Civil War: Are Jefferson Davis' Days Numbered?

A fascinating footnote of Civil War history is the fact that the President of the United States at the time, and the President of the Confederacy, were both born in Kentucky. And as Kentucky Public Radio's Tony McVeigh reports, a constant reminder of that fact continues to cause some Kentuckians considerable consternation...(Listen above)

On December 10, 1936, more than 300 people assembled in the rotunda of the Kentucky State Capitol. They came for the unveiling of a statue of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America. David Buchta, of the state Division of Historic Properties, says on that day the white Tennessee marble statue, chiseled by Chicago sculptor Frederick Hibbard, was draped in a huge Confederate flag.

"I don't know exactly where the movement came to put Jefferson Davis in our Capitol," said Buchta, "but there was a movement in the legislative body to create an appropriation of $5,000 to erect the statue."

The full-length statue stands in the rotunda's southeast corner. A huge bronze statue of United States President Abraham Lincoln dominates the room's center. Lincoln faces due north, with his back to Davis. Historian Jim Klotter says the two Kentuckians grew up eight months and about 80 miles apart - Davis in Todd County, Lincoln in Larue County - and both left the state in their youth. The Davis family moved south, to Louisiana and Mississippi. Lincoln's family headed north, to Indiana and Illinois. And the rest, as they say, is history.

"Each eventually led a cause," said Klotter. "One wanted a new nation. The other wanted a united one. And in the end, death ended one's hopes and defeat ended the other's. And the two now find themselves in the rotunda of the capitol, together."

But in modern times, the 15-foot Davis statue, atop a five-foot granite pedestal, has become a lightning rod for critics. William Cofield of the Kentucky NAACP would just as soon see Davis shipped south.

"Kentucky didn't go with him during the Civil War," said Cofield. "It remained neutral, even though you had lot of supporters. And I kind of suspect the ones who put it in here are the descendants of those supporters."

Sen. Gerald Neal of Louisville agrees. He says Davis was on the wrong side of history and his statue should rest somewhere else, like the Kentucky History Center.

"I don't think he epitomizes exactly what we are about in the Commonwealth when we say, together we stand, divided we fall," said Neal. "This was a divider."

Neal says he appreciates Davis' unique role in Kentucky history, but he would rather see a prominent African-American immortalized in the rotunda. That's understandable, says State Auditor Crit Luallen, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Kentucky Governor and U.S. Senator John Crittenden, who tried to prevent the Civil War.

"Are these the most important leaders that we can point to in the history of the state?" questioned Luallen. "And I think that's the context you really ought to look at the Jefferson Davis monument. Have others made more significant contributions? And are these leaders actually representative of the Kentucky that we know today?"

But if that's the measure, Jim Klotter says another statue in the rotunda likely would have to bite the dust before Davis.

"Probably historians would say the first person to go out would be Ephraim McDowell, who has some interest historically in the medical field, but nothing compared to the other people that are there," said Klotter.

Rounding out the five rotunda statues are Henry Clay, 'The Great Compromiser,' and United States Vice-President Alben Barkley of Paducah. All five are men. And that poses another conundrum, because Kentucky women want a couple of statues in the capitol, too. Because of weight limits, the rotunda can hold only five.

So, are Jeff Davis' days numbered? That remains to be seen. The debate is just beginning. But 150-years ago, failure to compromise resulted in a bloody Civil War that divided the nation and left more than a half-million brave Americans dead.

And averting what appears to be a brewing battle over a symbol of that terrible war - a symbol that has stood in the State Capitol for 75 years - will again require great diplomacy, negotiation and compromise.