Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Other White House

I recently took a trip south of Washington to visit the other Capital with the other White House. Strange to think the Confederates chose their capital to be only 98 miles from Washington, but early in the Civil War the iron mills and factories of Richmond, Virginia were of tremendous strategic importance to the South. So it came to be that the Confederate capital was situated on a bluff overlooking the James River, and the executive mansion on 12th and Clay Streets became known as the White House of the Confederacy. Not to be picky, but the Confederate White House is actually pale grey (pictured at left as seen now and below right during the Civil War).

Originally constructed in 1818 for a prominent physician, the third story of the federal period house was added when it was purchased by the Crenshaw family in 1857. When the war commenced the Confederate government purchased the home and furnishings for $42,000, and CSA President Jefferson Davis and family moved in shortly thereafter.

Davis’s wife and first lady Varina became the official hostess of Richmond society, and the home was used for entertainment. At first the levees and balls were lavish, as the Southerners had many early victories to cheer on. Nonetheless, Varina Davis preferred to keep a “Quiet Set” and tended to keep gatherings small and intimate. She feared Richmond to be full of dreadful gossip.

As the war progressed, Richmond began to feel the strain of tough economic times. The price of a gallon of eggnog was over $100 at Christmas in 1863. “Starvation Parties” soon became the talk of the town, where the only expense was hiring the band and attendees refreshed themselves with a glass of water from the James River. Despite this privation, Mary Chesnut—the wife of General James Chesnut—noted that she attended one of Varina’s “Luncheons for Ladies Only” where they were served “gumbo, ducks and olives, lettuce salad, chocolate cream and jelly cake, claret cup, champagne, etc.” But on the whole, social gatherings at the Confederate White House became fewer and far between.

By 1864 the Confederate First Lady confessed to Mrs. Chesnut that the Davises could no longer live on the income provided by the Confederate government, and had begun selling off the horses and carriages kept in the carriage house at their White House.

Most of us know how the Civil War ended. The Union Army seized Richmond burning about 10% of it. Jeff Davis and Varina fled for their lives. The southern White House became the headquarters for the occupying army, with Lincoln personally visiting the mansion on April 4, 1865. He sat in Davis’s chair and helped himself to some of the wine left by the Rebel First Family.

It’s interesting to consider the lives of these two presidents living in their own “White Houses.” Aside from the struggles of the War, both as heads of state used their homes to entertain. Both had wives who presided over the local society and were frequently the subject of gossip. My image of Jefferson Davis has always been that of a slave holding villain. I had not considered him to be a family man, so visiting the house he briefly resided in humanized him. Like Lincoln, Davis suffered tragedy in his White House as well. In Washington, Lincoln’s son Willie died in 1862 of disease at age 12. Perhaps more horrifying was the death of five year old Joseph Davis, who fell from the East Portico of the Davis's White House.

2 Presidents. 2 First Ladies. 2 Capitals. 2 White Houses. The Confederate house is currently in the care of the Museum of the Confederacy; an interesting place where you can learn about the “Second American Revolution,” States Rights, the valor of the Confederate troops, and the vast superiority of their cavalry. I guess there are 2 ways of looking at things.

Sources: Mary Chesnut, Diary from Dixie.

Nelson Lankford,
Richmond Burning.

Museum of the Confederacy.

Emory M. Thomas,
The Confederate State of Richmond.


  1. There are many ways of looking at things, and perhaps more ways of not looking at things, such as the fact that the major impetus behind states rights was the preservation of slavery. Seems the Museum of the Confederacy has a hard time admitting that.

  2. Here is an interesting NY Times article outlining the controversy of the Museum of the Confederacy:

    I think the author is right that here and there you catch "whiffs of the Old South" at the Museum. I don't think there is a problem with showcasing the Confederate army-- it's acceptable to have museums geared toward certain groups/events (i.e. the difference between the Holocaust museum and the D-Day museum). However, you go through this Museum gazing at General Lee's possessions or Stonewall's sword you can't help but feel that there is elephant in the room with you; slavery.

    I don't know how you address slavery in the context of the museum's mission to tell the story from the Southern perspective. But rather than showing a tribute to the a token African-American who willingly and honorably served in the Confederate Army, it might be nice to acknowledge that the majority of African-American Confederate soldiers were not likely serving by choice.