Jefferson Davis is standing in the rain. Had he been on the front portico of the Alabama State Capitol in the spot where he’d been swore in, he’d have been protected, but that’s not the most practical spot for a bronze statue. Gets in the way of traffic coming in and out of the door.
Instead, he stands on the front lawn, on a pedestal just off to the side. He has a great view—almost as good as the view from the spot where he was inaugurated. The spot is marked with a bronze star embedded into the marble, installed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
A native of nearby Mississippi, Davis was called to Montgomery, Alabama, by the newly installed Confederate Congress. On February 18, 1861, he was sworn in as the Confederacy’s first president, and on paper, he looked like he’d be the ideal candidate. Many things would conspire against his impressive resume over the next four-plus years, though, making him less effective than everyone (including himself) hoped.
Around the corner, the first White House of the Confederacy offered him work space and living space until the Confederate capital moved to Richmond in May of 1861. Today, it’s a museum that still offers tours.
Davis has strange company on the capitol grounds. To his left, on the opposite side of the marble staircase, are a pair of doctors, one of whom, James Marion Simms, was the father of modern gynecology. “He looked at vaginas all day and earned a statue for it,” I marvel.
To Davis’s right grows a pine tree grown from a seed that went to the moon and a statue of Albert Patterson, a state politician assassinated for combating corruption.
“Do you think he had one leg longer than the other?” Dan asks, pointing to Patterson’s feet. His right shoe has an elevated shoe, and he holds a cane in his right hand. It also looks like the statue had lost its head at one point, then was glued back on.
All these statues are dwarfed by the Confederate veterans memorial on the north side of the capitol. A sword-wielding woman who, in other contexts, might represent “victory” stands atop a tall pillar surrounded by a remarkable bas-relief bronze tablet. Four additional figures—an infantryman, an artillerist, a cavalryman, and a sailor—stand vigil at the monument’s compass points.
Because of the rain, I nearly miss the most remarkable facet of the monument: Confederate flags fly at all four corners…all three versions of the Confederate National flag and the Confederate battle flag. The rain has drenched them, so they hang limp and soggy against the flagpoles. They do not look like victory at all.
“Wow,” I say. “They are flying the Confederate flag on the grounds of the state capitol.” I let the rain tip-tap against my umbrella for a second. “Wow.”
I’m just not sure what to make of it, to be honest. Alabama did go to war in support of a system that supported slavery; to be commemorating that on the grounds of the state capitol, which represents all residents of the state, seems an odd contradiction.
But it’s not as though the state government is specifically honoring service to the Confederacy. On the opposite side of the capitol is a statue called “Duty Called,” which commemorates all soldiers who’ve answered the call. That puts the Confederate monument in context as a relic of a particular moment in time (the late 1900s).
And, after all, the American flag flies highest over the capitol, joined on the flagpole atop the capitol dome by the Alabama state flag. There’s also a state historical marker in front of the building that recounts the moment the American flag rose above the capitol on April 12, 1865.
I know the Confederate flags have been controversial, and as someone from away, I don’t understand the issue the way an Alabamian—black or white—might. It sure has given me something to think about, though.
And I have the time to think about it, too, because we’re about to retrace, in reverse, the voting rights march that came to Montgomery from Selma. The Park Service has pushed the theme “from Civil War to Civil Rights” during the Sesquicentennial. Frankly, I think the connection has often felt forced. But here, now, standing in the rain in Montgomery, Alabama, a hundred years of “Civil” history compresses together for me.
It’s off to Selma. Jefferson Davis watches me go.