Beauvoir and Harrison County in tug of war over CSA president’s will

Jefferson Davis left his Warren County home and much of his belongings to his wife.

His interests in two Louisiana plantations were left to family friends.

But what the president of the Confederacy did not say in his final will is what would happen to his three-page, handwritten will.

Since the will was filed in December 1889 in Harrison County Chancery Court, it has remained at the Gulfport courthouse, first in a court file and now in a safe.

Now Beauvoir, the final home and shrine to Davis, wants the original will for a display at its library in Biloxi. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, which owns the estate, has been trying for more than two years to get the will.

"It’s obviously a very important document," said Patrick Hotard, director of Beauvoir. "It’s the last document that relates to Davis. It’s a fascinating document to exhibit and it’s something that the public would really enjoy."

Former Chancery Court Clerk Nicky Creel has wanted to display the document since he found it more than a decade ago. While moving some old files, Creel and his staff stumbled on the will in its original court file.

"It was in horrible shape," Creel said.

The will’s only trip outside the confines of the Gulfport courthouse was in the early 1990s. Creel deputized Glenn Swetman, a longtime community leader who frequently played Jefferson Davis in re-enactments, to take the document to the Department of Archives and History in Jackson to be preserved.

"They wanted to keep it then," Creel said. "But he got it back."

Creel and former Harrison County attorney Boyce Holleman wanted to find a way to display the will at the Gulfport courthouse, but security and protection was problematic.

"Things got set aside and we just never got around to it," Creel said.

After the courthouse idea fizzled, Creel thought Beauvoir might be a better site for a display. He talked to the Sons of Confederate Veterans and Chancery Court judges about moving the will several years ago.

"It’s been a long, drawn-out process of getting it to one place to another," Creel said. "I think it’s something that people should see. It’s probably the county’s most important historic document."

But transferring a public document that is part of a legal file is far from easy. It takes approval from the Harrison County Board of Supervisors as well as the state Department of Archives and History.

The will is technically owned by Harrison County, said Bill Hanna, director of local government records for the state Department of Archives and History. But according to state law, the department has final say on the disposal or transfer of all public documents.

Because Beauvoir is privately owned, the will cannot be given directly to the library.

"I don’t know of any situation that we would authorize the ownership of a public document to a private entity," Hanna said.

However, there is a special provision in the law for the state to loan public documents to Beauvoir.

"Although it is not technically a government agency, it’s closely tied to the state," Hanna said. "We have loaned them documents in the past."

But there has been talk that the Department of Archives and History may want the will for its own records.

Hanna said if Harrison County wanted to transfer the will to the state, the department would be interested but "it would not be something that we would press."

Hanna has been talking with Chancery Court officials and Beauvoir about a possible temporary loan and believes it can be worked out. Harrison County supervisors are expected to vote on the possible loan in coming weeks. If the county agrees, the Department of Archives and History would most likely sign off on the loan, Hanna said.

"When I talked to (Chief Chancery) Judge Margaret Alfonso, I made her swear that if there was a hurricane watch, she would go over and get the document and take it back to the courthouse," Hanna said, laughing.