Abraham Lincoln’s election as the 16th president of the United States in November, 1860, set fire to a powder train of reaction throughout the slave-owning states of the Cotton South. Led by South Carolina on December 20,1860, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas seceded in rapid succession in the first weeks of 1861. On February 4, 1861, the seceded states met in Alabama’s State Capitol building to form the Confederate States of America.
Why Montgomery? Just an inland river town of 8,000 souls—half of them slaves—and barely forty years from the wilderness, Montgomery had been the capital only since 1847. It had been settled in the main by residents of Virginia, South Carolina and the Broad River region of Georgia. Knowing that the upper South regarded South Carolina’s Southern rights views as extreme, the secessionist leader Robert Barnwell Rhett, Jr., suggested to his Alabama counterpart, William Lowndes Yancey, that the seceded states meet in Montgomery.
Situated on seven hills overlooking the Alabama River, and near the Federal Road from Georgia to Mobile, Montgomery enjoyed a location central to the Deep South, good transportation facilities, by both railroad and steamboat and a reputation as the Black Belt’s center of wealth and culture. William L. Yancey, “the Patrick Henry of the South,” and his firebrand group who had made Montgomery a center of secessionist activity, induced the State Secession Convention to issue an invitation to the other Southern states to meet here. These secessionists feared the wait-and-see attitude of the Southern “cooperationists,” and felt that they had to forge their slave-holding confederacy quickly, while popular passion waxed hot over the elevation of what they called a “Black Republican” (meaning black-hearted) to the White House in Washington.
On February 8, 1861 the Provisional Confederate Congress convened in the Senate chamber of the State Capitol for the purpose of electing a President. Jefferson Finis Davis, distinguished military hero, statesman, patriot and Mississippi planter, was unanimously chosen. He and his wife received the news by telegram in their rose garden at Brierfield Plantation, at Davis Bend on the Mississippi River near Vicksburg, on February 10. Accepting reluctantly, he journeyed to Montgomery by riverboat and train, arrived on the 16th and was inaugurated on the front portico of the Capitol on the 18th, at 1:00 P.M., as Provisional President of the Confederate States of America.
In creating their new nation, the Confederates essentially duplicated the institutions of the old Union. They believed fervently that it was they who were perpetuating the ideals of their revolutionary forebearers, and that it was the Black Republicans who were tearing those ideals down. The Confederate Constitution was based upon that of the United States, though with several significant alterations such as a single six-year term for the President. They set up an army, a navy, a post office-all the departments necessary for the functioning of government. Why not also provide the Chief Executive with a residence, that is to say, a “White House”?
And so, on February 21, 1861, the Provisional Congress authorized the leasing of an Executive Mansion.
Colonel Edmund S. Harrison of nearby Prattville, Alabama, who had recently bought a newly renovated house from Joseph Winter for use as a townhouse, offered to rent it, completely furnished and staffed, for $5,000 a year—an enormous sum which caused considerable comment.
The house had been built between 1832 and 1835 by William Sayre (an ancestor of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda Sayre). The architect is not known, but the builder was a well known contractor, A. M. Bradley. Successive owners, all prominent Montgomerians, were George Whitman, William Knox, George Mathews, Fleming Freeman and Colonel Joseph S. Winter.
It was Colonel Winter who in 1855 had renovated the two-story Federal frame house to the then fashionable Italianate style. He added the front portico with an interesting “rustication” detailing under it and the metal “tatting” on top of it. He closed the rear porch and added what Mrs. Davis was to call “commodious pantries” to the rear of the house, with a breezeway off the dining room to a detached kitchen. Beyond the kitchen lay a vegetable garden, stables and other outbuildings. There were reception halls, double parlors, a spacious dining room for large scale entertaining, adequate bedrooms, and a fenced lawn for the children. “Suitable as a gentleman’s residence,” it was situated close to the river (on what is now the corner of Lee and Bibb Streets), diagonally one block from what would be the Government Building and two blocks from the Exchange Hotel where the newly elected President and his family would reside until the house was ready for them.
En route to Montgomery, Mrs. Jefferson Davis stopped in New Orleans to hire a French chef, to contract for the manufacture of an elaborate executive coach and to have gowns fitted at a French couturier’s. She arrived in Montgomery by riverboat to cheering crowds on the afternoon of March 4, 1861, only shortly after President John Tyler’s granddaughter, Miss Letitia Tyler, had raised the first flag of the Confederacy, the Stars and Bars, on the Capitol grounds. From their temporary suite at the Exchange Hotel, Mrs. Davis began supervising the redecoration of their new residence. By the first of April, she returned to Brierfield to fetch some “silver, china, linens, lamps and a few favorite books.” She returned to Montgomery on April 14 with their three small children to move with the President into the First White House of the Confederacy.
