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Connecticut River Valley, New England, United States

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Hoped for Touch of the Confederacy

Oh, what a glorious day on the Gulf and, had I known we were to stop so early in Hattiesburg, I would have lingered on the beach. But, once more, I am ahead of myself. Having read Varina Davis, First Lady of the Confederacy and having visited Jeff Davis' birthplace and the grave of his first wife, which he took his new 20 year old bride to visit on their honeymoon, I was anxious to visit Beauvoir, his last residence. It reopened after Katrina last April--a month too late for us to visit last year. I had hoped to hear more about his final years here but instead Rosalie Boardman focused on Katrina's damage and the subsequent repair,which is rather amazing as you can see from the photo perched on the marble topped table with the large mirror right inside the doorway. Again, I am ahead of myself. The first thing one encounters upon entering the gate is the major construction project to rebuild the Presidential library, the original of which was built in 1998. What a shame! In the museum are pieces of silver service, the presidential service ware, etc, which were on the first floor of the library and were literally strewn over the property by the foot of water and the waves that topped it. I was amazed at the discovery of Varina's engagement ring ( well, a replica ) that was unearthed and salvaged! The second floor held Davis' books and for the most part they survived and are in storage but many loose items have been lost forever. The house was originally built in 1852 by a rich planter, James Brown--no relation, alas!- as a vacation home for his family. In addition to the main house he built two smaller duplications called pavilions--one served as a guest house and the other offered shelter to traveling Methodist ministers. There were other buildings as well, work shops and housing for servants etc. A road reached the house from the North and Steamboats, one from Mobile and the other from New Orleans, stopped as well. At the start of the Civil War the family moved back to Northern Mississippi. In 1866, after James' death the family managed to hold on to the property until they were forced to sell it by court order in 1873. The buyer, Frank Johnston, held onto it for two months before selling it to one of the ugliest women, in my opinion!, a wealthy New Orleans widow, Sarah Dorsey, who also was something of an author. Here is where the story briefly told by the video preceding the tour and the book on Varina digress a bit. Sarah, who sort of knew Varina as a young woman, but who was not close family friend,( so far--the stories agree) invited the aging and demoralized and ailing Davis to visit Beauvoir, which he did. She then invited him to move in and write his memoirs, which he did in 1877. Meantime, Varina and their youngest daughter, Winnie take off for Europe for a year. Now, according to the video, when she returned she took up residence at Beauvoir and the Davises bought the place and furnishings for $5500 and Dorsey went off to NO to die of cancer. The book says Varina visited but traveled because she did not like living in another woman's home--sounds right to me! It also says Sarah left the place to Jeff in her will and Rosalie said while that is true there was a bill of sale. HMMMMMM! I say! At any rate, after his death, Varina sold the place to the State of Mississippi with the stipulation that it serve as a Confederate Veterans' Home until there were none left and until there were no widows left or manservants who served in the War with their masters. That's what happened and then, Varina said, it must be a memorial to Jeff and so it is. As to the restoration, furniture is for the most part original and was restored wherever they could do the best job. The staff had prepared the home for Katrina, just in case--she wasn't supposed to hit there but she turned at the last minute toward Biloxi and Gulfport. But the windows were shuttered, the doors covered with plywood, small items had been removed and stored inland. The water and wind tore the front off the house and the plywood from the double door, which blew open. The doors at the back of the long foyer held, however and the furniture piled up against them. The aforementioned mirror which is bolted to the wall remained on the wall. All the rest was heaped up, including the grandfather clock which was Jeff's grandfather's clock! and which still tells perfect time. The beautiful rosewood piano in the front parlor was beneath the ceiling which collapsed and will cost $60.000 to restore--they found another of the period and mounted it on the original legs for now. The trompe l'oeil ceilings have been totally scraped to the original colors and repainted, the faux bois on the doors has been redone as has the faux marb of the private living quarters' mantles. The huge rose garden is totally gone but for the gravel marking the concentric circular paths and the center cross that marks its boundaries. It is on the list of things to restore. There is still much to do but what has been done is incredible. Soon we left along Beach Boulevard--noticing the beautiful condos and resorts, next to the cement pads of destroyed buildings, the for sale signs and the bird sculptures that several artists have created from the stumps of trees that Katrina left on the median or neutral ground as they call it in New Orleans. Then we turned north on Rte 15 through the DeSoto National Forest to Hattiesburg and an inland temperature of 80 degrees. We opted to skip Mobile this time, it is Spring break and the traffic is getting zooey. There is much to see there and I'd much like to go there when I don't spend the night worrying about the Tornado Watch issued until 2 am. We got to Hattiesburg much too early and did not have a place to sit out in the beautiful weather, which was a real waste, in my mind. We did go to Conestoga Steakhouse where I had a wonderful 6oz Filet Mignon and ate some of the sweet potato fries. Nick at Night, as the manager introduced him was a very delightful 26 year old who played TV Jeopardy with me. He taught percussion for a year at the high school level and very quickly decided teaching was not for him. He gives private lessons and will teach a biology course at the junior college in the Fall and is looking forward to that. Came back to the room, Bill watched basketball and I started reading Lauren Willig's The Seduction of the Crimson Rose until 10 and sleep!

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