Devotion to a Glorious Past

Winnie Davis, the daughter of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, died in 1898 in Rhode Island.  An elaborate public funeral procession was held in her honor, and a funeral train carried her body to Richmond, Virginia, stopping in various cities along the way to allow people to view the body.  A similar, slightly smaller, celebration occurred at Varina’s, wife of Jefferson Davis, death in 1906.  When I first encountered Winnie and Varina Davis, I saw their public funerals as highly visible assertions of cultural authority for elite Southern women.  Surrounded by the male-dominated Lost Cause movement, these women created memorial associations, such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy, to promote and celebrate their own sacrifices during the Civil War.

Our recent class discussions on race, immigration, and Americanization shed a new light on these public celebrations. This discussion, especially in combination with our class on W. E. B. DuBois, made me question how another (slightly less) marginalized group responded to shifting social values and hierachies in early 19th century America.  Not only were women promoting themselves and their history through memorial associations, but they were also enforcing elite, white culture as dominant in the social hierarchy.  Responding to race issues across the nation and the influx of immigrants, these women promoted the image of a pure, domestic, elite, white woman as the idealized symbol of femininity and simultaneously rejected those who could not fit it.

Interestingly enough, newspaper accounts of Varina’s funeral specifically mention the presence of the Davis’s “negro driver,” James H. Johnson or James Jones.  The name changes according to the source, but it is clearly in reference to the same individual.  The October 20, 1906 issue of the Richmond News Leader cites Johnson as the “body servant” of the Davis’s and never having “missed attending a Confederate reunion since the war.” [1]  On the same day, the Atlanta Constitution, under the heading “Negro Driver Attends Funeral,” reported simply that “A noteworthy personage at the obsequies was James Jones, a negro man who drove the Davis family carriage during the war and who lives in Raliegh, N. C.  He attended the funerals of President Davis and Miss Winnie Davis.”  [2]   Of all the thousands of funeral attendees, why specifically mention this one man?  This reference of the Davis’s former and still loyal slave highlighted the desired subservient nature of African-Americans and firmly placed white elites as dominant in the social hierarchy.

[1] “James H. Johnson: Body Servant of the President of the Confederacy.”  Richmond News Leader.  October 20, 1906.

[2] “Mrs. Davis Sleeps By Husband’s Side.”  Atlanta Constitution.  October 20, 1906.

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