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The White House of the Confederacy

June 30, 2019

Located at 1201 E. Clay Street in Richmond, Virginia, the former Executive Mansion of the Confederate States stands rather unassumingly among Virginia Commonwealth University's bustling Medical Campus. To passers-by, nothing on the house's exterior indicates anything of importance besides an old historic marker on the sidewalk. Municipal expansion has slowly intruded and crowded the estate into near obscurity. However, upon closer examination,  this ordinary house is actually one of the most historically-significant structures in Richmond--a paradigm of Southern society, symbolic of a bygone era.  

 

Plans for the house began in 1816 when Dr. John Brockenbrough, president of the Bank of Virginia, purchased two adjoining lots in Richmond’s affluent Court End neighborhood for $15,000. Brockenbrough envisioned a stately mansion perched prominently on a hill overlooking the James River and Shockoe Valley, the envy of the urban aristocracy. Architectural designs were finalized in 1818 and the house was completed later that year, supposedly by Robert Mills—the architect of D.C.’s Washington Monument—however, no concrete evidence exists of his participation.

 

The Brockenbrough’s two-story mansion was completed in a neoclassical Greek revival fashion and quickly drew the admiration of Virginia’s social elite. The ostentatious Brockenbrough frequently hosted parties and social functions at his estate and even received Marquis de Lafayette during his tour of America in 1824. The home was sold to James Morson in 1844 and passed through a succession of wealthy families over the next fifteen years. In 1857, Lewis Dabney Crenshaw purchased the house and made considerable renovations, adding porticos and a third story.

 

The home was sold to the city of Richmond at the onset of the Civil War and designated the Executive Mansion when the Confederate government relocated from Montgomery, Alabama, in May 1861. From August 1861 to April 1865, the estate was occupied by Confederate President Jefferson Davis, his wife, Varina, and their children. Davis was a West Point graduate, veteran of the Mexican-American War, and former senator of Mississippi before he accepted the presidential appointment in February 1861.

 

The Davises had ten to twelves slaves on staff at the mansion at all times. Some of these slaves were the Davis’s own brought from Mississippi while others were leased by Richmond residents. One such servant was Mary Jane Richards Denman (also known as Mary Bowser)—a freed black who disguised herself as a slave and spied on high-ranking members of the Confederate government in the Davis household. She was the former slave of John Van Lew whose daughter, Elizabeth, operated a Union spy ring called the “Richmond Underground.”

 

Elizabeth Van Lew was a staunch abolitionist who freed her family’s slaves upon her inheritance. Mary chose to remain in the Van Lew household following her emancipation as she and Elizabeth had fostered a close friendship. In 1855, Elizabeth sent Mary as a missionary to Liberia—a country primarily founded by freed blacks and the American Colonization Society for the purpose of recolonization during the “Back-to-Africa” movement in the early 19th century. Bowser spent five years in Liberia before returning to the United States in 1860. Upon her return, she was detained and arrested for claiming to be a free person of color without having any official papers verifying her claim. She spent nine days in jail before Van Lew posted her bail.

 

In the early years of the war, Bowser volunteered at Richmond’s Libby Prison—a Union POW camp notorious for its deplorable prisoner conditions. She would often bring Union soldiers food, medicine, books, clean clothes, and directions for escape written by Van Lew. The duo were incredibly discrete about their operations at Libby Prison. Van Lew even created a false persona for herself in which she would act nonsensical and schizophrenic to throw off any suspicion of espionage. She became known as “Crazy Bet” and was largely dismissed by Richmond society as a lunatic.

 

In 1862, Major General Benjamin Butler, commander of Fort Monroe, officially recruited Van Lew and Bowser as Union spies. Bowser was hired as a full-time servant for the Davis family in the Executive Mansion and relayed confidential battle plans and documents back to Van Lew. This secret infiltration continued throughout the war and significantly hindered Confederate logistical operations in the field.

 

The Executive Mansion was not only a place of residence but a center for political and military discussion. Davis would often work out of his home office due to complications from numerous medical ailments, such as facial neuralgia and recurrent malaria. War councils and Cabinet meetings were frequent in the Davis household, the most famous of which occurred on April 14, 1862, when Generals Robert E. Lee, George W. Randolph, Joseph E. Johnston, and other high-ranking officers met to discuss Richmond’s defenses against General George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign. It was during this discussion where a normally calm and reserved Lee banged his fist on the table in frustration and exclaimed, “Richmond must not fall. It shall not be given up!” These words would be echoed in the bloody conflicts of the Seven Days’ Battles two months later.

 

While Jefferson Davis tended to his political duties, the social responsibilities were managed by Varina Davis. The Confederate White House was resplendent with lavish parties and dances during the early years of the Civil War. However, as the conflict dragged on, foreign imports and interstate trade were constantly interrupted by the Union blockades, resulting in food and supply shortages. Starvation parties soon became common occurrences at the Davis estate. These parties were much like any other social gathering—bountiful in music, dancing, and games—but lacked food and beverages. Varina saw these functions as a way to stimulate Richmond’s social atmosphere and promote public enthusiasm while the outlook on the war grew increasingly bleak.

