Tuesday, December 27, 2016

On Jefferson Davis's White House

Today, my mom and I visited Jefferson Davis's Civil War home in Richmond, his White House. (It actually is white.) The White House is part of the American Civil War Museum.

My brother and I visited Richmond four years ago intending to visit the White House, as well as the complex next door, which was then called the Museum of the Confederacy. (The name was changed a year later when the museum merged with the American Civil War Center, which is also located in Richmond.) We were amused by the name, by our assumption that the museum would be a neo-Confederate celebration of "heritage." But the cost was prohibitively expensive, or at least too expensive for irony. 

We did end up visiting a branch of the museum in Appomattox and were pleasantly surprised. It was upfront about slavery. It was an excellent museum with fascinating artifacts. I remember seeing a mathematics textbook which gave students word problems involving slaves and dead Yankees. We regretted skipping out on the museum in Richmond.

So, as I was back in Richmond, I didn't want to repeat the same mistake. We visited the museum and Davis's White House. The museum was not as spectacular as the one in Appomattox, but the artifacts were still interesting. There was an interesting collection of Confederate flags, including a Louisiana flag that celebrated the state's Spanish and French heritages. There was a doll that supposedly carried much-needed medicine. There weren't any outright racist images on display, and I'm not sure if that was a result of decisions made by the new administration. The museum was blunt that the war was fought over slavery, not states' rights, but it's depiction of Confederate culture did not include many slaves.

The tour of the White House was strange. The guide's tone was eerie and neutral. She mentioned the house butler who "self-emancipated" in 1864 by running away. She mentioned that Davis left his plantation in Mississippi in the care of his black overseer. She mentioned the number of slaves Davis kept on site. But much of her tour described a lovable family. Davis's young boys would kiss and fondle the Greco-Roman statuary. Davis's wife Verena was an opinionated woman who loved to talk politics, quite outside the norm for a proper Southern belle. There was a lovely piece of silver inscribed with the name of a Union officer who looted the mansion in 1865. It wasn't very nice to steal something and write your name on it, our tour guide said, but thanks to the inscription, historians knew where the silver came from and could return the it to its proper place. There was a stereoscopic toy, and a child's Confederate uniform Verena sewed for her son so he could play war with the neighborhood boys.

The decisions that must have been made in that house. The tension that existed as the war was coming to an end. The thoughts of the slaves who served dinner, many of who must have been privy to the greatest secrets of the Confederacy. Our guide did tell us of Lincoln's walk through the mansion, 36 hours after Davis's escape from Richmond, in April 1865. But most of our tour was about the Davis family and the tragedies that befell them. Davis lost his fortune after the war, and suffered only a brief imprisonment. His business ventures failed. But eventually he went on speaking trips with his daughter. A rich admirer set Davis up with a plantation on which he lived out his final years. Jefferson and Verena outlived all but one of their children, which is sad, but I think they got off easy. 

Still, the house was nowhere near as disturbing as Monticello, a space in which the greatest thinker of the Enlightenment in North America lived among his slaves. If Verena Davis or the previous owners of the house had better taste in home furnishings, Jefferson Davis had more eccentric hobbies, and the majority of their slaves weren't so many miles distant, their White House would have more power. My mom hit on the most interesting part of the house, but I don't know how much meaning we can derive from it: It looked like a brothel.   

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