In late 2021, when the City of Richmond ordered the removal of the pedestals of the city-owned Confederate monuments, historians and contractors considered the possibility of uncovering cornerstone boxes within the pedestal bases.
Along Monument Avenue, the Robert E. Lee Monument, Jefferson Davis Monument, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson Monument and Matthew Fontaine Maury Monument had cornerstone ceremonies as they were erected. In 2021, contractors with Team Henry Enterprises uncovered not only the official 1887 cornerstone box for the Lee Monument, but also a second box placed by the builders in 1889. Although the Jackson and Maury boxes were not found during deconstruction, on February 16, 2022, Team Henry workers found the cornerstone box under the Jefferson Davis Monument pedestal.
The box itself predates the construction of the 1907 monument along Monument Avenue. In Monroe Park on July 2, 1896, after a parade, speeches and full Masonic rites, the Freemasons lowered the top half of the cornerstone, sealing the cornerstone box inside. Newspapers published the contents of the box along with an image of the proposed temple-like structure to honor Jefferson Davis that the Jefferson Davis Monument Association (JDMA) hoped to build. However, within three years, fundraising had stalled, and the JDMA turned the project over to the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC).
The cornerstone and box remained in Monroe Park while UDC members raised funds from across the country. The plan for the monument was in flux until 1903 when the UDC and JDMA commissioned Richmond sculptor Edward Valentine (1838-1930) and Richmond architect William Noland (1865-1961) to design a monument along Monument Avenue at Cedar Street (now Davis Street).
On April 10, 1907, committee members unearthed the 1896 cornerstone box from Monroe Park. “Yesterday it was exhumed and this morning will be placed in its final position just under the great square of granite that will be the pedestal of the Davis figure at the Jefferson Davis Monument.” Although they did not host any formal Masonic ceremonies in 1907, the JDMA and UDC added some additional items to the box before placing it back in the ground. The box stayed in that spot for nearly 115 years.
After Team Henry exhumed the box in 2022, conservators froze the box to prevent any additional deterioration. X-rays taken prior to the box’s opening alluded to some round metal items and bound materials. But an old hole in the top of the copper box caused concern that water had intruded the box while it was still underground. On August 10, 2022, conservators with the Department of Historic Resources as well as staff from the Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia, the Valentine Museum and the Virginia Museum of History & Culture assisted with the opening of the box.
A DHR conservator cut away the top of the copper box, revealing a copper envelope sitting on top of a pile of soggy papers and books. Unlike the tidy boxes from the Lee Monument, the Davis cornerstone box had suffered the very typical fate of water intrusion, essentially destroying the majority of the paper items inside. One book, Carlton’s McCarthy’s Soldier Life in the Army of Northern Virginia, 1861-1865, survived intact, while the other newspapers, programs and books had melded together into waterlogged bundles.
Some relics survived. A chip of marble taken from the steps of Jefferson Davis’s home during the Civil War, today known as the White House of the Confederacy, was tucked inside as was a paperweight made from bronze left over from the casting of Richmond’s 1894 Confederate Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument.
After emptying the 1896 box entirely, staff turned their attention back to the copper envelope. After slicing it open, inside were all the additions from 1907, perfectly preserved in their airtight, metal envelope. Designs for the monument, an updated history of the JDMA, programs from fundraising events, and even the first and last ten-cent pieces raised at the 1903 Confederate Bazaar in Richmond looked as if they were merely days – not over 115 years – old.
The Jefferson Davis cornerstone box and its contents are now owned by the Valentine Museum, which will continue to explore the painful legacy of Richmond’s Confederate monuments and help foster conversation about the impacts of the Lost Cause mythology and Jim Crow policies on the Richmond region.
Contents of the Jefferson Davis Monument Cornerstone Box
As published in The Times on July 3, 1896:
“The Grand-Treasurer read the inscription as followers: “Presented to the Davis monument by James E. Phillips, July 2, 1896.
Articles in the Box
· The Times, July 3, 1896.
· Richmond Times (Richmond, VA), September 4, 1899.
· Richmond Times-Dispatch , April 11, 1907.
· The Times Dispatch, April 12, 1907.
· Proceedings of the Grand Lodge of Virginia (Richmond: James Goode Printing Co., 1896), 9-23.
· Proceedings of the Virginia Grand Lodge (Richmond: Ware & Duke, 1916), 14.
· Proceedings of the Virginia Grand Lodge (Richmond: Everett Waddey Co, 1923), 32.
· Davis Monument folders, Edward Valentine Papers, The Valentine Museum, Richmond, VA.
· Eric Kolenich, “Workers find what appears to be a time capsule under Jefferson Davis monument,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, February 16, 2022, https://richmond.com/news/local/workers-find-what-appears-to-be-a-time-capsule-under-jefferson-davis-monument/article_61b88e6d-8c29-564b-a5ec-cdd6041729e1.html.
|Authors||Christina K. Vida|
|Work Title||Jefferson Davis Monument Cornerstone Box|
|Published||November 16, 2023|
|Updated||November 21, 2023|
|Copyright||© 2023 The Valentine Museum|