Brierfield lush and productive in years before the war

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Jefferson Davis BicentennialThis year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Jefferson Davis, who was born in Fairview, Ky., on June 3, 1808, and at the age of 2 moved with his parents to Rosemont Plantation near Woodville, Miss. In 1835, Davis moved to Warren County where he spent the most productive years of his life. This is the fifth of a series of 11 articles about Davis as a local citizen.Of all their homes, of all the places they lived, Brierfield in Warren County was the one Varina Davis loved the most.

It was a house of simple construction of cat and clay walls, but Varina Davis wrote in her memoirs, after having lived in some very fine mansions, “but this one always seemed home to me.”

She was talking about the first house at Brierfield Plantation, one that was the result of her husband’s first efforts at architecture.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

Begun in the summer of 1838, the house stood in a grove of splendid oaks. Designed for coolness in the summer months, the bedrooms opened onto a gallery of paved bricks enclosed with lattice. Davis was particularly proud of the doors, 6 feet wide, because of the amount of cool air each admitted.

On their return from the honeymoon, Varina looked forward to housekeeping. She wrote that when she first saw the house her heart was beating furiously as she and Jeff walked to it and she listened to her husband’s “tender musical voice” as he welcomed her to her new home.

The rooms were of fair size, she wrote, and when the wide doors opened onto the gallery it seemed half the house had been taken away. She observed that “the fire places were very deep and looked as though they had been built in Queen Elizabeth’s time to roast a whole sheep.

“It was a cool house, comfortably furnished, and we passed many happy days there,” she continued. “The game was more abundant than chickens are now. There were wild geese in great flocks made fat by the waste corn in the fields, and wild ducks by the thousand, and white and blue cranes adorned almost every slough, standing on one leg among the immense lily pads that yet cover the low places with; lemon-colored flowers as large as coffee cups.”

During the War with Mexico, Varina preferred being alone at Brierfield to staying at Hurricane, for she and her brother-in-law, who at one time had been a favorite, had locked horns over several matters. With her husband at war, she depended upon James Pemberton, slave and overseer, to manage the plantation operations, and in 1846 over 300 bales of cotton was produced on Brierfield.

Varina spent much of her time making plans for improvements, laying carpet and cooking. Evidently she and Jeff had talked about building another house, for she started the slaves making bricks, “enough, before Jeff comes home, to make the house he wants me to build.”

In 1848, Jefferson Davis contracted with Marcy and Zeigler of New Orleans to build the new Brierfield house at a cost of $10,000. Most of the framework came from Vicksburg and Cincinnati, and the large timbers were cut on the plantation. The cost included some outbuildings. Only the marble mantels for the parlors were extra.

The floor plan at the Brierfield plantation house showed each room opening to the outside.The house would be 124 feet long with three porches across the front, each 15 feet deep to provide coolness. It stood on brick piers 40 inches high. Ceilings were 18 feet high, and rooms were 20-by-20 or 20-by-16. Doors and windows were 12 feet tall. The house was built not so much to be seen – certainly not to impress anyone – but to be lived in and enjoyed.

Without professional architectural guidance, Jeff and Varina planned a house to reflect their own personalities. It was one of classic, disciplined simplicity, without even a hint of adornment, not at all ostentatious or pretentious.

It had no prototype. It was an original.

During the last stages of construction, while Jeff was away on business, Varina personally supervised the work. At the last minute she changed some details of the kitchen, and Joe Davis reprimanded her for spending too much money. She let him know in no uncertain terms that this was her domain, her special province, and she would design it to her heart’s desire.

Early in 1852 the house was finished. It was dignified and appealing. It was situated so that the parlors nor bedrooms had any significant exposure to the sun. Twelve Doric columns supported the roof, which was dotted by numerous chimneys as every room had a fireplace.

Both Varina and Jeff enjoyed horticulture, and they began improving the grounds – planting trees, shrubs and roses. In addition to Varina’s “flower yard,” they also had vegetable gardens and orchards.

Varina wrote in later years, “Indeed with our books, our mail twice a week, the garden, the humors of the cultivators thereof, occasional visits from our neighbors and the daily ride of our fast-racing horses …. Nothing seemed to be more pleasant than the dense shade through which we could ride for miles in air redolent of the perfume of the mosses, flowers, wild crab apple and plum blossoms.

“The land is so fertile at Brierfield and in the adjacent country that golden-rod grows large enough for a strong walking-stick, and the heads of the bloom are like banks of gold on the sides of the road. In every slough the lotos covers the surface with its lemon-colored chalices, and the green leaves are nearly a foot across. We planted a little switch, or scion of live-oak, with the attenuated little root, in 1852, and now (in the 1890s) it shades 90 feet in all directions, and is over 6 feet in circumference.”

Near the house ran a dirt road from Vicksburg, and it would be down that road that a messenger would come bearing an invitation to destiny. Rumors of war would take the Davises away from their secluded paradise.

Jefferson and Varina Davis would not see their home again for many years. In the spring of 1862 Union troops burned Joe Davis’ home, Hurricane, and plundered Brierfield. Davis came to Vicksburg in the fall of 1862 on a presidential visit but did not go to Brierfield.

After the fall of Vicksburg in 1863 the plantations were confiscated by the Northern government. After the war Joe Davis managed to get them back and sold them to his former slaves, the Montgomerys. Because of floods and other setbacks, they could not meet the payments, and after a series of legal battles Jefferson Davis regained ownership of Brierfield. Though he never lived there again, he often visited.

The home burned accidentally in late March 1931. On April 3, 1953, the Davis heirs sold the plantation, and today it is owned by the Dale family of Vidalia, La.

Nothing remains except the foundations, chimneys, cisterns and giant oaks.

Next: Respected as a leader


Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.