The last major thing we did as part of our Richmond extravaganza was visit the apocryphally-named “White House of the Confederacy.” This was of course the house that Jefferson Davis lived in while he was the President of the Confederacy. It was apparently a very prominent house back in its days with expansive views, but today it is awkwardly in the middle of a hospital. The above picture is actually the back of the house, which is the fancy-looking side because that’s where garden parties would have been held.
Look if I was nervous to visit the American Civil War Museum lest I be bombarded with lost cause narratives, I was even more worried about visiting this place, but I shouldn’t have been. The house is actually owned and operated by the Museum (though it requires separate admission) and so they are pretty invested in telling a true and useful story.
This part isn’t super important to the narrative, but the big metal thing in the picture above is a section of the propeller shaft of the CSS Virginia (aka Merrimac) and I like boats and boat history so that was interesting for me. Anyways!
Pictured above is our faithful guide. The tour groups were small and at the house it was currently a one-man operation. He greeted us at the gift shop, rang up people’s purchases, and when it was time for the tour led us all out and locked up the gift shop until the next group came along. He was a very nice man and very passionate about the house. The house actually contains a good amount of furniture actually used by the Davis family while they lived there, a result of careful cataloguing in the modern day of zealous Confederacy-collecting by the Daughters of the Confederacy as they went about establishing that Lost Cause. The tour didn’t discuss too much of the actual house details that I recall. Some interesting bits about built-in closets but that was it.
Before the tour my super amazing girlfriend had pondered why Jefferson Davis didn’t seem quite so famous as Lee when it comes to Confederate symbols. I think what we learned on the tour is that was because no one really liked him. Seemed like he got the job of Confederate President because no one trusted anyone who actually wanted it, so he wound up with it. According to the tour he put his entire self into it, for better or worse for both his health and the Confederacy. The single biggest impression from the tour, thanks again to our tour guide, was that the most interesting character in the house was Jefferson’s wife Varina, who clearly had her own passions, desires, and friends, which did not appear to include much in the way of support for the Confederate cause. Maybe this is its own form of hagiography but she seems interesting nonetheless.
Going through my pictures of the house it doesn’t seem like I took many at all. I walked away thinking that our guide did an excellent job and while he had a passion for the house that wasn’t out of a passion for the southern cause. I think he must have an interesting job because I would go out on a limb to assume the “White House of the Confederacy” appeals to a lot of types trying to promote or at least not hurt that Lost Cause narrative. I think the most forthright comment he got out of our group was someone who was pontificating on door-based house taxes (which our guide said didn’t exist and weren’t a factor), but I wonder about some of the groups that come through. But then again maybe I am stereotyping! At any rate, like I say at the end of most of these things, I think the house is worth a look around. History happened there. That’s worth knowing about, even if that history isn’t all that good.