Although President Davis maintained offices at the Government Building, he also conducted the urgent business of forming a new government at the Exchange Hotel and made grave decisions in his study at home. However, each evening promised a glittering social event. The First White House attracted the best minds of the day, the most prominent and powerful of the region’s social leaders, Northern sympathizers and European political and social figures.
Of Virginia and Delaware stock, Varina Anne Howell Davis, the new President’s second wife, was the granddaughter of a New Jersey governor, a cousin of Aaron Burr and the daughter of William Burr Howell, who had come to Natchez under the social wing of Joseph Davis (Jefferson’s older brother) to search for his fortune. Apparently he found it, in the name of Margaret Kempe, twice an heiress. Although Varina had only two seasons at Madame Deborah Grelaud’s in Philadelphia, her education was far superior to that of most women of her day and class. During her husband’s tenure in Congress and as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, her vivacity, intelligence, beauty and easy grace enlivened social circles in Washington.
During the spring of 1861, The White House of the Confederacy in Montgomery sparkled as Mrs. Davis, eighteen years her husband’s junior, gave lively dinners, levees and teas and held salons. Contemporary writers such as Alexander Stephens, W. L. Yancey, Robert Toombs, Mrs. Roger A. Pryor and Mary Boykin Chestnut used descriptions such as “stately dining,” “brilliant receptions,” “held after the Washington custom,” and described those attending as “most brilliant, most gallant and most honored of the South.”
Though Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard was given discretionary authority by the CSA War Department, in a telegram of April 10, 1861, sent from Montgomery’s Winter Building, to “demand evacuation of Fort Sumter, or reduce it,” the first death of what was to be the War Between the States did not occur until May 24, 1861, in Alexandria, Virginia. In the meantime, the “Mother State,” Virginia, seceded on April 17, 1861, followed by Arkansas on May 6. On May 20, 1861, the same day that North Carolina seceded, the Provisional Confederate Congress passed a resolution to move the Confederate Capital to Richmond and to reconvene there on July 20. Although President Davis did not agree entirely, the politicians found an early May record-breaking heat wave in Montgomery debilitating and the crowded conditions, hotel accommodations and food not to their liking. By May 29, 1861, the President had arrived in Richmond. Mrs. Davis remained to supervise the packing at the First White House of the Confederacy. “After the middle of June,” she was holding receptions at the Spotswood Hotel in Richmond, while waiting to move into the old Brockenbrough House. This would remain the White House of the Confederacy for the duration of the war which would cost nearly as many American lives— 620,000—as all eight wars since.
The First White House of the Confederacy survived the War. Ownership of the “Jeff Davis House”, as it was called, passed through Willis Calloway’s and William Crawford Bibb’s hands to those of Archibald Tyson of Lowndesboro, Alabama, who maintained it as a townhouse. At his death in 1873, his daughter, Sallie Tyson Render of La Grange, Georgia, inherited it and rented it out.
It was not until April 18, 1897, at the first state convention of the newly organized United Daughters of the Confederacy, that an idea was proposed and accepted unanimously that the “state work” be the preservation of the First White House of the Confederacy. A White House Committee was formed to work on the project and, since it was her idea, Mrs. Jessie Drew Beale was made its chairman. Because of her long friendship with Mrs. Beale, Mrs. Jefferson Davis agreed to give President Davis’ bedroom furniture from Beauvoir, the Mississippi home to which the Davises had retired, and many family belongings to the White House Committee and the State of Alabama. These “relics” were placed on display in a room at the Capitol “until the purchase of the House was secured.”
Unfortunately, this arduous and frustrating task would take 20 years. The UDC became “entangled in personal differences.” Twice, governors of Alabama vetoed bills for the preservation of the House. In the meantime, foreseeing the UDC’s abandonment of the project (but still working with the organization’s committee), 27 ladies dedicated to the project founded the White House Association of Alabama on July 1, 1900. Patterned after the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union, which had been formed in 1853 to save George Washington’s home, it was chartered on February 5, 1901, by an act of legislature for the sole purpose of preserving the First White House of the Confederacy. All of the Davis furniture and family belongings which had been in joint custody of the UDC’s White House Committee and the State of Alabama, were signed over by Mrs. Davis, outright, on March 27, 1902, to the White House Association for perpetual keeping. Also, in 1902, all UDC monies raised toward the project were transferred to the White House Association. In 1903, the UDC dropped the project entirely.
The Davis House remained entailed property. The Render family was unwilling to sell the land upon which the House stood, because of rising land prices in what was called the “Cavalier District.” The White House Association was unable to raise the money to move the House to another location. By 1910, 167 ladies and gentlemen from all over the state were members of the White House Association, now dedicated solely to raising the money necessary.
