As cities around the country tear down, hide, or reconsider monuments to Confederate leaders such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, Arlington, Virginia, has decided to rename one of its most recognizable thoroughfares, a stretch of road that passes the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery.* For almost a century, the road has been called the Jefferson Davis Highway, in honor of a man who advocated for slavery and secession and served as president of the short-lived Confederate States of America.
It’s not exactly surprising that a highway named after the Confederacy’s most famous figure can be found in what was once Confederate territory. But what about Southern California? Arizona? Washington State? They once had Jefferson Davis Highways, too.
These roads were conceived as part of a national superhighway of Confederate memory in the 1910s, amid a wider push in the South for Confederate monuments. The planned coast-to-coast highway fell far short of its goal, and while most of its surviving routes have since been renamed, the name Jefferson Davis Highway still appears on maps and signs in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Old highway markers—remnants of the stone signs that once sat next to finished sections of road—are scattered across disparate parts of the country at rest stops and on city streets. Though the highway was never fully realized, parts of the infrastructure its supporters imagined—and the myths they helped spread—today stretch on and on.
The Jefferson Davis Highway was a pet project of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), an association of Confederate descendants that has been trying to preserve (and rewrite) Civil War history since 1894. Though not as well known as the Lost Cause memorials the UDC built throughout the South—objects promoting a narrative that the Confederacy fought honorably for states’ rights rather than slavery—the highway was intended to be a cross-country system of roads studded with markers memorializing Davis. And for some cities and states in its proposed path, it was simply too good a deal to pass up.
In 1913, when the project kicked off in earnest, automobile travel had not yet established itself. Ford’s Model T had only been on the market for five years, and America’s roads—bumpy, undeveloped, and disorganized—weren’t exactly ready for hordes of motorists. Forged by animals, Native Americans, and pioneers, then improved with rocks and gravel, most roads at the time transported agricultural goods from town to town. Tourists and long-haul travelers rode in trains and boats, not cars.
Then, as now, public roads were the purview of the states through which they threaded. But they’d always been closely linked with private enterprise. Take the country’s first turnpike. When Pennsylvania’s government couldn’t afford to link Philadelphia and Lancaster, private investors stepped up in 1795, building the first paved long-distance road in the United States. The story’s the same for canals and rail lines: When states were unwilling or unable to put up funds, individuals and private corporations did instead. They often glimpsed the future well before state officials. Some states, like Michigan, were even prohibited from investing in roads by their own constitutions, which banned public spending on “internal improvements.”
Slowly, a road system took shape. According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), hundreds of groups of volunteers, boosters, and private citizens contributed to at least 250 “named trails”—proto-highways with names like the Old Spanish Trail and the William Penn Highway—by the mid-1920s. “These [named trail] highways took you through every small town there ever was,” says FHWA spokesperson Doug Hecox. “Roads needed to be good, dependable, and consistent so that America’s burgeoning economy could be strong.”
Given this, it was in many towns’ economic interests to connect themselves to a national network of roads. That’s where the UDC came in: It had money and a mission. The Confederate Catechism, a document still promoted by the UDC and other Confederate memorial organizations today, sets out to claim Southern sovereignty. The South, the document screamed, “FOUGHT TO REPEL INVASION AND FOR SELF-GOVERNMENT, JUST AS THE FATHERS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION HAD DONE.” This document and the ideas it contained benefited from a halo of heroic Southern womanhood, and made its way into the hands of countless Southerners.
The UDC had lots of resources with which to spread its messages. “They were a fundraising powerhouse,” says Karen L. Cox, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who published a history of the UDC. Members weren’t afraid to flex their connections, calling in favors, leveraging some of their husbands’ political power, and skillfully navigating all levels of government to further their cause. (The United Daughters of the Confederacy still has chapters in 34 states. The group did not respond to a request for an interview.)
Their highway project was sparked as much by spite as civic intention. In 1913, the wealthy auto enthusiast Carl G. Fisher and a group of influential car-industry boosters and wealthy philanthropists like Thomas Edison and Theodore Roosevelt dedicated the ambitious Lincoln Highway, a paved nationwide road connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Many Southerners—and the UDC—were furious at the idea of a well-publicized, heavily traveled road devoted to the Confederacy’s archenemy. So they set out to make one of their own. In this way, the UDC saw the future—one dominated by cars—before much of the rest of the nation. (They also were early adopters of radio, and saw the potential of new technologies to spread their message.)
Many municipalities were happy to comply. Smaller populations meant smaller tax revenues and funds for local improvements, so when the UDC came to town, bearing workers and pecan trees (which served as mileposts in some locations), it was hard to turn them down. The group would help fund or beautify the roads, then spackle them with name markers and the occasional monument. It was “adopt-a-road” taken to the extreme.
Aided by the group’s generous donors and incessant lobbying of state and local officials, Jefferson Davis Highways soon stretched across portions of the South and even the Southwest, as far west as California and as far north as Washington. In a barrage of letters to the editor, editorials, parades, speeches, and ribbon-cuttings, members of the UDC promoted their road as a free alternative to state and private toll roads and the Lincoln Highway.
Though the UDC’s message was repellent, many accepted it. “Northerners kind of caved in to the Lost Cause [narrative] because they wanted to re-establish relationships with the South for economic reasons,” says Cox. In turn, the UDC played off of wishes for unity and prosperity as it promoted the highway. “Blessed shall be the road that binds and facilitates intercommunication of states,” wrote Eugenia Dorothy Blount Lamar, a tireless UDC member and suffrage advocate, in an editorial in the Austin Statesman and Tribune in 1915. In that same piece, she urged UDC members to scope out their states’ topographies to find appropriate locations for the road. And according to The New York Times, in 1934, boosters bragged that the highway was “a symbol of the fact that all bitterness between the South and the North had vanished.”
Whatever their motivation, states and localities that benefited from the highways allowed their infrastructure to become physical conduits for the UDC’s gospel. Just as the country is now linked by interstates, the Jefferson Davis Highways linked areas that were, if not fully in sympathy with the post-Confederate cause, at least friendly to its proponents.
The highway, then, did the work of white supremacy by stealthier means than those of other infamous groups. As the highways wended across the U.S., proponents of the UDC’s historical vision such as the Ku Klux Klan lynched black people, burned crosses, and enacted and supported Jim Crow laws. More broadly, the femininity that the UDC embodied provided a cover for public behavior that was unheard of for Southern women. “They would speak in public, which women were not supposed to do—not Southern women, anyway. It provided a lot of these women with a career,” says Cox.
Ultimately, the grandiosity of the UDC’s vision for the Jefferson Davis Highway did not match up with reality. Historians don’t agree on which routes were actually built and whether they lived up to the UDC’s claims. The group’s own promotional materials contradict themselves: As the historians Euan Hague and Edward H. Sebesta note, official depictions of the highway “[were] inconsistent, varied over time, and outlined often vastly differing routes.”
Still, the project was enough of a success that portions of it continue to exist today. Beginning in the 1920s, states created numbered systems for naming highways. While some ditched the Jefferson Davis moniker, others, like Virginia, kept them. And though the federal interstate system did away with privately-funded auto trails starting in the 1950s, it often followed the same paths forged by the Jefferson Davis Highways—paths that stretch far past the former Confederacy. Even if all of the highways’ remaining markers fall, the UDC’s myths will still be stitched into America’s very infrastructure.
* This article has been updated to clarify that the stretch of highway mentioned is in Arlington, Virginia, not Alexandria. Both are seeking to change the name of the highway.