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This Day in Georgia History

May 01, 1886

Jefferson Davis Well Received in Atlanta

To view a letter from Jefferson Davis confirming his visit to Atlanta, see the Georgia Archives

In the later years of his life, Jefferson Davis had lived a quiet life at Beauvoir, his elegant home on the Mississippi coast. When requested to attend a ceremony in Montgomery, Ala., marking the laying of the cornerstone for a monument to honor Alabama’s Confederate dead, Davis at first declined. But eventually, he agreed to attend the ceremonies on April 28, 1886. Henry Grady, managing editor of the Atlanta Constitution, seized on the fact that Davis would be in Montgomery to persuade him to come to Atlanta for the unveiling of a new monument to Benjamin Hill. Hill had served in the Confederate Senate and had been an ally and loyal supporter of Davis. Savannah, in turn, used the Atlanta visit to persuade Davis to continue on to Savannah while in Georgia to participate in dedication ceremonies for a new bronze plaque on the monument to Nathanael Greene. During his trip, Davis was accompanied by his daughter, Winnie Davis. The tour not only made big news in Alabama and Georgia but was covered nationally. What started out as a trip to help dedicate monuments ended up as a public affirmation of the South’s reconciliation with the nation. The emotional receptions Davis received at every stop along his route also provided a measure of redemption for the former Confederate president. And, for Henry Grady, Davis’s Atlanta visit had important political implications. Grady was promoting former Confederate general John B. Gordon in that year’s Democratic race for governor. Gordon had faced some scandel in 1880 over alleged corruption, so Grady felt that having Gordon associated with Davis would promote Gordon’s redemption among Georgia voters - especially Confederate veterans. In fact, Gordon had gone to Montgomery for the monument dedication there and rode the special train to Atlanta with Davis. Davis arrived in Atlanta on the afternoon of April 30 and proceeded to the home of Ben Hill’s widow to spend the night. On Saturday, May 1, Davis and his daughter were taken by carriage to the site of the Ben Hill monument at the intersection of Peachtree and West Peachtree Streets. Prior to the ceremony, Grady had urged former Confederate general James Longstreet to wait until the ceremonies had begun and then arrive on horseback in his old dress uniform so that the crowd would see his dramatic entrance. Davis and Longstreet had been estranged after the war, but as Longstreet walked to the podium, the two embraced and the crowd cheered. Thousands of Georgians came by train to see the 79-year-old ex-Confederate president, assuming that this probably would be their last chance to see Davis alive. Much of Atlanta’s population turned out as well, and estimates of the crowd range from 50,000 to as many as 100,000. Henry Grady served as master of ceremonies of the event. Gov. Henry McDaniel and Hill Monument Association president R.D. Spaulding addressed the crowd, followed by noted orator J.C.C. Black as the principal speaker. Last on the program was Jefferson Davis, who spoke briefly with a salute to Ben Hill. At the conclusion of the event, Grady introduced Winnie Davis to the crowd, identifying her as the “daughter of the Confederacy” - a term she earned by having been born in the Confederate White House. That characterization would become the basis for the name of a new organization of southern women in 1894 - the United Daughters of the Confederacy. In 1890, the Hill’s monument was moved to the grounds of Georgia’s state capitol - possibly because the need to widen Peachtree or because of its exposure to vandalism. At some subsequent point, the monument was relocated to the northern wing of the main floor of the capitol - possibly because marble does not weather well outdoors, staining easily.