Kentucky’s Jefferson Davis Obelisk; The Lost Cause’s Washington Monument

Glenn David Brasher Discussion

H-CivWar readers, today we have a review of a historical memorial that, despite its enormous size, has seemingly flown under the radar in the current Confederate monument controversy. The site is clearly a product of the Lost Cause, but here historian Gregory Dehler places the Jefferson Davis State Historical Monument also within the context of the cultural war of the 1920s, expanding its defiant message. Dr. Dehler is an editor at H-Environment and author of  The Most Defiant Devil: William Temple Hornaday & His Controversial Crusade to Save American Wildlife (University of Virginia Press, 2013).

Glenn D. Brasher-series editor



Kentucky’s Jefferson Davis Obelisk; The Lost Cause’s Washington Monument


Gregory J. Dehler


The Jefferson Davis State Historic Monument located in Fairview, Kentucky is a towering 351-foot-high obelisk near the spot of the Confederate president’s birth in 1808. My visit there was on a warm afternoon in late June, 2019, after my wife and I had just driven cross country from Denver to Clarksville, Tennessee to visit family. On the way we stopped at the Dwight Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas, and had plans to hit Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage in Nashville within a day or two and to visit the Harry Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri on the return trip. While my exhausted family crashed, I toured the Fort Donelson Battlefield and then headed in the opposite direction to see the Jefferson Davis Monument in Kentucky. Truthfully, I had no idea such a memorial to Davis even existed prior to looking at a “things to do around Clarksville, Tennessee” website, but it was only fifteen minutes away and fit the historical theme of our cross-country vacation. 


It was a short drive as the crow flies, but travelling on Pembroke Road after I crossed over I-24 felt as though I had passed through some sort of boundary in the space-time continuum. Suddenly, laughing young Amish or Mennonite couples in their horse drawn buggies replaced the cars and trucks on the road. It was somewhat surprising that for as tall as the monument is, I did not see it until I pulled into the parking lot. Accounts on the internet describe seeing the monument from a distance, and I thought that I had gotten lost because I did not notice it at all. 


Still, this monument is a colossus to the Lost Cause that by design is quite imposing. It stands in a state park that includes a parking lot, picnic area, playground, and walking areas. There is also a gift shop and a museum with a small entrance fee. A desk from the home of the Ficklin family in Lexington, Kentucky (where Davis lived while he was a student at Transylvania University) is the central artifact. Several articles of clothing, small personal items, and a Confederate battle flag round out the humble material collection. Placards provide short overviews of periods in Davis’s life and the history of the monument. Overall, this is basic information that steers clear of controversial topics, with the monument’s major plague quoting a reconciliationist message from Davis and not surprisingly ignoring slavery.




Yet the gift shop takes as much floor space as the museum, containing more overt Lost Cause language. “Here you will find many hard-to-find ‘War between the States’ items,” the pamphlet boasts. Here visitors can also purchase a pass to ride to the top of the monument to view the surrounding countryside. This tired, overheated, introverted Yankee opted not to do so. 


The monument was not the first attempt to commemorate Davis’s birth in the small Kentucky town. In 1886 a plaque was dedicated in the Bethel Baptist Church, which stood on land once owned by Davis’s father. Davis himself attended this dedication and claimed to have fond recollections of his youth there, though the family departed for Louisiana when he was three years old. 


Veterans at a 1907 Orphan Brigade reunion called for a more substantial monument to honor the centennial of the Confederate president’s birth. According to figures compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, this was the very height of Lost Cause memorialization throughout the south, and it was also two years before construction began on the birthplace of Kentucky’s other famed son, Abraham Lincoln, in Hodgenville. The Jefferson Davis Home Association was organized to raise funds and coordinate the project. Money came from all quarters throughout the south and a local doctor donated the corner lots where the monument now stands. In 1916 the powerful Daughters of the Confederacy assumed control of the monument and initiated a more thorough lobbying effort that (unsurprisingly) succeeded. The Commonwealth of Kentucky (which ironically had never seceded) voted the funds to see it through completion, opening the site in 1924 as a state park. (The Lincoln Birthplace, by contrast, is a national park). 


