by Susan Taylor Block
“It is on my work I wish to struggle and linger to get results and gain reputation….” – Sculptor Frank Packer
The George Davis Statue, located at the busy intersection of Third and Market streets, honors a Wilmington, NC lawyer and orator who served as Attorney General of the Confederate States of America from January 1864 until April 1865. Though many residents of the South were still “fighting the Civil War,” creation of the statue was at least as much about honoring the remarkable man as his wartime post. The memorial was dedicated in 1911, but lots of hard work went into the project prior to the cornerstone laying on October 14, 1909.
The idea emerged through the Cape Fear Chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy, which opened a George Davis Memorial Fund account in 1904 with a $50 deposit. Mrs. William M. Parsley served as chairman, and committee members included Mrs. Martin Willard, Mrs. James Carmichael, Mrs. Gabriel Holmes, Miss Mary Calder, Mrs. Jane D. deRosset, and Mrs. John C. James. Gabrielle deRosset Waddell played a leading role, too. Members opened their own pocketbooks, then requested help from Confederacy chapters across the state – but to little avail.
The first unsolicited contribution of what James Sprunt called “sweet remembrance” was a ten dollar gold piece. Mrs. Henry Rehder, the Wilmington resident who gave it, simply held Davis in that measure of esteem. Another resident sold handmade stitchery to raise $50. A stage production from the Wilmington Light Infantry produced $90, and the George Davis Children’s Chapter of the UDC contributed about $30. Despite such effort, collected funds were hardly capable of producing a good Plaster-of-Paris bust, much less a full-size bronze statue on a base of North Carolina granite.
Later, others joined in. James Sprunt, Henry Walters, and S. P. Shotler gave $1,000 each. Donald MacRae contributed $500, and others, including Pembroke Jones, gave smaller donations. James Sprunt also nurtured the project and kept in communication with Gabrielle deRosset Waddell of the UDC, those who were commissioned, the chief sponsors, and the Davis family. Whether living in Wilmington, at Orton Plantation in Brunswick County, or at Orton Lodge in Narragansett Pier, Rhode Island, Sprunt networked.
The UDC wrote a dedication to be carved into granite, but Junius Davis, George’s son, rewrote it and sent it to James Sprunt. The two men discussed whether to use George Davis’s own words or Junius’s tribute. Saluting one of the state’s all-time finest wordsmiths was demanding. While discussion on the inscription continued, plans took shape for the memorial’s dedication, originally scheduled for March 1, 1911.
Architect Kenneth M. Murchison, Jr., Sprunt’s brother-in-law, furnished the design – Davis in a characteristic oratorical pose, atop a handsome base of North Carolina rock. Mr. Davis was to face the river, so central to Wilmington’s history. The location, at 30 feet above river level, gives the inanimate Davis a strong presence reminiscent of recorded accounts of his animated self. The North Carolina and Confederacy seals in the pedestal were created by the Gorham Company. The bronze pine wreaths that encircle them are significant to old Wilmington’s economy, and sentimentally rich to folks throughout North Carolina – the “Land of the Long Leaf Pine.” Dogwood blossoms, so North Carolina, and the classical Greek fret decorate the stone.
Francis Herman Packer, who also fashioned the Nathanael Greene statue at Guilford Courthouse in Greensboro, was sculptor for the Davis memorial. He worked from images furnished by the family to finish a clay model by May 1910. Afterwards, Mr. and Mrs. MacRae, and Mr. and Mrs. Gouverneur reviewed the model and suggested slight changes that would make it more wholly authentic to Davis’s appearance. Soon, F. H. Packer wrote to James Sprunt, saying, “I have occasionally worked improving the statue here and there, until last Monday (when) I felt thoroughly convinced that I have done my best. In fact, when I uncovered the statue, the work impressed me so satisfactorily that I called my plaster moulder to begin the work of making the mould at once, for the plaster cast, which will be sent to the bronze founder about the 13th of December (1910).”
