I just returned from a conference in Richmond with my history colleagues from around the United States. The theme was Commemoration: the Promise of Remembrance and New Beginnings. Since we’re in the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, various sessions focused on the challenges of commemorating that pivotal event. The final session was held in the Virginia capitol building, a spectacular place to hold a town hall-type meeting about commemoration. Several colleagues commented on how impressed they were that Richmond cultural institutions have approached the anniversary with very thoughtful and balanced exhibitions that offer multiple perspectives. I viewed an excellent exhibition at the Virginia Historical Society, “An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia.” I also enjoyed an exhibition called “Union or Secession: Virginians Decide” at the Library of Virginia. The Library has an amazing collection of documents from the months where Virginia hung in the balance and could have gone either way in its loyalties. I highly recommend both exhibitions.
But this blog is not about exhibitions it is about places. An evening event was held at the Museum of the Confederacy and the adjacent White House of the Confederacy. The gray-stuccoed neoclassical house has stood at its location, two blocks from the Capital building, since 1818. It has been restored to its early 1860s appearance with great attention to detail and more than half of the furnishings are original to the years that the house served as a social, political and military nerve center for the Confederate States of America and home to President Jefferson Davis’s family.
Like any personal space, the house saw its share of family events. Two Davis children were born in it and one died tragically in a fall from the portico. It’s ironic that both the Davises and the Lincolns lost a young son during their presidencies. President Davis suffered from insomnia and other ailments and no doubt walked the halls at night weighed down by the decisions he needed to make.
Less than a day after the evacuation of Richmond in April 1865, President Lincoln toured the house. Imagine what he must have been thinking as he looked around – he apparently didn’t go to the second floor, thinking it improper to tour the more private space of someone’s home. Here Davis and others had made major decisions that had deeply affected Lincoln’s own life.
After the War, the house served as a military headquarters during Reconstruction and then the city of Richmond turned it into a school. When the city decided to demolish the building, preservationists managed to save the house.
The house is a must-see for any history lover who visits Richmond. I never did find out if the gray house was called the White House during the days of the Confederacy. If it was, I’d be curious to know why, because I’m not sure that the Executive Mansion in Washington was called the White House at the time, at least not officially until Teddy Roosevelt’s administration.
Do you know? Please share your thoughts about the Confederate White House.