My first impression of the monument was framed by the Lost Cause and its symbology. In that context, it seemed to me to be just one of 1,700 Confederate memorials spread throughout the south, with a sprinkling in the north and west -- to commemorate the heroes of a parallel, shadow nation dedicated to preserving white supremacy. This is the mock Washington Monument, or marker to the father of this mythical or lost Southern nation, just as Stone Mountain is the equivalent to Mount Rushmore. (Nor is the monument the only attempt on the state park's grounds to mimic an easily recognizable symbol. A sign dated 1930 denotes the starting point of the Jefferson Davis Highway that terminates in Biloxi, Mississippi, an obvious knock-off of the coast-to-coast Lincoln Highway). I interpreted this giant obelisk as being both a symbol of pride in having waged what they thought was a good fight, but also a defiant statement about the outcome of the war and the Confederacy's goals.   


Yet as I gazed up at the monument on my way out, I thought of it a little differently. I saw it in the context of its completion in the same year that the National Origins Act greatly reduced the flow of immigrants into the country, and in the midst of a decade marred by an intense cultural war between rural and urban America. The former tended more towards protestant fundamentalism, nativism, traditionalism, and dry; while the latter leaned more towards modernism, immigrants, non-protestant, and wet. The new economy further fractured this divide. Automobiles, electricity, new-fangled gadgets, moving pictures, and radios bypassed large swaths of rural America, intimately shaping urban life. 


The monument’s opening was also just days before the chairman gaveled the contentious 1924 Democratic convention to order, where a dreadful floor fight between those who backed William Gibbs McAdoo, the rural and Southern candidate, and New York Governor Alfred E. Smith, who claimed the support of the urban and immigrant Northerners, deadlocked the convention. The divide played out nationwide on the radio, with the resurgent Ku Klux Klan backing McAdoo while the Smith supporters condemned intolerance. 


Viewing the monolith within this context, the Jefferson Davis obelisk appeared to me to be a giant middle finger aimed directly at the city-dwellers in the north and all that their multi-ethnic society represented. The Northerners might have all the conveniences of the new economy, the monument seems to say, but we Southerners have what really matters, the heritage and history of a properly ordered society led by white, native-born, protestant men. A disturbing message, to be sure, made just as the resurgent KKK vigorously peddled its version of “Americanism.” 


I felt relieved after crossing back over I-24 and returning again to my own time and place. I was still baffled by this monument in a place that seemed to me – and here I betray my inherent urban/suburban bias —to be in the middle of nowhere. Unlike monuments in cities and on college campuses, including Louisville, Kentucky, this one seems to have avoided controversy, despite its size. Yet, it is also a powerful reminder that we are still much afflicted by many of the same issues and toxic prejudices that have bedeviled us throughout our history. It is as true in 2020 as it was in 1907 and 1924. 


Gregory Dehler                                               

Westminster, Colorado




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Dr. Dehler,

[Note that this view is mine and mine alone, and not representative of any of the views of my employer or anyone in my state agency's department].

Your point is well-taken. But the monument in this area originally wasn't erected with a national perspective, as I understand it. My grandfather was born and raised in Elkton, KY--about 10 miles east of the monument. My whole family on both sides is originally from within 45 minutes north and east of the area. I've been at the monument and the area a lot. In the summer of 2011, I was working for the Kentucky Historical Society on a research project, that included me touching on the Civil War in Frankfort, KY, along with other topics. As a result, I got a lot more familiar with the nature, interpretation, and meaning of the Civil War commemoration in the state. I also spent 4 years in a small private college in NE Kentucky, that was split Union and Confederate literally on one side of the railroad tracks in the county seat. Your region in the state depends on your historical allegiance.

