Beautifully restored Beauvoir reopens on Jeff Davis’ bicentennial|[06/08/08]
Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 8, 2008
BILOXI – Bert Hayes-Davis stood on the porch at Beauvoir and phoned his wife, Carol, in Colorado Springs. Hurricane winds were picking up in the Gulf, and Hayes-Davis told his wife, “I hope a hurricane never hits it.”
He was the last member of the Davis family to stand on that porch, the last of the descendants of President Jefferson Davis to leave the ancestral home on the Mississippi Coast before Hurricane Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005.
Last Tuesday, June 3, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Jefferson Davis, his great-great-grandson, Bert Hayes-Davis, stood on the rebuilt porch and told a crowd of thousands, “We saw the worst. We’ve gotten the best. What a birthday present.”
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Though much of the Coast was destroyed by Katrina, after the winds subsided and the waters receded, the house was still standing. The outbuildings were gone, the roof damaged, the porch blown away, many of the artifacts lost forever – but Beauvoir was still there.
More than $4.5 million dollars later, and with the help of untold volunteer man-hours from people from all over the United States, the house stands restored, looking as it did the day Jefferson Davis left it for the last time in 1889.
Beauvoir is again the jewel of the Coast.
Beauvoir belongs to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the successors of the United Confederate Veterans. Following Davis’ death in 1889, Mrs. Davis sold it to the group for $10,000 after refusing 10 times that amount from an organization that wanted to turn it into commercial property. Mrs. Davis stipulated several things, mainly that the house and grounds be used as a retirement home for old soldiers and their widows, and once they were gone, that it be a shrine to her husband and the Confederate States.
It was on an impulse, a chance trip, that Davis first saw Beauvoir on Nov. 18, 1875.
Or was it destiny?
On a business trip to Mississippi City, he had taken time to call on an old friend, Mrs. Sarah Dorsey, who lived in a house named Beauvoir. Davis wrote to his wife, Varina, that it was “a fine place …. a large and beautiful house.” He walked the grounds and fell in love with it. The pervading silence, the gentle heaving of the sea – what a blessed place, what a refuge it would be!
Within a year Mrs. Dorsey asked him to stay there, to write his tumultuous history of the Confederate States. In a small library on the grounds, he began the task.
Varina, however, did not come, making various excuses that were really based on unfounded jealousy. Realizing this, Mrs. Dorsey moved away and sold the place to Davis for $5,500 to be paid in three installments. He made one payment before she died of cancer, and in her will she left him the house and all her other property. She had been more than generous with her own ungrateful family, she said, and she greatly admired Jefferson Davis.
The peace at Beauvoir was often broken with those wanting to see the Southern statesman. Those who came were old veterans or their widows or their children; others had been leaders of the South. Some came alone, others in large delegations.
And the famous also came.
The man he most wanted to meet in America, Irish poet Oscar Wilde said, was Jefferson Davis, so in his usual, courteous manner, invited him to supper and to spend the night at Beauvoir. After the meal and a bit of conversation, Davis excused himself and went to bed, but Varina stayed up late into the night enjoying their guest. The next morning, after Wilde had gone, she expressed her displeasure at her husband’s action, but he explained: he did not like Oscar Wilde.
A reporter from the Boston Globe who came to Beauvoir in 1885 wanted Davis to criticize Gen. U.S. Grant. Davis refused, telling the man that he knew Grant was dying, and that if it were in his power, “Instead of seeking to disturb his closing hours, I would contribute to the peace of his mind and the comfort of his body.”
James Redpath, who had been an abolitionist before the war, was the most popular journalist in America in the late 1800s, and he asked for an audience with Davis where all his preconceived notions “utterly and forever disappeared.”
What impressed him most about the elder statesman?
“It was his goodness, first of all, and then his intellectual integrity. I never saw an old man whose face bore more emphatic evidence of a gentle, refined and benignant character. He seemed to me the ideal embodiment of ‘sweetness and light.'” He thought Davis “a statesman with clean hands and pure heart, who served his people faithfully from budding manhood to hoary age, without thought of self, with unbending integrity, and to the best of his great ability.”
It was a common sight to see Jefferson Davis and his Russian bulldog, Traveller, walking along the beach in front of Beauvoir. The dog acted as a bodyguard, and when Davis would wander, perhaps deep in thought, too close to the waves, Traveller would tug at his trousers and lead him to safety.
One day the dog seemed almost listless and in pain. A physician friend came, but nothing could be done – the work of a poisoner had been carried out too well for remedy. At daylight he died, his head on Davis’ knee, and the old man’s tears fell like rain upon his faithful pet. “I have indeed lost a friend,” he said as family and friends gathered for the burial of Traveller on the lawn.
On TV“Jefferson Davis — American President,” the first in a three-part documentary, will be broadcast at 8 p.m. Monday on Mississippi Public Broadcasting, local cable Channel 7.On a March day in 1888 Jefferson Davis gave a brief address to a group of young men. It was his last speech, and he described himself as “a man without a country, for my ambitions lie buried in the grave of the Confederacy.” He broke his silence only because of his love of the South, and he predicted a future for America that would leave all amazed. He asked for a reunited country.
Jefferson Davis died in December 1889 in New Orleans, where he was temporarily interred. His body was later moved to Richmond, Va., the funeral train winding its way across the South, people gathering at crossings and in large cities to pay tribute. The first stop was at Beauvoir where the tracks were covered for a half-mile in magnolia leaves and flowers.
There was a favorite spot, a place by a spring behind Beauvoir, where Jefferson Davis liked to sit and meditate, perhaps about what might have been, or maybe what was meant to be.
Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.