Jefferson Davis Highway has winding history

Sara Caldwell/Staff
A plaque for Confederate President Jefferson Davis is on the Fifth Street bridge on U.S. Highway 1. The push to name a highway for Davis started in 1913.

Naming a highway after the president of the Confederate States of America makes sense in the heart of the South.


Augusta and Aiken's stretch of U.S. Highway 1 have several markers identifying the road as Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway, including over the Fifth Street bridge.

But if the history of Jefferson Davis Highway starts in the South, it doesn't end there.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy launched plans for a coast-to-coast highway commemorating Davis in 1913. It was common in the years just before World War I for private organizations to name a stretch of highway for their cause. The transcontinental Lincoln Highway, for instance, was proposed in 1912 by industrialist Carl Fisher, who also developed Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Miami Beach.

UDC President-General Mrs. Alexander B. White wanted a similar route through the South and announced the project at the group's 1913 convention.

In her annual report, she recommended "that the United Daughters of the Confederacy secure for an ocean-to-ocean highway from Washington to San Diego, through the Southern States, the name of Jefferson Davis National Highway."

Besides the main route, there would be two other routes: one from Davis' birthplace in Fairview, Ky., to his home in Beauvoir, Miss., and the other following his route after the Civil War through Irwinsville, Ga.

The official marker along the route had three 6-inch wide bands of red, white and blue and the letters "JDH." The national highway was eventually extended north along the Pacific Coast to Washington State in 1939.

A brochure on the highway published in 1948 by the UDC says Augusta's Fifth Street bridge was dedicated June 3, 1932, by the group's South Carolina and Georgia chapters.

By the mid-1920s, there were more than 250 "official" highways, ranging from the Yellowstone Trail to the Dixie Highway. This generated confusion for the growing number of motorists, so a number system was developed by state and federal officials in 1926.

Some of the named trails had to go. In the scramble to preserve Jefferson Davis Highway, U.S. Rep. Earl B. Mayfield, of Texas, emerged as an advocate.

In a 1925 letter to Chief Thomas H. MacDonald, of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads, Mayfield defended a road that touched all but four Southern capitals. The federal response detailed the general confusion about where exactly Jefferson Davis Highway traveled.

E.W. James, the secretary of the Joint Board on Interstate Highways, wrote that a "careful search" in "our extensive map file" showed three Jefferson Davis Highways.

One extended from Miami to Los Angeles, and another traveled the Kentucky-to-Mississippi route. There was not a route from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco in their records.

"(T)he routes on these maps are themselves different and neither route is approximately that described by you, so that I am somewhat at a loss as to just what route your constituents are interested in," James wrote.

Ultimately, the Lincoln Highway and the Jefferson Davis highway were broken up among several numbers in November 1926.

Today, Jefferson Davis Highway runs along U.S. highways 1, 15, 29, 80 and 90, among others.

DeeLois Lawrence, the national chairman of the UDC's Jefferson Davis Memorial Association, is collecting information on markers from across the United States. Vandalism isn't always an issue with these markers because they are often placed in areas with heavy traffic, she said, but with the misconceptions surrounding the Civil War, it's always a risk.

"We have a population that if you say anything Confederate, it's wrong," she said.

Man discovers source of Augusta slave songs
App allows views into history
Confederate dead rest beneath magnolias
Augusta central to Confederacy
Man discovers source of Augusta slave songs
About this series

Augusta's contributions to the Civil War effort shaped the city and still affect us today:

MONDAY: Cutting-edge smartphone technology will allow Augusta Canal visitors to see the long-gone buildings of the Confederate Powderworks in real time.

TUESDAY: Magnolia Cemetery, the final resting place of more than 700 Confederate soldiers and seven generals, has a long and colorful history.

WEDNESDAY: Augusta and its canal played a far larger role in the Civil War than the gunpowder it produced.

THURSDAY: Bob Hester spent more than a year tracking the origin of six songs from Augusta published in the 1867 anthology Slave Songs of the United States.

FRIDAY: Experts and locals share their tips for finding the names of your Confederate and Union ancestors.

TODAY: The history and reach of Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway extend much further than the South.

SUNDAY: The legend of the missing Confederate gold ends in Washington, Ga., but it was only through the courage and cunning of its guardians that the gold made it past Augusta.