There is a good chance anyone driving between Virginia and California has done it on a highway named for the president of the Confederacy.
There are more than 100 roads across 11 states named after Jefferson Davis, according to OpenStreetMap. Many of those roads include patches of highway that once stretched from Virginia to California and went through the heart of the former Confederacy.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy first campaigned for Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway in 1913, according to a blog post written by the Department of Transportation. The women’s group founded a few decades after the Civil War sought to preserve Confederate identity, said Southern historian Karen Cox, author of Dixie's Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture. She said that Jefferson Davis became a rallying point for the United Daughters of the Confederacy after his humiliating capture at the end of the war.
Union soldiers caught Davis as he tried to escape allegedly disguised in his wife’s clothing. Military defeat mixed with the emasculating reports left Southern opinion of Davis in tatters, said Cox. In the aftermath of Reconstruction, the United Daughters of the Confederacy wanted to restore their heroes.
“They resurrected his reputation,” said Cox. “He becomes basically the martyr of the Lost Cause.”
Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway began as a Southern response to Lincoln Highway which cut from New York City to San Francisco, according to the Department of Transportation. Mrs. Rassie B. White, a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy who proposed the idea, said that the idea first came to her after a conversation with her cousin about the need for a highway to connect the south.
“He said, ‘You can. Get the “Daughters” to start one. The Lincoln Highway is ocean to ocean, you can match that with’ and I exclaimed, ‘Jefferson Davis Highway, ocean to ocean,’” said White according to an excerpt published by the Department of Transportation.
The Memorial Highway started in Arlington, Virginia, and ended in San Diego, California. It spun off into smaller towns along the route and boosted the economy of rural regions, said Cox. The road eventually expanded all the way to Washington State. The highway’s route mainly followed what is now U.S. Highway 1, 15, 29, 80 and 90.
The U.S. highway system eventually switched to numbers and Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway lost its name among most of the route. However, the name still appears along parts of its original route in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, the Carolinas, and Virginia.
“I actually lived off Jeff Davis Highway one time in Arlington,” said Cox.
The memorials don’t stop with a road sign. Mississippi and Louisiana both named counties after Davis.
Jefferson Davis’ name might soon become more scarce. San Diego removed a plaque honoring the Jefferson Davis Highway last week in the wake of the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, according to the San Diego Tribune. The Arlington County board in Virginia also announced renewed efforts to remove the name.