Jefferson Davis could have been a hero of American history, if not on the level of a George Washington, certainly equivalent to a Franklin Pierce or Chester Arthur.
Davis served as a U.S. Senator and as the U.S. Secretary of War under President Pierce. There was talk of him becoming the President of the United States himself. But instead, at the outbreak of the Civil War, the Kentucky native threw in his lot with the South and became president of the Confederacy.
After the war, Davis would pay for his choice with financial hardship, two years in prison and the loss of his American citizenship. (Davis’ citizenship was restored in 1978 by Congress and President Jimmy Carter, who said his signing of the act “officially completes the long process of reconciliation that has reunited our people following the tragic conflict between the States.”)
But, in some sense, a president is a president. And Davis has his own presidential library and museum at Beauvoir, his retirement home in Biloxi, Mississippi, on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico.
Davis rented a cabin at Beauvoir in 1877 and bought the whole property a few years later. He lived in the mansion with his wife Varina and daughter Varina Anne (also known as Winnie) until his death in 1889.
While there, he wrote a history of the war and entertained many prominent guests, including Oscar Wilde. (Oh, to have been a fly on the wall at that dinner party.)
The house became a museum in the 1950s, and the presidential library and museum opened on the site in 1998.
The house and library were both severely damaged during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but both have been restored and welcome guests throughout the year.
The library contains a museum about the life of Davis and his family, with exhibits examining history as well as issues that continue to be in the news to this day, such as the Confederate “Stars and Bars” flag.
The single-story house is surrounded by a broad porch in the Southern style, and elevated above the ground on piers to allow air to circulate in the days before air conditioning. The elevation also, accidentally, saved Beauvoir from even worse storm and flood damage during Katrina.
The house is furnished in the style it would have been during Davis’ occupancy, with many original pieces that belonged to the Davis family. On the extensive grounds are reproductions of Beauvoir’s original kitchen building, schoolhouse and large cistern.
Visitors can also walk the grounds (or rent a golf cart for the purpose) and see a reproduction of Varina Davis’ rose garden; many ancient and historic live oaks, including the one Jefferson Davis preferred for reading under; and a historic cemetery, established in 1903 when a Confederate veterans’ home was operating on the site. The cemetery also contains the Tomb of the Unknown Confederate Soldier.
For more information on Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library, call 228-388-4400 or visit www.beauvoir.org.
— Steve Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SteveStephens.