The president of the Confederate States of America still watches over much of the nation he hoped to destroy. Statues, memorials or roadside markers in honor of Jefferson Davis stand in a dozen states; his bronze presence in the United States Capitol is a public relations coup unmatched in American history; and last week’s conflict in Congress over rebel flags on federal property made his ghost difficult to ignore.
Reveling in Davis’s image is mostly a Southern phenomenon. Yet when the Civil War was barely over, a prominently displayed depiction of the man once commonly called an “archtraitor” was also unveiled in the North. Its spectacular demise 150 years ago today prefigured the passions such symbols continue to ignite.
Just before his arrest in May of 1865, Davis made a decision that would haunt him. As a Union general reported, he “hastily put on one of his wife’s dresses” while attempting to escape.
In fact, he was apprehended wearing not a dress but his wife’s raincoat and shawl, which, his defenders argued, were nearly unisex in the style of the day. To the Northern press, however, the story was too good to check. Newspapers and magazines rushed to publish sketches of Davis as a bearded Southern belle.
“No one will attempt to make a hero of such material,” one account said. “He will appear in petticoats in history.” ...