With litigation complicated, demolition imminent and circumstances intolerable, a sympathetic governor came to the rescue. In 1919, Governor Thomas E. Kilby signed into law a bill appropriating $25,000 for the purchase and relocation of the House and created a White House Commission to administer it. By this time, the old home was a boarding house for trainmen and was in sad condition. The White House Association was able to purchase the House for $800 with $5.00 down. The White House Commission purchased a lot in the shadow of the Capitol and a Montgomery city engineer, after photographing and documenting it inside and outside, skillfully dismantled the House by thirds, numbered the lumber, moved it the ten blocks to its new site and reassembled it.
Judging from the front-page newspaper accounts, spread over several days, the dedication ceremony at the opening of the restored First White House of the Confederacy on June 3, 1921, must have been one of the most thoroughly relished and enjoyable occasions in Alabama history. Hundreds of persons participated in an elaborate parade which ended on the south lawn of the Capitol grounds, where the ceremony took place. The White House Association gave the House, fully refurbished, to the people of the State of Alabama. The Governor accepted it and there was a banquet that night with a reception following, in which thousands of Montgomerians, Alabamians, Southerners and Americans participated.
Legislation passed in 1923, and amended since, provides that the First White House of the Confederacy is to be managed by the White House Association. The State of Alabama maintains the House and grounds. The Association owns the things in the House and its members are “the keepers of the relics” and the arbiters of taste in maintaining the interior and all matters concerning the House.
Upon the death of Mrs. Jefferson Davis on October 16, 1906, in New York City, her position as Queen Regent of the White House Association was left unfilled. She remains Queen Regent in perpetuity. Mrs. Davis’s long-time family friend, Mrs. Jesse Drew Beale, was the first Regent of the White House Association, from 1900 to 1906, followed by Mrs. Isaac Ross from 1906 to 1919, Mrs. Chappell Cory from 1919 to 1951, Mrs. Fleming Rowell from 1951 to 1980, and Mrs. John H. Napier III, 1980 to 2009.
Fifty years after its opening, it became evident to all that the First White House of the Confederacy was in need of repair again. The State Building Commission had restricted the second floor to no more than eight visitors at a time because of its rickety condition. The White House Association finally obtained funds needed for major restoration.
Mobile preservation architect Nicholas H. Holmes planned the work, which began as a Bicentennial project in April, 1976. Mistakes which were made in 1921 were corrected. Steel beams were put under both floors to support the nearly 100,000 visitors each year. All new electrical, plumbing, sprinkler, heating, humidifying and cooling systems were installed. Paint archeologist, Frank Welsh was brought in from Philadelphia to uncover paint colors of the period. Samuel Dornsife, specialist in Victorian decoration, came from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, to approve wall coverings and authentic details. A period garden was researched and planted.
On December 10, 1976, the First White House of the Confederacy reopened with elegant fanfare. It was a true gray day. The Maxwell Air Force Base Band played. Once again, a descendant of President John Tyler and a relative of Miss Letitia Tyler, raised the Stars and Bars. Jefferson Davis’ great-great grandson, Bertram Hayes-Davis, and the Governor of Alabama, George C. Wallace, spoke. A cannon volley saluted the ribbon-untying. It was Alabamians’ Bicentennial present to all Americans. A fife and drum corps played “Dixie” (which had been first scored for band and played as a march in Montgomery), while hundreds of guests filed into an excellent and authentic restoration—all decorated for a Christmas reception.
Today, the White House Association is composed of ladies from over the state, who are related to the charter members or are otherwise connected with the House. The Regent is Mrs. J. Wallace Tidmore, Jr. who will remain Regent until her death or resignation. Each member is required to serve on at least one committee. Members meet twice a year. They no longer greet the public as did their predecessors from 1921 to 1976. Today, a paid staff, selected by state merit system examination, is trained by the White House Association as docents. It is they who interpret the House and tend to the daily working of it. There is no admission charge but contributions at the door are appreciated. Profits from the sale of two booklets published by the Association, The First White House of the Confederacy and The Struggle to Preserve the First White House of the Confederacy, miniature Stars and Bars flags, and other items from the souvenir area go to the Association’s upkeep of the furnishings. The Association is the oldest historic preservation organization in the State of Alabama. Next to the venerable Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union (1853), the Ladies Hermitage Association (1889) and the Confederate Literary Society in Richmond (1890), the White House Association is one of the oldest historic preservation organizations in the United States dedicated solely to the preservation of a House museum.
Because Alabama state administrations come and go, the White House Association functions also as the institutional memory for the landmark. It works in equal partnership with the State, always striving for excellence and integrity in maintaining the First White House of the Confederacy as it appeared in the spring of Southern independence in 1861. Located at 644 Washington Avenue at Union Street next to the Alabama Department of Archives and History Building, the House and its contents, as a teaching tool, speak eloquently of its past and of the intelligence and perseverance of the women who saved it.
CAMERON FREEMAN NAPIER
(Mrs. John H. Napier III)
White House Association