Jefferson Davis’s Refuge In South Rises Again

August 28, 2008

In 1878, ex-Confederate President Jefferson Davis wrote: "Our house was given its name by its former possessor to express a beautiful prospect. The air is soft. In winter especially the sea breeze is invigorating. The oranges are shining golden on the trees, and our pine-knot fires soar in the chimneys; in their light I try to bury my unhappiness."


Davis had much to be unhappy about. Not only had the South’s bid for independence failed and its leader been arrested and imprisoned — for a brief time in chains — but Davis was sickly and broke. Beauvoir would be his final refuge from 1877 to 1889, when he died in New Orleans returning from a trip to Brierfield, his old plantation on the Mississippi River. There were a main house, two flanking cottages and outbuildings on Beauvoir’s 600 acres (now just 51) of gardens, Satsuma orange groves and pine trees, all set on the Gulf of Mexico. There Davis wrote his account of the Lost Cause, "The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government." He loved to walk the grounds and bathe in the sea, and he and wife, Varina Howell Davis, entertained a stream of visitors that included, for one night, Oscar Wilde. ("I did not like the man," Davis confided to his family the next day).

Davis arrived at Beauvoir as a guest of its mistress, the wealthy widow Sarah Dorsey. Dorsey, a novelist and biographer, was a childhood friend of Varina, as well as an acquaintance of the former president, whom she worshipped. She offered Davis one of her guest cottages as a writer’s retreat, and he never really left. When Dorsey died of cancer in 1879, she left Davis her entire estate, allowing him and Varina to know a modicum of financial security.

In 1903 Varina sold the site to the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans for a token sum with the stipulation that it be operated both as a home for old Confederate soldiers and their wives and widows and as a shrine to her late husband. The last two Confederate widows were transferred from Beauvoir in 1957, and the entire property was once again devoted to Jefferson Davis — though there remain the more than 700 graves of the old soldiers in gray, and their dependents, as well as the tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the Confederate State of America.

But the Beauvoir house, a national historic landmark, was almost destroyed three years ago, when Hurricane Katrina slammed ashore. Rick Forte, chairman of Beauvoir’s combined boards of trustees and directors, and acting director of the site, managed to drive from his home in Hattiesburg to Biloxi just two days after the storm. At first he couldn’t find the house, then realized it was still there, but stripped of its front and side porches and almost buried under debris. The Library Cottage where Davis wrote his memoirs was gone. Many of the other buildings at Beauvoir — including the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library — were either destroyed or so badly damaged that they had to be razed. About one third of the collections were lost. All eyes are now firmly fixed on Tropical Storm Gustav.

But the amazing story is how much was saved: more than half the original window glass, doors, much of the furniture and most of the personal artifacts and mementos of Jefferson Davis, many of which are in storage until a new presidential library can be built. Mr. Forte made it clear that it is thanks to the efforts of countless volunteers, staffers, contractors and outside consultants and experts that Beauvoir has come so far so quickly. (The cost to restore the main house was $3,861,000 — 90% of which came from FEMA and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.)

When that new library-museum opens (see for full details), it will chronicle Katrina’s impact as well as the story of Jeff Davis. He was born in a Kentucky log cabin (you thought Abraham Lincoln was the only one?), raised in Mississippi, educated at West Point, and showed exemplary courage at the battles of Monterrey and Buena Vista during the Mexican War. He served in the U.S. House and Senate, and as secretary of war under Franklin Pierce, before becoming the leader of the Confederacy. The museum will also tell of his personal losses — his first wife, all four of his sons.

Of course he also defended slavery and states’ rights (though he at first opposed secession; a true conservative, Davis thought the action too radical and dangerous — especially to one whose fortune was in land and slaves). Yet by the end of the War Between the States, Davis (and Robert E. Lee) was prepared to arm slaves, and to grant those who fought for the Confederacy their freedom. (Georgia politico Howell Cobb responded, "If slaves will make good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong.")

The main house reopened to the public on June 3 — the 200th anniversary of Davis’s birth. More than 4,000 people attended, including the Gov. Haley Barbour and Bert Hayes-Davis, great-great-grandson of Jefferson Davis. Mr. Forte said that since then, Beauvoir averages about 100 visitors a day, down significantly from pre-Katrina numbers, which ranged from 60,000 to 100,000 a year.

Constructed between 1848 and 1852, Beauvoir is a handsome raised cottage in the Greek Revival style; its main floor is nine feet above the ground. This not only allowed for the circulation of air under the floors to cool the house but meant that the living quarters would be above most storm surges. Katrina was different, however, and the water came into the house, causing much more damage than even Hurricane Camille in 1969.

That greater damage has provided greater opportunity to restore Beauvoir to the way it was when Davis lived here. As Mr. Forte shows me how the original construction under the house helped save it — its heart-pine beams interlocking like a jigsaw puzzle, held in place with heavy wooden pegs — and discusses structural reinforcements, air-conditioning upgrades, and the restoration of features lost long before Katrina, he says that Beauvoir is "better now than it’s ever been."

When Mississippi planter John Henderson built Orange Grove (it was Sarah Dorsey who renamed it Beauvoir), the rooms had 14-foot ceilings, which, along with the walls, were decorated with Rococo-style frescoes by a German artist from New Orleans. Very large windows let in light and air. It’s the most elegantly proportioned beach house you’re likely to see. Each room has at least one door opening onto the cool shaded porches that almost completely surround Beauvoir, and there are six fireplaces for those rare chilly days.

Much of the furniture has been returned to the interiors, including Davis’s shaving stand and a rocking chair he made himself. The husband-and-wife team of Philip Ward and Linda Croxson are restoring the frescoes to a glory they have not known for a century. All the work is buttressed by hundreds of pages of research.

Mr. Forte said that Varina, who disliked just those aspects of Beauvoir that appealed most to Jefferson Davis — its warm temperatures and then-remote location — jokingly warned her husband not to be laid to rest there, as a hurricane would likely destroy his grave. He’s buried in Richmond.

Copyright © 2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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