Friday, Jun. 29, 2012
Go back in time at White House of the Confederacy
Destination: Richmond, Va.
By Elaine Jean
Special to the Times
The meticulously restored home of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, might be called incongruous with its surroundings. Smack-dab in the middle of the VCU Medical Center and with the Civil War 150 years in the past, the building appears to have been deposited there by time machine.
The juxtaposition of the White House of the Confederacy with its modern day-setting has garnered criticism from some. But consider that the stately Southern mansion, an indelible piece of America’s history, is tucked on a parcel of land surrounded by a place of healing in a state where much of the fighting took place. Then consider that a century and a half is not much time at all, in the grand scheme of things.
The White House of the Confederacy was Richmond’s social and political epicenter during the war. A guided tour, combined with a visit to its companion museum, gives a glimpse at the lives of the people — from the president and his generals to the soldiers and their families.
A docent leads you through the home on an engaging tour that shares the history of the building, from its construction in1818 to its present-day reincarnation as a National Historic Landmark.
Eleven rooms are displayed, and all have been restored to their appearance at the time of the Civil War. Furniture and items — except for the textiles — are original to the period, and many were owned by Jefferson Davis and his family.
The rosewood table in the dining room is original, and here the Confederate president met with Gen. Robert E. Lee and other key figures to discuss strategy. You can’t help but wish these walls could talk.
On a lighter note, the small cannon in the Children’s Room is actually a piece of miniature artillery that was owned by Davis’ five-year-old son. The story goes that he was allowed to play with it in the house … until he loaded it up with gunpowder, outfitted it with teensy-tiny fuses and fired it.
Outside, the garden is faithfully maintained through the generosity of the President Davis Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. It’s a great place to take a few photos and digest what you’ve seen. Next door, the Museum of the Confederacy examines the Confederate soldiers and their families — boasting the world’s most comprehensive collection of Confederate artifacts.
The museum serves as an excellent primer for those of us who weren’t quite paying attention in history class, and Civil War buffs also will enjoy its depth and level of detail. Highlights include the rustic tent headquarters of Robert E. Lee, who was described by chief of staff Walter Taylor as “never so uncomfortable as when he was comfortable.”
In contrast, a larger-than-life centerpiece is The Last Meeting, Edward B.D. Julio’s 1869 painting of the last encounter of Lee and Jackson. At 15 feet high and 9 feet wide, it captures a significant moment between the most famous generals of the Confederacy.
Two exhibits on the lower level bring the war into focus on a more personal note. The War Comes Home covers how war altered daily life in the South, and at the same time, how life went on. People continued to get married and raise children, and the stuff of their lives is on display here. Original copies of “Dixie Children: A Geographical Reader” and “Southern Confederate Arithmetic” make clear that things were abnormally normal.
Knickknackery showcases the intriguingly quirky — a prosthetic arm made of boiled leather and a smuggling doll used to transport much-need quinine. The Currier and Ives three-way Davis-Lee-Jackson picture is not to be missed, along with POW autograph books, Civil War valentines and a scrapbook owned by J.E.B. Stuart.
On the museum’s upper level, Between the Battles illustrates how soldiers occupied their idle time when not in combat. Items they made and used are enhanced by photographs and quotes, giving the soldiers both faces and voices.
Not ready to go home yet? Stop by the Jefferson Hotel for a spot of tea. Contrary to popular legend, the polished marble staircase at the Jefferson was not used in “Gone with the Wind.” But don’t let that stop you from visiting this grand old hotel — it has an illustrious past.
A small display case on the first floor shares the history of this place where John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Charles Lindberg, Charlie Chaplin and Elvis Presley all counted sheep.
The hotel was built in 1895 by Lewis Ginter, who served in the Confederate Army and reached the rank of major. After the war he made partner in an innovative tobacco company, which later became the American Tobacco Company.
On nearby Monument Avenue, statues of Jefferson Davis, J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and two additional Richmond residents of note — Matthew Fontaine Maury (the father of modern oceanography) and tennis star Arthur Ashe — line the street in the Grand American Avenue style. Surrounding architecture provides a gracious backdrop and an interesting conclusion to the day.
Copyright © 2012 Post-Newsweek Media, Inc