Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the Confederate States of America, died in New Orleans, Louisiana on December 6, 1889. Residents hung black bunting from buildings along St. Charles Avenue, and the city itself entered a period of mourning. Almost immediately, memorial associations sprang up in cities across the South with the aim of creating a suitable monument for Davis.
The national council of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, or UDC, worked to create a large monument for Davis in Richmond, Virginia, and smaller branches worked across the South to pay tribute to Davis. A New Orleans chapter of the UDC formed the Jefferson Davis Memorial Association in order to build an “appropriate monument commemorative of the life and services of the only president of the Confederacy.” The only memorial association in post-Civil War New Orleans composed entirely of women, the JDMA worked closely with the United Confederate Veterans. In fact, the Associations president, Mrs. W.J. Behan, was the wife of former mayor William J. Behan, who served in the Confederate Army and fought against the Metropolitan Police in the Battle of Liberty Place. The JDMA’s charter stated that any “white person” of good moral character could apply for membership. Neither the Beauregard Monument Committee nor the Robert E. Lee memorial association had stipulations on the race of members.
The organization solicited “subscriptions” from the general public for funding, stating “every southern man, woman and child” should consider it an honor to belong to the Jefferson Davis Memorial Association. They also held auctions, sponsored plays and solicited funds from the national organization of the Daughters of the Confederacy. The City of New Orleans also contributed to the cause, donating a parcel of land at the intersection of Canal Street and Jefferson Davis Parkway for the monument. Originally, the JDMA had proposed placing the monument on St. Charles Avenue across from Tulane University.
With help from the state legislature, whom the JDMA had petitioned for funds, the association unveiled their finished monument in 1911, four years before the Beauregard Monument would be completed. The Association had hoped to commission Alexander Doyle, the artist who created the Lee statue and would later construct the Beauregard monument. But by 1908, they still could not raise the $15,000 Doyle demanded. In the end, the JDMA selected Virginian Edward Valentine to create the Davis monument, the artist who also created a statue of Lee for Washington and Lee University.
Historians have noted that statues erected to Jefferson Davis were intended, in part, to repair his public image. The circumstances of his arrest by Union officials in 1865 were lampooned by the northern press, as it was rumored that Davis had tried to escape wearing one of his wife’s dresses. Countering those images of the Confederate president, the monument committee requested that Davis be made to appear “as a statesman, standing and addressing the people…” The statue, cast in bronze, stands just over eight feet tall and is mounted on a thirteen square foot granite pedestal. The front of the monument has raised text, praising Davis as one of the “fittest men” of the South. A “profound student of the Constitution,” a “majestic orator,” and in purpose resolute, Davis was “enshrined in the hearts of the people for whom he suffered.”
The Jefferson Davis Monument is slated to be removed from its present location on the neutral ground at Canal Street and Jefferson Davis Parkway. Along with the Lee monument and the Beauregard monument, the Davis monument has become a symbol of slavery, racism, and oppression to many New Orleans residents. The monuments will be housed in a city warehouse until a more permanent location can be determined.