The plaque in Prairie du Chien, purportedly honoring his early military service, went up decades after his death as an effort to recast the Civil War.
As a tide of racial justice and historical reckoning sweeps Wisconsin and the country, one monument to a champion of southern slave-holding remains solidly in place.
And the Jefferson Davis monument at the Fort Crawford Cemetery in Prairie du Chien does not appear to be leaving this Mississippi River town anytime soon, leaving intact the pre-Civil War Wisconsin military service of the man who later became president of the Confederate States of America.
Daniel Torres, a Milwaukee area artist and designer, could not attend the protests early this summer against systemic racism because his asthma puts him at risk if he contracts COVID-19.
“So I thought: What is something concrete I can do to make Wisconsin less racist?”’ he said. “And then I remembered the monument.”
Torres thought that removing the large plaque set inside a boulder would be a slam dunk. But he was wrong. His petition on Change.org stalled out at about 650 signatures, and he was met by indifference by leaders closer to home.
“I thought, this should be an easy decision to take this down,’’ he said. “But I was faced with resistance by local officials. I was naively hoping people will see this as an easy win. So many hard battles about race that are difficult. I thought this would be an easy one.”
Part of the problem is jurisdiction. The cemetery is actually controlled by the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs and as city administrator Chad Abram said, “the city doesn’t issue opinions on property it doesn’t own.”
Mary Elise Antoine of the Prairie du Chien Historical Society said the society’s board will discuss the monument at its Thursday meeting.
Jefferson Davis served at the frontier fort during the Black Hawk War of 1832, and escorted Chief Black Hawk to St. Louis after his surrender.
But the memorial went up more than a century after Davis’s time in Wisconsin, and Torres wonders why the president of the Confederacy is being honored rather than his commanding officer, Zachary Taylor, who went on to become president of the United States.
“There’s no monument to Zachary Taylor,’’ Torres said, noting that it would be more appropriate to honor Civil War Brigadier General William Miller Wallace, a native of Prairie du Chien, or the First Wisconsin Cavalry, which captured Davis at the end of the Civil War.
So why was a memorial erected in Wisconsin to someone who led a rebellion that cost many Wisconsin soldiers their lives some 120 years after Davis left Wisconsin?
The answer is the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). An old news photo from 1953 shows a Mrs. John F. Weinmann of Little Rock, Ark., a former president general of the organization, along with Davis’ descendants dedicating the memorial in Prairie du Chien.
Walter Stern, a UW-Madison historian, said the UDC was very active in erecting memorials and rewriting school textbook content “that helped recast the history of the Civil War from slavery to dispute over states’ right.” A website that tracks historical markers lists 543 UDC monuments still on display all over the United States.
Stern, who studies the intersection of race and history in the southern United States, says that the UDC was very active in making sure that generations of school children were taught, incorrectly, that the Civil War was not about slavery and was instead fought to preserve a romantic Southern way of life.
“I think some of the resistance to [taking down monuments] speaks to how widespread this ‘lost cause’ understanding of the war really is,’’ he says. “It cast a really, really long shadow.
For decades people were reluctant to say, ‘Hey, the Civil War really was about slavery.’”
Another UDC monument stood for 113 years in a Madison cemetery. The Confederate Rest monument, honoring Confederate prisoners of war who died at Camp Randall, was similarly not erected until decades after the Civil War.
It stood from 1906 until the Madison City Council voted in October, 2018, to have it removed and put in storage by the Wisconsin Veterans Museum.
While Davis served at Crawford—although history suggests he was mostly in Wisconsin to supervise military saw mills—Stern says that Davis’s “primary legacy is that he rebelled against the United States to preserve slavery.”
He also finds it interesting that the North was less interested in putting up memorials to its Civil War soldiers.
“There’s a lot about Wisconsin’s role in the Civil War that is worthy of celebration,’’ Stern says. “ It’s ironic that instead there’s a memorial to the top Confederate.”
For his part, Torres says that he hopes those who will decide the fate of the memorial also consider that the UDC have been supporters of the Ku Klux Klan, including erecting a memorial to the Klan’s first Grand Wizard, Nathan Bedford Forrest, in Selma, shorting after that Alabama city elected its first Black mayor.
“I want people to know that it isn’t just another historical marker,” Torres says. “It is a piece of propaganda placed by southern white supremacists. If the Wisconsin Historical Society saw fit to erect a marker discussing all of the notable people from Fort Crawford it would be an entirely different story. That monument is part of one of America’s longest running propaganda campaigns.”