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Searching for the Real Jefferson Davis

by Kathleen Walls

You can find all the dry historical information about Jefferson Davis online or in books. Sure, he was the president of the Confederate States. Before that he was a West Pointer, a colonel in the Mexican War, a United States senator, the son-in-law of President Zackary Taylor and secretary of War under Franklyn Pierce. Bur if you want to find the real man under all the historical facts, you need to visit the important places in his life.

 

 

Monument at Jefferson Davis Birthplace
Photo credit Kentucky Park System

You would start in Fairview, Kentucky at his birthplace. Most people just think of him as a Mississippian but he wasn't born there. Fairview is proud to recognize their native son with the world's largest unreinforced obelisk. You will find it at the Jefferson Davis State Historic Site. There is also a great museum with lots of memorabilia about Davis and a picnic area. This is the zero mile marker on the (unrecognized) Jefferson Davis Highway which was established and marked by the United Daughters of the Confederacy just a year after the Lincoln Highway was proposed.

Incidentally, did you know that Lincoln was born in Kentucky just about 100 miles from Fairview?

Little Jeff left Kentucky in 1810 to live in Louisiana and then Mississippi when he was just two years old. Rosemont, the home his father built for his wife, Jane Cook Davis, and their ten children�Jefferson, whose middle name was Finis, was the youngest�is where his first memories were formed. The home is just about a mile east of Woodville, Mississippi and is open for tours. The furnishings are mostly original. His mother and several family members are buried in the little cemetery on the plantation grounds.

As a youth Davis returned to Kentucky several time during his schooldays. He graduated from Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky and then received an appointment to West Point. He furthered his military career until he met and Married Sarah Knox Taylor, the daughter of future president Zackary Taylor. The marriage was not destined to be a "happily ever after story." Both Davis and his bride contracted malaria three months later and Sarah died. Davis mourned and became a reclusive planter near Vicksburg, Mississippi for several years.

The Briars
Photo credit LOC

But life goes on and Davis met and married seventeen year old Varina Howell. The wedding was a quiet affair at the bride's family home, The Briars, in Natchez. Today it is maintained as a bed and breakfast where you can choose the Jeff Davis or the Varina Howell Suite for your stay. There are other rooms as well and you will be surrounded by furniture and memorabilia reminiscent of when Varina left her home to become Jefferson Davis's wife.

The couple lived at Brierfield, a plantation Davis's brother Joseph, had given him. It was located near Vicksburg and it was at Vicksburg's local courthouse that Davis launched his political career. Today the courthouse is a museum with an entire room dedicated to Jefferson Davis. Davis knew the courthouse well. After the war, it was there that he filed suit to regain possession of his lost home, Brierfield.

Davis was destined for bigger things. He was elected to the house of Representatives and resigned when the Mexican War erupted to form and lead a Mississippi regiment. During the war, he was wounded in the foot and recognized as a war hero. When he returned to civilian life the governor of Mississippi appointed him to fill a vacated seat in the U. S. Senate. He was reelected the next term. Then seeking to more higher, he resigned to run for governor of Mississippi but was defeated.

Franklyn Pierce appointed Davis his secretary of war. He was in this position when the Free State/Slave State issue broke out in Kansas as a result of the Kansas/Nebraska Act authorizing Popular Sovereignty, the right of the settlers in these territories to decide if they entered the union as Slave State or Free State. The earlier bill had settled the matter with Kansas entering as a slave state and Nebraska free but it was repealed by this new bill introduced by Steven Douglas. Ironically, it was during his tenure as Secretary of war that Davis authorized strengthening the army by increasing he standing army size and introducing more modern weapons.

Parlor of First White House in Montgomery

Davis was reelected to the Senate after Pierce left office. He was a confirmed unionist but held that a state had the right to leave the union if so desired. When his own Mississippi seceded, he left the senate and was briefly appointed on January 23, 1861 by Governor Pettus as a major general of the Army of Mississippi. On February 9, a constitutional convention in Montgomery, Alabama chose him as Provisional President of the newly formed Confederate States of America. He was then chosen as official president by acclamation.

The First White House of the Confederacy in Montgomery is a treasure trove to visit. It holds so many of his personal items and really takes you back to the days when Davis attempted to deal with the problems of the new nation and the threatened war with the U.S. This was the haven he could return to at the end of a busy day. It still maintains that feeling of a gracious welcoming southern home. The home is open free of charge and contains many personal items that help flesh out the Jefferson Davis story. It is located just across the street from the Capital Building where Davis was sworn in as President on February 18. 1861.

