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A presidential tale rarely told

By: BILL REED
June 3, 2008
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photo -  Leonidas Milton Leathers III, second from left, and Bertram Hayes-Davis on Feb. 15 re-enacted the swearing in of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy on the steps of the Alabama capitol building in Montgomery. Photo by (AP)
Leonidas Milton Leathers III, second from left, and Bertram Hayes-Davis on Feb. 15 re-enacted the swearing in of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy on the steps of the Alabama capitol building in Montgomery. Photo by (AP) 

Today marks Jefferson Davis' 200th birthday, and most people don't care.

That really irks his greatgreat-grandson, Bertram Hayes-Davis. The Colorado Springs banker has devoted himself to getting the only president of the Confederacy his proper due and contends that his ancestor is given short shrift in history books and in the American mind.



Hayes-Davis' personal quest started 30 years ago, when, as a young graduate student, he was named head of the Davis Family Association.

"That changed my life," he said. "It wasn't my choice, but it turned out to be something that has defined me. The name Davis carries a lot of weight."

Right now, his quest is an uphill battle.

While the bandwagon to celebrate Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday in 2009 is getting crowded already, his historical counterpart - Davis - is getting the cold shoulder. Hayes-Davis said he contacted 34 museums and agencies to elicit interest in Davis' birthday.

The number of responses he received: zero.

"Davis was an equal to Lincoln. He should be on the same platform," Hayes-Davis said. "Lincoln won (the Civil War), but was Lincoln any better than Davis? I'm not sure."

Most historians are sure.

"Lincoln was the successful commander in chief in a war that preserved the United States as one nation, indivisible, and that abolished the institution of slavery that had plagued the nation from its beginning and had made a mockery of its professions of freedom," said historian James M. McPherson of Princeton University, who won the Pulitzer Prize for "Battle Cry of Freedom." "Davis was the failed commander in chief in a war that sought to break up the United States and to preserve slavery. Who can maintain that he deserves equal billing with Lincoln?"

That perception makes it difficult to drum up interest in Davis' legacy, but Hayes-Davis isn't giving up. He'll speak today at one of a handful of events commemorating Davis' bicentennial: the reopening of the Beauvoir House in Biloxi, Miss., the site of Jefferson Davis' last home and presidential library. He's also hosting a family reunion this week at Rosemont Plantation, the Davis family home in Woodville, Miss., and will head south again this summer to appear at Davis-related functions in Kentucky and Alabama.

Davis remains revered or reviled enough that thousands of people claim a genealogical link to the Confederate president. Even Barack Obama wrote in his autobiography, "Dreams From My Father," that family rumors cited a distant link to Jefferson Davis.

But the only direct road to Jefferson Davis runs through Colorado Springs, where his descendants settled and have been a prominent family for 120 years.

"If you're not from Colorado Springs, you're not related," said Hayes-Davis. "We aren't Tutt and we aren't Penrose, but we are one of those big families that had a tremendous impact on Colorado Springs."

Jefferson Davis had six children, but only one married and had children. Margaret Howell Davis married Joel Addison Hayes, and the couple moved from Memphis to Colorado Springs in the 1880s, when the city was still young. Hayes founded the First National Bank of Colorado Springs and became one of the bankers for Penrose and Tutt, and the Hayes home on North Cascade Avenue was a hot spot for high-society functions.

To keep the Davis name alive, their son's name was legally changed to Jefferson Addison Hayes-Davis when the boy was 8.

More than a century later, Bertram Hayes-Davis feels his great-great-grandfather is still a misunderstood figure in American history.

Most people know him as the president of the Confederacy and the symbol of a failed rebellion. But he wants them to know Davis was also a Mexican War veteran, served in the House of Representatives and Senate, and was secretary of war under Franklin Pierce.

"For 53 years Davis was an American patriot, a West Point graduate and a renowned statesman," Hayes-Davis said. "He created the army that defeated him.

"There's more to this story than the one sentence in the history books."

Hayes-Davis understands that his cause doesn't make him the most popular guy. But he doesn't feel it's racist to promote the memory of a man whose legacy is, admittedly, entangled with slavery and strife.

The trick is to promote understanding of Davis without celebrating Davis, said William J. Cooper of Louisiana State University.

Cooper leads a group of historians in a movement to re-evaluate Davis without the passions of those who still admire him or those who want to tear down his statues. He wrote "Jefferson Davis, American" and his book of essays, "Jefferson Davis and the Civil War Era," will be published in the fall.

"Jefferson Davis fought to destroy the Union and to preserve slavery. Nobody today wants a hero who fought for slavery," Cooper said. "But the man merits understanding because of his enormous importance in the history of the nation."

Cooper said the longheld perception of Davis as a poor leader is beginning to shift - at least among a minority of scholars.

"The vast majority of historians see Davis as ineffective," he said. "But some now think he was - given the task he had and the circumstances he had to face - very successful, perhaps as successful as Lincoln would have been in the same situation. I think he was, overall, a very effective president."

Cooper has gotten to know Hayes-Davis through his long study of Jefferson Davis and is familiar with his longing to commemorate his ancestor. "And if Davis was my direct ancestor I might feel that way, too," Cooper said.

Yet, he urges caution when it comes to celebrating a man who defended slavery. Hayes-Davis agrees, but he wants to concentrate on Davis' accomplishments rather than his shortcomings.

Hayes-Davis wants people to recognize Davis as a strong and important leader, who led a formidable resistance despite limited resources. He subscribes to the "Lost Cause" ideology of defending states' rights rather than slavery, per se. And above all, he doesn't want his ancestor to be just a villainous footnote in the story of Lincoln's heroism.

So his quest on behalf of Jefferson Davis goes on, naysayers be damned. And he's proud to mark Davis' 200th birthday.

"I'm never ashamed of what I am," he said.

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