Jim Limber


“Jim Limber” or James Henry Brooks—his legal name and his life dates are uncertain—was a free, mixed-race child in the Confederate capital of Richmond during the American Civil War (1861–1865) who lived for slightly more than a year in the household of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Contemporary accounts suggest that he enjoyed an intimate relationship with the Davis family, leading some modern observers to make unverified claims that he was “adopted” and effectively became a member of the family. In the beginning of the twenty-first century, the child has become a symbol of the Confederate first family’s supposed liberality on racial issues.

Confederate diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut wrote on February 16, 1864, that she saw in the Confederate executive mansion “the little negro Mrs. Davis rescued yesterday from his brutal negro guardian. The child is an orphan. He was dressed up in little Joe’s clothes and happy as a lord.” The Confederate First Lady Varina Davis recounted the story in her 1890 memoir and claimed that the president “went to the Mayor’s office and had his free papers registered to insure Jim against getting into the power of the oppressor again.” The free black register and other records that could corroborate or contradict her account apparently have not survived. Nineteenth-century Virginia law did not provide for formal adoption of children. Jim’s status in the Davis household seems to have been informally that of a ward or what modern Americans would call a “foster child.”

An ambrotype photograph taken of Jim Limber early in 1865 and correspondence between members of the Davis family suggest that he was a close playmate of the Davis children. Late in April 1865, as the Davis family fled southward from Richmond, Varina Davis wrote to her husband: “The children are well and very happy—play all day—Billy & Jim fast friends as ever … ”

Jefferson and Varina Davis in Montreal

Jim was separated from the Davises after their capture in May 1865. A member of the Davis party wrote in her diary that Varina Davis’s “pet Negro” had been taken from her. The Davises entrusted his care to an old army friend, Union general Rufus Saxton, whom Varina Davis asked “to look after our little protégé Jim’s education, in order that he might not fall under the degrading influence” of a menacing Union officer. When the child realized he was to be separated, according to Davis, he “fought like a little tiger and was thus engaged the last we saw of him. I hope he has been successful in the world for he was a fine boy, notwithstanding all that had been done to mar his childhood.”

Contrary to modern renditions of Jim’s biography, there is no evidence that the Davises subsequently searched widely for him. Indeed, Varina Davis’s own account of their separation indicates that she understood it to be permanent.

The last recorded evidence of him comes from the 1893 memoir of Elizabeth Hyde Botume, a Boston woman who came south to teach the freedmen on the South Carolina Sea Islands. Botume recalled Jim as “about seven years old, but small for his age; he was a very light mulatto, with brown curly hair, thick lips, and a defiant nose.” She quoted from memory Varina Davis’s note to Saxton describing how the child had come into their home and stating her intention “to keep him until he was old enough to learn a trade.” Botume confirmed that Jim had been “the constant companion and playmate of Mrs. Davis’s children” and “considered himself as one of them.” But he apparently transferred his affections easily to his “new protectors,” the Saxtons. They, in turn, gave him to the care of teachers, who took him north for schooling. He reportedly became “well-trained in all ways, having the advantage of school, as well as a good practical education, until he was old enough to support himself.”

In 2008, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) announced a campaign to finance a new life-size bronze statue depicting Jefferson Davis, along with his son Joseph Evan Davis, who died tragically in 1864 from a fall, and Jim Limber. According to a column in the SCV’s magazine, Jim Limber is “a person lost in history by revisionist historians, who felt his existence would impair their contrived notions of Davis.” The SCV offered the statue to the American Civil War Center at Tredegar Iron Works to balance the statue of U.S. president Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad placed at Tredegar in 2003. In August 2008, the Center’s board voted to accept the statue, but when museum officials did not guarantee where or whether the statue would be displayed or explain how it might be interpreted, the SCV rescinded its offer of the statue in November 2008.

February 16, 1864
Confederate diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut notes the rescue, by Varina Davis, of an African American boy from his "brutal" guardian. This boy comes to be known as Jim Limber.
April 1865
After the fall of Richmond, Jim Limber flees with Varina Davis and family. They rendezvous with Confederate president Jefferson Davis and his cabinet in Georgia early in May.
May 1865
Jim Limber is separated from the family of Confederate president Jefferson Davis after their capture by Union forces. Jim is entrusted to Union general Rufus Saxton. The Davises never see the boy again.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans announce a campaign to finance a life-size bronze statue depicting Confederate president Jefferson Davis, his son Joseph, and Jim Limber.
August 2008
The American Civil War Center at Tredegar Iron Works votes to accept a statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, his son Joseph, and Jim Limber, commissioned by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
November 2008
The Sons of Confederate Veterans rescind their offer to provide a statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, his son Joseph, and Jim Limber to the American Civil War Center at Tredegar Iron Works when museum officials do not guarantee where or whether the statue will be displayed or how it will be interpreted.
  • Botume, Elizabeth Hyde. First Days Among the Contrabands. Boston: Lee & Shepard, 1893.
  • Coski, John M. “What Do We Really Know About ‘Jim Limber’?” The Museum of the Confederacy Magazine, Winter 2008, pp. 18–19.
  • Crist, Lynda L. et al. The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Vol. 11 (1865). Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004.
  • Davis, Varina. Jefferson Davis: A Memoir by His Wife, 2 volumes. New York: Belford Company, 1890.
  • “Statue of Davis and Children to be Raised in Richmond,” Confederate Veteran, March/April 2008, p. 48.
  • Woodward, C. Vann, ed. Mary Chesnut’s Civil War. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1981.
APA Citation:
Coski, John. Jim Limber. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/limber-jim.
MLA Citation:
Coski, John. "Jim Limber" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.