Q: With all the furor over Confederate monuments and statues, I’d like to draw your attention to the biggest and grandest Confederate monument of them all in Fairview, Ky. It is a gigantic obelisk similar to the Washington Monument that honors Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. Has there been any effort to move or demolish this monument? Or are rural Kentuckians too stubborn to consider dishonoring President Davis?
David J. Busse, of Maryville
A: Kentucky may not have seceded from the Union, but even today most of our neighbors to the southeast apparently still prize their Confederate markers as cherished historical treasures.
When asked in 2015 whether a 15-foot-tall statue of Jefferson Davis should be removed from the state capitol rotunda, 73 percent of registered voters polled said the statue should remain despite a plaque that calls him a “patriot — hero — statesman.” Only 17 percent thought it should be removed while 10 percent said they were not sure. Even efforts to tone down this plaque recently were called into question, but more on that later.
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Bottom line: If you thought there would be a howl of protest to raze the ninth-tallest monument in the world, you can forget about it, at least for now.
Rightly or wrongly, that probably shouldn’t be surprising. After all, Davis is one of Kentucky’s favorite sons, having been born in Fairview in 1808. (Ironically, Abraham Lincoln would be born eight months later in Hodgenville, Ky., about 125 miles to the southwest.) And years before he became the Confederacy’s only president, he served as a U.S. senator and representative from Mississippi, as well as the country’s 23rd secretary of war from 1853 to 1857 under President Franklin Pierce.
So when one-time Confederate Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner proposed in 1907 a monument to honor Davis during a reunion of the First Kentucky Brigade (which, also known as the Orphan Brigade, fought for the Confederacy), the idea gained hearty approval. Construction began in 1917 and eventually was completed in 1924 at a cost of $200,000.
At 351 feet tall, the structure is the fifth-highest monument in the United States, behind the Gateway Arch, the San Jacinto Monument near Houston, Texas, the Washington Monument (555 feet) and the Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial near Sandusky, Ohio, which commemorates the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. It is also reportedly the tallest unreinforced concrete structure in the world.
At the top of monument is an observation room with one window in each of its four walls. Originally, visitors had to climb stairs to enjoy the view, but an elevator was installed in 1929. It’s the main attraction at the 19-acre Jefferson Davis State Historic Site. And considering that it was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1973 (not to mention the tourist revenue), I’d bet it’s here to stay for now.
Such reminders of the most divisive time in American history are not loved by all Kentuckians. In November 2016, a 70-foot-tall monument honoring the “Armies of the South” was disassembled at the site near the University of Louisville where it had stood since 1895.
But guess what? It was simply trucked 45 miles down the road to Brandenburg, where a crowd of about 500 watched as a color guard dressed in Confederate uniforms officiated at a re-dedication ceremony. Mayor Ronnie Joyner told the New York Times that he was unconcerned about any controversy, promising that plaques would be added to elaborate on the issues motivating both sides in the Civil War, including slavery. Two other monuments stand nearby, one commemorating the city as a significant stop on the Underground Railroad and another dedicated to the Native American tribes that once lived in the area.
“I never looked at this statue as a black-versus-white thing or that it had a link to slavery or anything like that,” Joyner said. “It’s actually a monument to the Confederate veterans who fought in the Civil War.”
Throughout the state, many officials stand with Joyner. Barren, Calloway, Caldwell, Daviess, Graves and Hopkins counties all have Confederate markers outside their courthouses. Jessamine County has a bronze Confederate statue, but the county says it focuses more on its Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park. A National Historic Landmark, Camp Nelson was the Union’s third-largest recruitment and training center, where more than 10,000 black soldiers trained, often accompanied by their families. The officials say the statues are part of their past, but not their future, and you can’t erase the past by making a few monuments disappear.
As mentioned earlier, the Kentucky Historic Properties Advisory Commission voted last October to install a new plaque on the marble statue of Jefferson Davis that stands in the state capitol. It found that the wording of “patriot — hero — statesman” too “subjective” and promised to replace it with something that simply acknowledges Davis as the president of the Confederacy. However, the Kentucky Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy threatened to sue, and now other officials are determining whether the commission has the power to make such a change to the 1936 statue.
The battle goes on.
Just like presidents today, there is a Jefferson Davis Presidential Library and Museum. Where?
Answer to Friday’s trivia: A triathlon might seem almost like child’s play when you hear what athletes have to do to win the annual Ski to Sea Race every Memorial Day weekend in Whatcom County, Washington. The 93-mile team competition starts on the ski slopes of Mount Baker, a 10,800-foot volcano, and boasts seven legs that consist of cross-country skiing, downhill skiing (or snowboard), running, road biking, canoeing, cyclocross biking and, finally, kayaking. It premiered in 1973 with 177 entrants. Top time is usually about six hours.