Bowdoin Ends Confederate-Heritage Award Like Many Still Offered by U.S. Service Academies

Bowdoin College has ended an academic award named and financed by a Confederate-pride group, abandoning an honor that is similar to many that continue to be offered by U.S. military-service academies.

Bowdoin’s Board of Trustees voted to cease giving an academic award named for Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, and to return to the United Daughters of the Confederacy endowment funds used to finance the decades-old prize, the Maine college announced last week. In the college’s statement about its decision, Clayton Rose, its president, said, “It is inappropriate for Bowdoin College to bestow an annual award that continues to honor a man whose mission was to preserve and institutionalize slavery.”

All five of the nation’s service academies continue to offer annual awards financed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and, in several cases, named for famed Confederate officers. They include a Robert E. Lee award for systems engineering awarded by the U.S. Military Academy, physics-related awards in honor of Commodore Matthew Fontaine Maury given by the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, and an Adm. Raphael Semmes award for applied science given by the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy has drawn controversy for, among other things, continuing to espouse a revisionist account of the Civil War that it teaches to members of its auxiliary for children. The website of its South Carolina chapter, for example, features a creed for members of Children of the Confederacy in which they pledge to study and teach “that the War Between the States was not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery.”

When the United Daughters of the Confederacy sued Vanderbilt University over its 2002 decision to remove the word “Confederate” from the stone front of a dormitory that the UDC had helped finance, it emerged in court proceedings that a document used to teach Children of the Confederacy stated that slaves in the South “were treated, in most cases, with kindness and care,” and mostly were “faithful and devoted” and “usually ready and willing to serve their masters.”

In a 2011 petition to the White House urging President Obama to put an end to the U.S. service academies’ awards financed by the United Daughters, Edward H. Sebesta, a Texas-based historian, argued that some of the Confederate officers honored by the awards were “notorious racists.” Among them, Raphael Semmes, for whom the Coast Guard’s award is named, in 1863 erected a mock tombstone to Abraham Lincoln saying that president had died of “nigger on the brain.” In an interview this summer, Mr. Sebesta said he had never received any response to his petition.

Asked last summer for comment on the little-known service-academy scholarships, the White House and the Pentagon directed inquiries to the service academies, whose spokesmen described the awards as noncontroversial and among hundreds annually given out. The United Daughters of the Confederacy refused repeated requests for comment or background on the awards or its teachings to children.

Bowdoin’s Jefferson Davis prize was established in 1972 and was presented annually to a student excelling in constitutional law. In a June email to The Chronicle, Scott Hood, a Bowdoin spokesman, said Jefferson Davis had received an honorary degree from the college in 1858, before the outbreak of the Civil War, when he was a U.S. senator from Mississippi.

Mr. Hood said in his June email that he did not know whether the award or the involvement of the United Daughters had prompted questions in the past. He said at the time that Bowdoin had a “uniquely rich historical connection with Civil War history,” and that Mr. Davis was a part of that history.

“After the war, there were calls to rescind Davis’s honorary degree, but the college did not do so, arguing that it had been awarded before the war and that his ‘later conduct had no bearing on the matter,’” Mr. Hood said in his email.

Nearly 290 Bowdoin alumni fought for the Union, according to the college, and among them was Joshua L. Chamberlain, a professor and later president of Bowdoin who was a hero at the battle of Gettysburg and who commanded the Union troops who received General Lee’s formal surrender at Appomattox.

Correction (10/27/2015, 6:15 p.m.): This item initially stated that Bowdoin College had once defended an academic award named for Jefferson Davis that the college recently abandoned. It also stated that a college spokesman said by email in June that the college had no plans to reconsider the award. In fact, Bowdoin’s spokesman had said only that he had no knowledge of the award, or the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s involvement with it, being questioned in the past. He had made no comment on his college’s stand on the award, and did not say that Bowdoin had no plans to reconsider it. The item has been updated to remove that reference and the one about the college’s defense of the award, and to add more details from the spokesman’s June email.

Return to Top