White House in Richmond
Photo credit Richmond CVB

His next move was to Richmond, the next and last capital of the Confreeracy.The official White House here was the scene of some of his greatest happiness and worst sorrows. It was here that his five year old son, Joseph, fell from a window as was killed. Here too his last child, named Varine Anne but forever after known as Winnie, the Daughter of the Confederacy, was born.

It was the home he and his family were forced to flee as the end of the Confederacy loomed. They fled finally reaching Washington, Georgia with Davis's staff and the Confederate treasury contained in a big, black chest. Here he called a cabinet meeting and officially dissolved the Confederate States of America. He met with Varina, who was staying at a home now called Holly Court with little Winnie and young Jeff, Jr.

The mysterious chest

Washington, Georgia is filled with historic antebellum homes but the most curious relic is the unassuming black chest that poses so many questions. The chest is located in the Mary Willis Library in Washington. It reclines beneath a priceless Tiffany stained glass window in the foyer of the first free library in Georgia It was filled with worthless Confederate paper money but it also contained a fortune in gold taken from the Richmond banks to protect it from the Yankee invaders. When Davis fled, the unopened chest was left behind supposed to be sent on to Cedar Key, Florida to be sent on to Europe. When the Union army entered town and captured it, it had only the paper money. What really happened to all that gold? As you stare at the ancient iron and leather chest that once held a portion of that gold, you are transported back to that turbulent time.

Museum at Jefferson Davis Capture Site

Davis was attempting to reach Europe. There was a huge reward placed for his capture and he had no idea what fate awaited him should he be apprehended. Prison at best: death at worst. He only got as far as Irwinville, 200 miles south of Washington. May 10, 1865, two separate groups of Union Calvary approached where he was camped in a pine thicket and began firing. Neither group was aware of the other and two Yankee soldiers were killed by their own side before Davis who had wrapped one of Varina's shawls around him was captured. The shawl gave rise to the story that Davis was attempting to escape disguised as a woman. You can visit the site which is now a Georgia State Historic Site. There is a museum with many authentic artifacts including a wanted poster for Davis's capture. You will find picnic tables, a nature trail and a beautiful monument as well.

Museum at Fort Monroe Photo credit NPS

For the next two years Davis was imprisoned at Fort Monroe in Virginia. Ironically, this was where, i n 1619, the first shipload of captive Africans arrived to begin suffering enslavement. Until recently it was still an active military facility but it was deactivated and on November 1, 2011, President Obama declared Fort Monroe a National Monument. Casemate Museum at the fort relates its history.

When Davis finally regained his freedom he returned to Mississippi and lived for a time in the guest cottage at Beauvoir, the home a friend, Sarah Dorsey who named it Beauvoir. Originally it had been named Orange Grove by the first owner, James Brown, a wealthy plantation owner from Madison County, Mississippi who built it between 1848 and 1852.

Beauvoir

Dorsey, a writer and one time friend of Varina, bought it at auction after Brown's death when his widow could no longer afford to maintain it. She was so impressed with the view that she renamed it Beauvoir meaning Beautiful View. She offered Davis the use of one of the two pavilion on the property at a nominal rent. Davis loved the home but Varina was not so impressed. When Dorsey realized she had a fatal illness, she arranged to sell it to Davis for $5,500. Davis made the first payment and before the second of the three payments became due, Dorsey died. She had named Davis as her sole heir.

Beauvoir remained Davis's home and refuge until his death in 1889. It was here that he wrote the monumental work, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government .

Beauvoir was damaged by Katrina but the home has been restored perfectly. It is furnished much as it was during Davis's residency and there are several original pieces. The Davis Presidential Library and Museum is being constructed to farther preserve the story of this remarkable man.

Jefferson Davis funeral procession in New Orleans Photo Credit LOC

It is in these places where lived and worked where you must go to find the real Jefferson Davis.

 

For more info:

Kentucky Tourism: http://www.kentuckytourism.com/

Kentucky Parks: http://parks.ky.gov/parks/historicsites/jefferson-davis/default.aspx

Mississippi Tourism: http://www.visitmississippi.org/

Rosemont Plantation: http://www.rosemontplantation1810.com/index.htm

Natchez CVB: www.visit natchez .org/

The Briars: http://www.thebriarsbb.com/

Vicksburg CVB: www.visit vicksburg .com/

Montgomery CVB: http://visitingmontgomery.com

First White House: http://www.firstwhitehouse.org/

Old Courthouse Museum: http://www.oldcourthouse.org/

Richmond CVB: http://www.visitrichmondva.com/

Georgia Tourism: www.explore georgia .org/

Washington/Wilkes C of C: www. washingtonwilkes .org/

Jefferson Davis Capture Site: http://www.gastateparks.org/JeffersonDavis

Beauvoir: http://beauvoir.org/