In response to the deadly violence last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, Bowdoin College announced Saturday that it has relocated from a public space to its archives a bronze plaque listing the names of alumni who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

“What occurred in Charlottesville and the subsequent national conversation have led us to conclude that historical artifacts like this that are directly tied to the leadership of a horrible ideology are not meant for a place designed to honor courage, principle, and freedom,” Bowdoin President Clayton Rose said in a statement.

The 21-by-25-inch plaque includes the names of 19 Bowdoin College and Medical School of Maine alumni who fought for the Confederacy, including Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who received an honorary degree from Bowdoin a few years before the war.

Bowdoin said the plaque was relocated from the ground floor lobby of Pickard Theater in Memorial Hall to the Brunswick college’s archives and special collections in Hawthorne-Longfellow Library.

According to Bowdoin College records, the honorary degree – and the plaque – have been controversial before. Two years ago, the college ended an annual student award given in Davis’ name.

A Bowdoin historian said Davis got the honorary degree in 1858 because he happened to be attending a Bowdoin commencement during a doctor-ordered stay in Portland.

“The Boards were in an embarrassing position,” Louis Hatch wrote in “The History of Bowdoin College.” “Mr. Davis was the Southern leader in the United States Senate and his principles were diametrically opposed to those of a majority of people in Maine; but when a man of his ability and prominence … was present at Commencement, it would have been a personal insult not to give him a degree.”

When Davis was elected president of the Confederacy in 1861, there were efforts to rescind his honorary degree. College officials considered it, Hatch wrote, but decided that “when the degree was conferred Mr. Davis was a fitting man to receive it and that his later conduct had no bearing on the matter.”

The plaque listing the names of the men didn’t go up until 1965, when the school marked the 100th anniversary of the Confederate Army’s formal surrender at Appomattox, overseen by Bowdoin graduate and Union officer Joshua Chamberlain. The lobby in Memorial Hall also has large tablets with the names of 288 Bowdoin alumni, including Chamberlain, who fought for the Union.

Then-Bowdoin President James S. Coles dedicated the plaque in memory “of the Bowdoin men who served with the Confederate forces 1861-1865.”

“We are gathered this evening in Memorial Hall, dedicated to the Bowdoin men who fought … for the preservation of the Union. Other Bowdoin men, led by conscience or circumstances unknown to us, saw fit to espouse the cause of the Confederacy,” he said.

On Saturday, Rose noted the dissonance of having the plaque in Memorial Hall.

“For the last fifty-two years, this plaque has hung, incongruously, in a space completed in 1882 that honors the service of alumni who fought to preserve the Union and to end slavery,” he said, adding that it belonged “in a setting appropriate for study and reflection.”

Rose also said that “this move explicitly preserves and acknowledges our history, our unusual relationship with Davis, and the fact that there were those at the College who did not support the preservation of the Union or the causes of freedom and human dignity.”

Bowdoin officials said Saturday the plaque had already been removed and will be replaced with a panel describing its history, why it was moved and where it can be viewed.

Bowdoin also once had a Jefferson Davis Award, funded entirely by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, given annually to a student excelling in constitutional law.

“Beginning in 1960, there was a determined effort by admirers of Davis to create a lasting memorial in his name at Bowdoin,” according to the campus website.

In 1972, the award was created.

In 2015, citing Davis’ efforts to preserve and institutionalize slavery and to dissolve the Union, the Bowdoin board of trustees voted to return the value of the prize fund to the United Daughters of the Confederacy and discontinued the Jefferson Davis Award.

“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,” Rose said at the time.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy were also the driving force behind a plaque to Jefferson Davis on a pew inside First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church on Congress Street in Portland. First Parish is considering whether to remove the plaque.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

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