Why isn’t Jefferson Davis’s plantation a Confederate shrine? (Much of it is submerged under water.)

tags: Confederate, Jefferson Davis

Brian Hamilton is a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison writing a dissertation on black agricultural expertise in the United States before and after Emancipation. He is also the lead author of Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day: The Making of the Modern Environmental Movement

“It would be a shrine of the nation—if the South had won the war,” insisted the man offering admission to the Old Courthouse Museum in Vicksburg, Mississippi, which advertises its collection on its website by highlighting “Confederate flags, including one that was never surrendered.” It also boasts “the tie worn by Jefferson Davis at his inauguration as Confederate President.” The shrine-that-wasn’t was Brierfield, Davis’s plantation, once located some fifteen miles to the southwest. Brierfield was one of several plantations—including those of Davis’s eldest brother, Joseph Emory, and Mississippi Governor John A. Quitman—located on what was known then as Davis Bend, an eleven-thousand acre peninsula of rich bottomlands, bounded on three sides by the Mississippi River. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, Davis Bend, with its fields of flowering cotton, sat squarely on what historian Walter Johnson terms “the leading edge of the greatest economic boom the world had ever seen.”1 It was there that the Davises made their fortunes. It was there, along the hedgerows of his wife’s garden, that Jefferson Davis was presented with the news of his election as his new nation’s president. And it would be there that tourists would meet interpreters in costume dress replaying the scene daily—if not for Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Appomattox.

Or so I was told—not just by the Old Courthouse docent, but again by my host on my trip to the site where Brierfield stood. The premise carried the usual seduction of a pithy counterfactual. But it did not stand to reason. After all, the conditions of Confederate surrender included no ban on Confederate shrines. One can go to Richmond and visit the White House of the Confederacy, out of which Davis operated. Or one can gaze up at Davis atop a horse carved in light relief into the bald face of Stone Mountain, just outside of Atlanta. Or one can stand in the shadow of the obelisk—the world’s third largest—marking his birthplace in Fairview, Kentucky.

So why no shrine at Brierfield? Visiting today, one cannot help but think it has much less to do with the Union Army and much more to do with the Mississippi River. I didn’t see the river once on my stay, but its damp shadows were everywhere: the thin lake, tracing the old riverbed, we had to cross by ferry; the patch of mud, interrupting the sandy road, in which I got our pickup stuck; the stain of the water line two feet from the floor of the lodge that is already hoisted ten feet above the ground. Proximity to the river had drawn Joseph Davis to purchase land for himself and his brother in 1818, but since then the river has been more successful at chasing people away...

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