The Harris Granite Quarries Company in Salisbury, North Carolina provided stone for the pedestal. The face of the granite salesman for the Davis Memorial, John Ernest Ramsay, is familiar to Wilmingtonians, because he served as model for the Confederate Memorial that sits in the plaza at Dock and South Third streets. Henry Bacon was architect. Frank Packer, who also sculpted the Confederate Memorial, opted to work with The Harris Granite Quarries Company again in 1924, and chose salesman Ramsay as model because of his strong facial features. Later, Frank Packer, along with Daniel Chester French, worked on a far more famous project with Henry Bacon. The two sculptors fashioned the image of Abraham Lincoln that sits within the Lincoln Memorial.
The Balfour Pink Granite Company cut the granite. By late November, architect Kenneth Murchison was in the process of laying out lettering that Harris Granite would execute. Meanwhile, some of the wording was still missing – and Frank Packer had other work that tugged at his sleeve. Sculptor D. C. French invited him to collaborate on the General William F. Draper Memorial in Millford, Massachusetts. Mr. Packer sculpted the larger part: Draper’s magnificent horse.
Frank Packer’s third project of the same work period was completing the August Belmont Statue in Newport, for sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward. Mr. Packer defended his work load when time elements were questioned. He wrote James Sprunt, “On account of Mr. J.S.A. Ward’s inability to work on his statue of Belmont, and on account of his death (May 1, 1910), all responsibility fell on me to carry out the work….This does not mean that my work on the David Statue has been neglected. The Belmont, or other works I can get make it possible for me to do my best on the Davis Statue. The money profited on other works must pay the carrying out of works to which I sign my name. Otherwise, I could have never undertaken a commission as the Davis Monument; and it is on my work I wish to struggle and linger to get results and gain reputation, not on works that others sign, and subcontract for me.”
Finally, a decision was made concerning the chief inscription. The eastern side of the monument would bear the honoree’s own wording, from a speech Mr. Davis delivered at Thalian Hall, words that were reprinted in South Atlantic Magazine in 1879. though meant for another, the bouquet he sent returned to him like a boomerang.
“His wisdom illustrated the principles of law and equity. This eloquence commanded the admiration of his peers. Beloved, for his stainless integrity, his memory dwells in the hearts of his people, shining in the pure excellence of virtue and refinement. He exemplified, with dignity and simplicity, with gentle courtesy and Christian faith, the true heart of chivalry in Southern manhood.”
On April 20, 1911, four of George Davis’s grandsons unveiled the monument. The men were M.F.H. Gouverneur, Jr., Donald MacRae, Jr., George Rountree, and Robert Cowan Davis. The crowd listened as Henry G. Connor delivered a speech so comprehensive it would be published later as a 53-page booklet. Henry Connor, a U.S. Court judge for the district of Eastern NC, began by recounting George Davis’s ancestry, a distinguished line of descent Judge Connor said made him “entirely a product of Cape Fear influence.” George’s ancestor of immigration was Jehu Davis, a native of England who ended up in Goose Creek (St. James Parish), in SC. About 1725, Jehu Davis moved to Cape Fear, NC, along with a “tide of settlers” that came to southeastern NC with or because of “King” Roger Moore and his brothers – sons of SC Governor James Moore. Through marriage, the Davis and Moore lines would crisscross many times.
George Davis, son of Sarah Eagles and Thomas Frederick Davis, was born March 1, 1820. His unusual mental strength was evident early, and he was sent away to school in Pittsboro when he was only eight years old. At the invitation of Governor Edward Bishop Dudley, George returned to Wilmington about a year later to be tutored by scholar and botanist Moses Ashley Curtis, who would leave Wilmington in 1833 to attend divinity school to become an Episcopal rector. George Davis enrolled in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and graduated in 1838.
Davis studied law under his brother, Thomas F. Davis, another Wilmingtonian who would leave to attend Divinity School. In 1853, Thomas became Episcopal Bishop of South Carolina.