 

Over the course of their residency, Jefferson and Varina Davis conceived two more children. The first was William Howell Davis, born on December 6, 1861. The second was Varina Anne “Winnie” Davis, nicknamed the “Daughter of the Confederacy.” She was born on June 27, 1864, just two months after her brother, Joseph Davis II, accidentally fell to his death from a second-story balcony. He tried to walk on a bannister like a trapeze artist he saw at the circus but slipped and hit his head on the brick promenade sixteen feet below. He passed away from his injuries on the evening of April 30, 1864, at the age of five.

 

As the war entered its fourth year in 1865, Davis realized that it was only a matter of time before the defenses of Petersburg and Richmond fell to Union forces. On the advice of General Lee, Davis and his family stayed in Richmond as long as they could. Davis sent Varina and their four children south towards Florida on March 29, fearing the imminent collapse of Richmond. On April 2, 1865, Davis received a telegram from Lee while at Sunday service. The correspondence read: “I think it is absolutely necessary that we should abandon our position tonight.” Expressionless, Davis stood and walked out of the church to the silence of the congregation. Later that day, it was formally announced that the Confederate government was evacuating the city. Davis and his Cabinet fled to Danville, Virginia, that evening. Not nearly twenty-four hours later, Richmond was captured by the Union army.

 

Davis continued to elude capture for the next several weeks, frantically moving the remnants of the Confederate government to towns across the South. Finally, on May 10, 1865, he was captured by Federal forces in Irwinville, Georgia. He was taken to Fort Monroe, Virginia, on May 22 and was imprisoned there for nearly two years. Varina and the children made it as far south as Savannah, Georgia, but were captured while trying to board a passenger vessel to England that same month.

 

After the Confederate government abandoned Richmond, the Executive Mansion was taken over by Major General Godfrey Weitzel, commander of the XVIII Corps. The house also hosted President Abraham Lincoln for a few hours on April 4 as he toured the captured Confederate capitol.

 

On March 2, 1867, Congress passed the First Reconstruction Act, which placed ten of the former Confederate States under the martial rule of Military Districts. Virginia was designated Military District No. 1 with the former Executive Mansion as its headquarters. The estate served as residence for the military governors, who exercised nearly unlimited power over military occupation, civil courts, and government activities at all levels. During its three years under martial law, District 1 was governed by Brigadier General John Schofield (1867 – 1868), Colonel George Stoneman (1868 – 1869), and Brigadier General Edward Canby (1869 – 1870).

 

When Virginia was relinquished from military occupation in 1870, the city of Richmond took over the building and converted it into the Richmond Central School, one of the city’s first public schools of the postwar era. The school officially opened on October 1, 1872, and had eleven teachers on staff to supervise nearly six hundred students.

 

Following the Central School’s closure in 1894, the deed to the former Executive Mansion was acquired by the Confederate Memorial Literary Society—an all-female board of preservationists and historians. Varina Davis, herself, was one of the founding members. On February 22, 1896, after extensive renovations, the CMLS opened the mansion’s doors to the public as the Museum of the Confederacy. The Museum exhibited extensive collections of war relics, artifacts, and memorabilia from each of the former Confederate States, many of which were donated by Civil War veterans, Union and Confederate alike. The Museum of the Confederacy remained in the White House until 1976, when it was relocated to an adjacent gallery. In 2018, the Museum temporarily closed its doors after a merger with the American Civil War Museum and as of May 2019, reopened in a brand new facility at the Historic Tredegar complex.

 

From 1976 – 1988, the mansion underwent meticulous renovations to restore it back to its wartime appearance. Extensive efforts were taken to ensure the restoration’s authenticity to the Davises’ styles, materials, and designs. When the house reopened to the public in June 1988, it was critically-acclaimed for its attention to detail and period furnishings. Many of the artifacts on display in the home are original to the Davises and arranged much like they were during the Civil War.

 

The White House of the Confederacy is open daily for tours, which last between 45 and 60 minutes and cost $12 to attend. The guides are incredibly insightful and knowledgeable and recognize the controversial relationships and ideals the house portrays. They discuss a comprehensive history that goes beyond Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government, incorporating the perspectives of women, the enslaved, and Richmond society as a whole. The Confederate White House offers a unique opportunity to explore the seldom-understood lifestyles and attitudes of the Confederate citizenry and will easily pique the interest of anyone with an interest in American history.

 

 

 

 

Visit the American Civil War Museum and WhiteHouseHistory.org for more information on the mansion!

Check out House 200 for some fascinating blog posts about the estate's 200th Anniversary!

Listen to this Read on the Road episode about the mansion's history!

Check out History, Time Magazine, and HistoryCollection.co for more information on the Richmond Underground!

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