Where your family is from also determines your thoughts about the war and Jefferson Davis--even if you are against the Southern cause and all that goes with that cultural identity. One of the first things my grandfather told me about where he was from when I was around 7 was that he grew up near where Jefferson Davis was born, and his family use to picnic in the area in the 1930s while they were poor tobacco sharecroppers. It was a matter of family pride in a small, rural region with few economic or educational opportunities to be connected to a well-known individual--regardless of the meaning connected with that individual. My grandfather had a small Confederate flag in the basemen of his NW Ohio city house, and I never understood it. We never talked about it--it was just there, as he later told me, it had been there for him. He wouldn't identify with the Civil War, and only brought it up to mimic stereotypes of Southern behavior when visiting with his "Yankee grandson." But, it did affect him. When we returned to Elkin when I was a kid, you could always tell the culture tied to this bothered him after having moved to northern Ohio, but he could never explain why to me.

My best friend in college was from a small city further east of Fairview, KY, where a major Confederate battle and victory had occurred there in 1862. Even though he hated history, in certain moments, the stories and pride in the Confederacy's victory and cause--and his references to the Davis monument--came up. Most of my family and his family used U.S. Route 68 in western Kentucky as the major travel route to go to family events and reunions, as a lot of the families are scattered close by in the region. The Davis monument was always something they passed, often stopped at, or at least used for restrooms. It became a regional mark to reference. The locals were proud of the monuments erection--regardless of the political and cultural underpinnings behind its erection related to racial superiority and the Lost Cause--because it gave their families something big as a point of regional connection. If you stop in gas stations and grocery stores in the area to ask directions or chat with people, the monument is likely to come up if you're from out of town.

In other portions of Kentucky with pro-Union sentiments while I was working on a book on Civil War soldiers buried in my local city's cemetery, local Kentuckians frequently expressed their annoyance with Confederate ideology or markers. But, that's because their ancestors were Union men, and they hated the treatment they received as passed down through the family history--especially in the raider territory of northeastern Kentucky. Depending on where you go in the central part of the state, attitudes shift. I spent months living in Versailles, KY--home of the famous race horse stables--and was researching a famous women's states rights activist and journalist from Versailles. Her grave is in the same cemetery as a special shaped Confederate monument for several local men. Her grave has no special markings, no historical plaques, and is occasionally overgrown. The Confederate monument has space around it for a walk-up, with the area around it cut regularly. It has it's own Wikipedia page, although it is a relatively small monument compared with those in North Carolina or Virginia. Still, this monument--erected in the lifetime of the women's rights activist--continues to garner more attention and visits. This monument gets more local outrage than the Davis monument does, because it has a stronger tie regionally to the Lost Cause narrative (noting inscriptions on it). It's a frequent local monument to visit, especially during Memorial Days and Veterans Day.

My point is that the size and prominent place of the Davis monument was not so much meant to draw attention as to give locals meaning and connection in a number of their eyes. It molded itself into the identity of the locals in the region, particularly with its connection in the origins of the famous Kentucky Orphan Brigade, which holds mythical proportions among Civil War historians, researchers, and local genealogists in the state. Along with the Lost Cause narrative, the place of the monument in local identity has shifted significantly, to the point that those from outside of the state driving past knowing it's there can easily miss it (as I also did later in life, even having been driven past it as a kid). But the approach and attitude that the monument has in the state isn't just connected to the identity of Jefferson Davis, the Lost Cause, and the racist narrative that brings--but the way Civil War sites for anything other than Confederate service or history are treated throughout the state.

I believe it is because they can't connect with it, and families often didn't find the site connected with their own history. In contrast, the mixed social ties with the Davis monument, along with it not being in a large urban area or with a major college/university in the immediate vicinity--has created a circumstance where it is not pointed to. Few outside of the area or those not from Kentucky largely seem to care about the region economically, historically, educationally, or socially. It escapes examination and attention by scholars and the public at large. In Kentucky, the monuments to Henry Clay outweigh the monuments to Jefferson Davis, and Davis' true shortness of connection to the state have led a number of people to not consider it a truly significant monument. It is out of sight and out of mind to the larger world because of its geography. More people make a bigger deal about the plaque on the house in Lexington, KY, where Davis boarded during his college years--especially among historians at the state level. I know I'm rambling somewhat. I'm doing this to show the complexities I have encountered from a family background with the monument, and understanding it in my own family's context. Just some thoughts.