Saturday, April 19, 2014


Just a few blocks from the Alabama State Capitol building is the First White House of the Confederacy. This house only served this purpose from February 1861 to May 1861, and then the capital was moved to Richmond, Virginia. However, Jefferson Davis and his family made a significant mark on Montgomery in that short period of time.
The house was originally located about a mile from this site, but it was moved when its original neighborhood was undergoing renovation.
The house back-in-the-day. Looks like the white
siding we see today is not original.
Inside, we were allowed to take as many (flash-free) pictures as we wanted to. Finally. 
Jefferson Davis, U.S. Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, 1853
The Great Seal of the Confederacy:
Explanatory notes next to the Seal point out that the motto Deo Vindice translates as either "God Vindicates" or "With God as Our Defender."  The seal is described as "An equestrian portrait of George Washington (after the stature (sic) which surmounts his monument in the Capitol Square at Richmond), surrounded with a wreath composed of the principal agriculture of the Confederacy (cotton, tobacco, sugar cane, corn, wheat, rice). Approved April 30, 1863, Jefferson Davis, President Confederate States of America."

Almost all of the furnishings in the house actually did belong to the Davis family, although not all of them were originally used in this house.  Here is the front parlor:
Apparently one parlor wasn't enough. Just beyond the front parlor is the second parlor:
This chair was a gift to Davis from the Southern States and was used by him when he was imprisoned for two years after the Civil War in Fortress Monroe.
Jefferson Davis's bedroom. The photo on the wall behind the light was the last picture taken of him before his death in 1889 at age 81.
Mrs. Davis had her own room:
The dining room:
I developed a thing for chandeliers in Alabama. There were some really beautiful ones:
The President's study is one of the largest rooms in the house. Many decisions of state were made here:
There is a dictionary on this desk that belonged to Davises when they lived in their previous home, Brierfield Plantation, in Mississippi. The home was ransacked by Union soldiers more than once in 1862, and one of the Union soldiers took the dictionary. It was not returned until 1977:
A branch of a cotton bush:
Davis's family history is quite tragic. He and his wife had six children--four sons and two daughters--and only the daughters outlived their father. Their first son, Samuel, died at age 2 of an undisclosed illness. The second child, Margaret, was the only one to marry and raise a family. The third child, Jefferson, died of yellow fever at age 21. The fourth child, Joseph, died of a fall at age 5. The fifth child, William, died of diptheria at age 10. The final child, Winnie, wanted to marry into the family of a Northern abolitionist, but was refused permission by her father. She never married and died at age 34. Jefferson's wife survived him by 17 years, dying in 1906.
The Davis Children, c. 1867. Left to right: Jefferson Davis, Jr., age 10; Margaret Howell Davis, age 12; William Davis, age 6; Varina "Winnie" Anne Davis, age 2
When Mrs. Davis died in 1906, she was living in the Majestic Hotel in New York City (the North!). The hotel gave her furniture to the organization that runs this house, and it was placed here in this bedroom.
The "Relic Room" contains personal possessions of the Davis family.The portrait between the windows is a copy of a painting of Jefferson that hangs in the Pentagon along with those of all the other U. S. Secretaries of War.
The guest bedroom is the nicest bedroom in the house. I wouldn't mind spending the night here!
However, my favorite room is the nursery:
Clothes belonging to the Davis children:
Yet one more bedroom:
Jefferson Davis seems to be one of the major scapegoats of the Civil War. History hasn't been very kind to his memory. The loser of a war never gets a lot of accolades, and besides, it's hard to compete with his mythologized rival, Abraham Lincoln.

I'm overwhelmed by my "To Read" stack right now, so I decided to try a different approach to expanding my understanding, a four-hour documentary that covers Davis's entire life.  It was a good choice. I enjoyed all the photos of people and places important in Davis's life and the stories told by scholars who have been studying his life for many years.

Some of the fun things I learned from Jefferson Davis: An American President:

- Davis was the youngest of ten children and was born, like his rival President Abraham Lincoln, in Kentucky. He was just eight months older than Lincoln.

