Jefferson Davis still trying to polish his image

Jun. 16, 2014
Chuck Carlson

MARSHALL — Poor Jefferson Davis.

Reviled and misunderstood and kicked around by history, the one-time Mississippi senator and U.S. Secretary of War who was the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War, is thought of as one of America’s renowned traitors.

When he’s thought of at all, that is.

Jeff Davis was reflecting on this at the annual Civil Encampment at Cornwell’s Turkeyville Saturday. He doesn’t buy history’s view of him. Never did. Traitor? Hardly.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “We have a tendency in the United States to teach a biased history. Nobody looks at George Washington as a traitor. Or Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Paine. Why? They were patriots. Thirteen colonies leave and we don’t call it secession.”

Clearly this is a subject that continues to get under Davis’ skin, even though it’s been 149 years since the war ended and, well, Davis has been dead since 1889.

Davis, of course, was the figure head of the lost cause, a war that the Confederacy never really had a chance to win despite protestations to the contrary. And in the following decades, Davis’ reputation, which before the war was that of a towering statesman, has been trashed and abused.

Indeed, rumors swirled that after the South’s collapse in 1865, Davis was found huddled in an empty room wearing women’s clothes (In fact, he was found in a gray Confederate jacket).

But today, the impression is worse. Today, the name of Jefferson Davis doesn’t even register with many Americans.

And to Davis, also known as Dave Walker of Van Wert, Ohio, that’s an American tragedy.

Davis and Abe Lincoln could be found at the encampment this weekend along with dozens of other Civil War re-enactors whose goal is to not only dress up in Civil War garb and play with guns. It’s more important than that. It’s to offer a lesson in American history that many Americans don’t, but must, know.

Walker, a retired fifth-grade teacher, has been portraying Davis for seven years and he does not take the role lightly. Indeed, when he sits in a tent and with his authentic era tin cup of water, he’s asked his name.

He smiles.

“Jefferson Davis,” he says.

He speaks passionately about the war and what it’s causes, in his mind, really were.

Of course, slavery was the tinder that set off the conflict that many historians today say now killed nearly 800,000 Americans. But an intrusive federal government and states’ rights, even for many Southerners today, remains the real reason the war exploded.

Walker has played Davis all over the Midwest but only in one state that seceded, Virginia, and the atmosphere is very different there, he said.

“The Northern version of the war is over here and the Southern version is over here,” he said. “This is a chance for me to educate people. People have a thirst for knowledge.”

Walker said he will often relay facts about Davis and the Civil War that leave many Americans stumped.

For example, Horace Greeley, the powerful editor of the New York Tribune a virulent abolitionist who was one of the first Northerners to clamor for war, put up $25,000 of Davis’ $100,000 bail when he was arrested and held as a traitor after the war.

“There’s just a lack of knowledge about American history,” Walker said, who added that lack of knowledge is especially prominent in people younger than age 30.

And for Walker, and many other re-enactors, to forget about the Civil war is to forget who we are as a people and a nation.

These encampments, authentic down to the fire pits and women’s hoop skirts and the battle re-enactments, offer a glimpse inside an era that most people don’t even think about, much less imagine.

But Walker, and his fellow re-enactors, will continue their quest to educate, inform and enlighten Americans about who we were and, in a real sense, who we still are.

And Walker will also continue his goal to burnish the image of a prominent, misunderstood American who deserves at least to be remembered.

History expects nothing less.

© 2014

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