is celebrated as a public holiday. A statue in his honor stands in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, and his Presidential Library and Museum was dedicated in 1998. Almost 20 public schools and a handful of places are named after him. George Washington? Thomas Jefferson? Abraham Lincoln? Nope, it’s Jefferson Finis Davis — the first and only “President” of the so-called “Confederate States of America.”
Imprisoned at Fort Monroe, Virginia for two years after the war, Davis was never actually tried for treason. He was released on bond in May of 1867, and he never requested an official pardon. However, his citizenship was posthumously restored in 1978 as a “last act of reconciliation” intended to “finally set at rest the divisions that threatened to destroy our Nation and to discredit the principles on which it was founded” (Jimmy Carter).
Speaking at the 1984 convention of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the young Congressman and future Senator from Mississippi who led this brave attempt at national “reconciliation” would utter something that would no doubt surprise his predecessor.
Jeff Davis also represented Mississippi in the U.S. House and Senate, as a Democrat. He believed in a “democratic white polity based firmly on dominance of a controlled and excluded black caste” (Cooper, 2000) and was certainly no fan of our first Republican president. But six years after his citizenship was posthumously restored, Davis would once again be embraced by this rising star in the “Party of Lincoln.” How and why did this political realignment happen? I’ll leave that thought experiment as an exercise for the reader.
A statue of Jefferson Davis was toppled by protestors last week in Richmond, the capital of Virginia and home to the second “White House of the Confederacy.” Another statue of Davis was toppled yesterday following an overwhelming vote by the Kentucky Historic Properties Advisory Commission to remove his marble likeness, erected under the auspices of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1936, from the Bluegrass State’s capitol rotunda in Frankfort. It will apparently be relocated to the Jefferson Davis Monument State Historic Site — the family homestead in Fairview, Kentucky (which I have written about previously). But as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us in 1963, Davis is still memorialized “not only there” but also at Stone Mountain in Georgia!
A statue of Kentucky’s other notable native, Abraham Lincoln, remains in their capitol rotunda today. The border state remained independent during the Civil War, despite a failed incursion by Davis’s friend and West Point classmate who “led a long and colorful life that was cut short by a cannonball” on this day in 1864.
Now “remembered for his bitter disagreements with his immediate superior, the likewise-controversial General Braxton Bragg of the Army of Tennessee” (and the current namesake of Fort Bragg in North Carolina), Leonidas Polk was called the “Warrior Bishop of the Confederacy” by his most recent biographer.
However, the post-war battle for hearts and minds would fall to other notable conservative clerics of the “Lost Cause” — such as Bishop John Christian Keener. Also “highly esteemed by Jefferson Davis,” Keener served as Superintendent of Confederate Chaplains west of the Mississippi River during the Civil War. “[I]ntensely and aggressively Southern in every fiber of his being,” he “feared any movement that looked toward organic union with anything or anybody.”
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Keener “resented the slightest imputation upon the motives of his people, and never apologized for a single act.” In 1890, he told the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South that “we now have a solidly white church, for which we thank God” (Murray, 2004). Apparently satisfied with this post-war accomplishment, Bishop Keener became preoccupied with other pursuits later in life — which I discuss in a recent annotated reprint of his 1900 tome, The Garden of Eden and The Flood.