- He was born in 1808 and died in 1889 at age 81. (It's hard to think of him having a full life before the Civil War, and another 24 years after the War.)

- Davis graduated from West Point in 1828. He barely made it because he was court martialed for getting caught drinking with his friends at a tavern. (Edgar Allan Poe, a student a few years after Davis, was court martialed and dismissed in February 1831 for not attending class, roll call, parades, etc.)

-Davis's first wife died from malaria after they had been married only three months. A devastated Davis grieved for her the rest of his life, although ten years after her death he finally remarried a woman almost twenty years younger than he. He himself had also almost died from malaria at the same time his wife had it, and he suffered from its after-effects the rest of his life, sometimes having bouts of malaria that lasted as long as two months.

- As a plantation owner, Davis owned many slaves and was known for abhorring cruelty. He treated his slaves very well, even setting up an internal court system where they were tried for misdemeanors by their peers.

- He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1846, was wounded and made a hero in the Mexican-American War, and returned to be appointed and then elected to the U.S. Senate.

- Davis was instrumental in legislation that led to the creation of the Smithsonian Institution.

- As Secretary of War under President Pierce, Davis greatly strengthened the U.S. war machine, which came back to haunt him when he had to fight against it about a decade later.

- Davis oversaw the expansion of the U.S. State Capitol building during the 1850s. It is what it is today--including the cast iron dome--because of his vision.

- He had neuralgia that affected his left eye for much of his adult life. It was extremely painful.

- Davis resigned from the Senate in 1861. He never saw the completed Capitol or his beloved city of Washington D.C. again, and he was never again a U.S. citizen, at least during his lifetime. President Jimmy Carter signed a bill in 1978 reinstating his citizenship.

- There was never any direct personal contact between Lincoln and Davis.

- Both Presidents lost a son during the Civil War. Lincoln's eleven-year-old son Willie died in 1862 of an illness, and Davis's five-year-old son Joseph died of a fall from the Southern White House balcony in 1864.

- There was a $100,000 bounty on Davis's head at the end of the Civil War. He was captured in Southern Georgia by Union troops and sent to prison at Fortress Monroe in Virginia, where he remained for two years with the light on all the time, a guard inside his cell and two outside the door, and at least for some period of time, with his feet shackled.

- The U.S. government didn't know what to do with him. The charge of treason was punishable by death. If he was convicted and executed, he would be a martyr; if he was not convicted, he would win in court what he had lost on the battlefield.

- He was finally given bail of $100,000 in 1867, and Horace Greeley, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and other Northerners posted his bond. The country eventually lost interest in his cause, and he was essentially a free man. He was both a much-loved symbol of states' rights and a symbol of the cost of war.

- His life after the war was a constant search for employment and means to support his family. He declined all offers to return to politics and was never very successful at anything after the war.

- His ten-year-old son died of diphtheria in 1872, and his last son died a few years later of yellow fever.

- Davis died of acute bronchitis complicated by malaria. His funeral, held in New Orleans, was one of the largest ever held in the South.

I came away from my four hours of watching Jefferson Davis: An American President with a much greater respect for the man. He was devoted to his wife and children, a hard worker, a deep thinker, and a man of strong morals. He believed strongly in states' rights, and I'm sure he'd be horrified at the power of today's federal government. The scholars in the documentary make a good case for him as the Civil War scapegoat. Both his vice president, Alexander Stephens, and the head of the Conferderate forces, Robert E. Lee, were able to successfully return to public life, but Davis always seemed to live with the cloud of the past hanging over his head.


  1. I had a hard time getting into the White House of the Confederacy. I've learned more from your post than my visit.

  2. I love touring those grand old mansions.

    What a tragic life. I had no idea Davis endured such a sad story.

  3. Thank you for the even-handed post. It was informative and the photos were illustrative. Thank for treating a great man justly.

  4. Great information post. I always learn so much when I read your travel blog! There's a lot of "little" monuments like this all over America, to people who had the grip of history in their hand, then faded away. Thanks for the tour of one of those places.