While reading law, young George Davis also studied the character and work of other Wilmington attorneys he admired. The group included Oliver Meares, Col. Robert Strange, Alexander C. Miller, John Holmes, Mauger London, Adam Empie, Jr., William Ashe, William Augustus Wright, and Joshua Grainger Wright, Jr. Several of these men were fine orators and delivered lengthy speeches on occasion, but, eventually, Davis seemed to surpass them all when it came to wording, content, and delivery.
Punctuated by sarcasm, wit, and humor, Davis’s addresses kept people listening. The New York Times even stated Davis was “famed for his oratory.” Dr. Theodore Kingsbury, eminent editor of the Star News in Wilmington during Davis’s oratorical hay day, said of one of his exquisite speaking ability: “At times a felicity of illustration would arrest your attention, and a great outburst of high and ennobling eloquence would thrill you with the most pleasurable emotions. The taste was exceedingly fine, and, from beginning to end, the workings of a highly cultured, graceful, and elegant mind were manifest. There were passages delivered with high dramatic art that would have electrified any audience on earth.”
Such talent and skill can make political involvement tempting and Davis complied. His career reached its most public moments during the Civil War, after he was singled out as a Confederate States Senator and named Confederate States Attorney General on January 4, 1864. The post was filled with challenges as Davis sought to keep a steady level of dignity within a government that was no nation. At the war’s end, Confederate President Jefferson Davis wrote him, “Your advice has been to me both useful and cheering. The Christian spirit which has ever pervaded your suggestions, not less the patriotism that has marked your conduct, will be remembered by me when in future trials I may have need for both.”
Frightened by post-war politics, George Davis made plans to leave the country. Judah P. Benjamin, the former Secretary of State for the Confederacy and former Wilmington resident, dreamed of finding haven in London. Davis and Benjamin, who also had served as Attorney General for the Confederacy, were close friends. Both men planned to leave the country and set up a barrister practice together in England. Benjamin made his way to England where he gained renown as a brilliant barrister who specialized in corporate law.
Davis traveled with other refugees to Charlotte, then broke away and headed towards Florida, hoping to find safe passage to England. Stormy conditions and a frail watercraft made sea passage impossible. He was captured in Key West. According to attorney George Rountree, one of Davis’s great-great grandsons, Davis and several other refugees stopped to stay at the house of a black woman. She washed their clothes for them, and hung them neatly on the clothes line. Yankee soldiers raided the refugee’s hangout, but paid little extra attention to Davis until they spotted the monogram “G. D.” on his Brooks Brothers shirt. Davis was arrested, then sent to Fort Hamilton, in New York City, where he was imprisoned for several months. He returned to Wilmington as a parolee, but soon received executive amnesty. George Davis lived graciously another thirty years, dying February 23, 1896. He was married twice. After the death of his first wife, Mary A. Polk, he married Monimia Fairfax of Richmond.
The George Davis statue has been a reminder of many things through its 100 years, but it might have a new message for today’s culture. Even though his death far predated youtube, television, and even home movies, the effort spent to honor Davis gives a measure of the voice, movement, and personality of this man who many came to admire to the point of love. Learning more about George Davis, his friends’ generosity and diligence, and the artistic yearnings of Mr. Packer – all this has warmed the bronze and stone a bit.
Sources: Alexander Sprunt Collection, Perkins Library, Duke University; Historical Society of the Lower Cape Fear Archives; Terri Hudgins, Registrar, Cape Fear Museum; Katherine E. Beery, NC Museum of History; accounts by Mrs. William M. Parsley and James Sprunt, in Sprunt’s book, Chronicles of the Cape Fear River; interviews with Davis descendants John C. Symmes and George Rountree; H. G. Connor, George Davis (Special Collections, New Hanover County Public Library); Dictionary of NC Biography, edited by William S. Powell; R.H. Fisher, Biographical Sketches of Wilmington Citizens; Tony P. Wrenn, Wilmington, NC: An Architectural and Historical Portrait.
All rights reserved. Susan Taylor Block, 2011.