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Jefferson Davis History

Established June 7, 1924

Ten miles east of Hopkinsville, at Fairview, stands the fourth tallest monument in the United States. It is the tallest poured in place concrete obelisk in the world. The monument is to Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) the first and only president of the Confederacy. The Jefferson Davis Monument State Shrine became a part of the Kentucky State Park System on June 7, 1927. Ironically, fellow Kentuckian and Civil War president, Abraham Lincoln was born less than 100 miles away in Hodgenville.

Jefferson Davis’ and Abraham Lincoln’s birthplaces being in the same state is indicative of the tragedy of the American Civil War in Kentucky and the nation. The lives of the two men became such a part of the history of the war that they are inextricably joined with each other. In intensity and carnage the Civil War had no equal in American history. Between April 1861 and April 1865 nearly 700,000 Americans perished. For four years Davis presided over the Confederate States of America during this titanic struggle. He guided the new nation from its birth to its demise. As an individual, Davis was at once praised and vilified. To the North he was a traitor and a war criminal; to Southerners he became the embodiment of the greatness of the “Lost Cause.”

The desire to memorialize the leaders and generals of the Civil war began as soon as the guns fell silent. As time passed and many of the major participants of the conflict died, monuments to their memory proliferated. After the death of Davis in 1889, groups and individuals throughout the South began plans to erect a fitting memorial to the Confederacy’s only president.

Jefferson Finis Davis, the son of Samuel Emory and Jane Cook Davis, was born June 3, 1808 in Fairview, Christian (now Todd) County. Of Welsh descent, Samuel Davis had fought in the American Revolution. As a reward for his services in the war, he received a grant of land near Augusta, Georgia. As a small farmer he tilled his land with the assistance of a few slaves. Davis heard of excellent land that could be obtained in Kentucky and decided to move there. The Davis family moved to Kentucky in 1793. After staying briefly in Mercer County they moved to a 600-acre tract in Christian County where Samuel Davis built a four room log house complete with the first glass windows to be seen in the area.

Although the Davis family had established a farm and bred blooded horses on their Kentucky land, by 1811 the family returned to the Deep South. For a year they lived in Louisiana before moving to Wilkinson County, Mississippi. There, Jefferson Davis began his formal education at age five. Dissatisfied with his son’s school, Samuel Davis decided to send his seven year old son to be educated in Kentucky, and entered St. Thomas Aquinas Academy, run by Dominican Friars. After nearly two years in the Dominican school, Davis returned home at the insistence of his mother.

Davis resumed his education in Mississippi at Jefferson College and at the Academy of Wilkinson County. In 1822 at age fourteen, he returned to Kentucky to attend Transylvania University in Lexington. Transylvania had an excellent reputation as the best institution of higher learning west of the mountains. Davis passed his examinations for the senior class at Transylvania with honors. However, due to his father’s urging he accepted an appointment as a cadet at West Point. On July 12, 1828, he graduated from West Point. He served in various posts in the army for four years. In 1832 he met Knox Taylor, daughter of Zachary Taylor. Davis resigned from the army and the couple married in 1835. The newlyweds moved to Natchez, Mississippi where he began a career as a planter. Within three months of their arrival, both he and his wife contracted malaria. On September 15, 1835, Knox Taylor Davis died of the disease at age 21. After a long convalescence, he recovered. Grief stricken over the death of his wife, he remained in seclusion for several years.

In 1845 Davis married Varina Anne Howell. He retuned to politics and won election to Congress. In less than six months he left the House of Representatives to become a colonel of a Mississippi regiment in the Mexican War (1846-1848). Wounded in the foot, he retuned to Congress on crutches. The governor of Mississippi appointed him to the United States Senate to finish the term of the recently deceased Senator Speight. Davis won a full term as Senator in 1850, only to resign six months later to run for governor of Mississippi. He lost by 999 votes.

President Franklin Pierce appointed Davis as Secretary of War in 1853. He served until 1857, when he retuned to the U.S. Senate. He resigned his seat when Mississippi seceded from the Union in 1860. The following year, Davis became the president of the newly formed Confederate States of America. After serving for four stormy and eventful years as the Confederacy’s chief executive, Davis was arrested by Union forces at the close of the Civil War. Imprisoned for two years and awaiting trial as a possible war criminal, the authorities at last freed him. Stripped of his citizenship, Davis moved to Beauvoir plantation near Biloxi, Mississippi. He retuned to his old home in Kentucky for a visit in 1875. Huge crowds came to see and hear the former president of the Confederacy. Within a decade of the close of the Civil War Davis had become a legend. He died in New Orleans in 1889.

At a 1907 reunion in Glasgow, Ky. of the famous Confederate Orphans Brigade, former Confederate general Simon Bolivar Buckner proposed a plan for a Jefferson Davis monument to be erected at his birthplace in Fairview. A group started the Jefferson Davis Home Association and raised money for the monument. By April 1909, the Association paid $7,052 for seven tracts of land containing twenty acres. Within the next eight years $150,000 had been accumulated for a suitable monument. In 1917 work began on the world’s tallest concrete obelisk.

The firm of C. G. Gregg of Louisville designed the monument and oversaw its construction. America’s entry into World War I halted work on the obelisk for several years. By the time construction began again, costs had risen dramatically and the project faced an uncertain future. The United Daughters of the Confederacy raised an additional $20,000 toward completion of the monument and the Kentucky General Assembly appropriated $15,000 to install an elevator (originally run by steam) in the 351-foot structure. On June 7, 1924, dedication of the Jefferson Davis State Historic Site took place and it became a part of the Kentucky State Parks system.
The monument has a base of 35 feet by 35 feet with 10-foot thick walls at the lower level, tapering to two feet at the top. Construction cost $200.000. The observation windows at the top of monument offer visitors a breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside.

Open from May 1 to October 31, the Jefferson Davis Monument State Historic Site is located 10 miles east of Hopkinsville on U.S. 68. There is a gift shop, picnic areas, and a playground.

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