History lessons at Jefferson Davis’ Beauvoir in Biloxi, Mississippi

Beauvoir

The 170-year-old historical residence of Jefferson Davis’, Beauvoir, looks out through the historic live oaks onto the Gulf of Mexico in Biloxi.  The home had survived thirty hurricanes until 2005. Hurricane Katina struck the Gulf Coast with force and significantly damaged the house and many surrounding Gulf Coast communities. The house underwent three years of repairs and reopened in 2008.  Today, it stands to tell the story of the only man to serve as the President of the Confederate States. Bertram Hayes-Davis, Davis’ great-great-grandson, currently serves as the executive director of Beauvoir.

Orange Grove

Architect and builder James Brown designed Orange Grove for the orange trees he planted.  They did not survive in the Gulf Coast climate.  Completed in 1852, the home originally sat on 608 acres, where the oak trees hung over the Gulf of Mexico. Artisans from New Orleans and Biloxi constructed the elevated one-story Louisiana-styled cottage. The wraparound porch is the best feature of the home.

The home’s elevation serves to cool the house by forcing cooler air from beneath the house into the main living area.  The height creates a welcome respite from the infernal heat of the Gulf Coast summers.  The slate roof imported from Wales is angled down. The design serves to protect the structure when there are high winds off the Gulf.  Sixty-two columns support the home. 

Brown, his wife, and thirteen children resided in the home.  The parents and four girls had bedrooms upstairs. His nine boys slept in hammocks beneath the house, hung between the supporting columns. 

The home’s ten-foot oak doors were a considerable extravagance created to show Brown’s wealth. Brown didn’t know that oak would wear well in the Gulf Coast climate. Cypress doors from Louisiana were soon substituted in constructing the doors. A pen and quill technique was used to achieve the faux oak finish on the doors.

During the construction of the home, Brown didn’t know about damage from storm surges.  The residence survived thirty hurricanes, but only Hurricane Katrina severely damaged the house.  Some eighteen inches of water blew through the house taking artifacts with it.     

Brown built two cottages next to the main house; one would be where Jefferson Davis authored his memoir.

Becoming Beauvoir

Brown’s widow could not pay taxes on the house after his death, and the home was ultimately sold to Sarah Dorsey. Having purchased the house sight unseen, when she saw the house, she named it Beauvoir, French for ‘Beautiful View.’

Dorsey was a progressive woman who ran two plantations and was a published author.  Dorsey was one of the most intellectual women in Mississippi in her day. Some of her notable friends included writers Melville, Emerson, Poe, and Dickens. 

Traveler

Dorsey’s Bull Mastiff, Traveler, who watched over her and later became Jefferson Davis companion, is buried on the grounds. 

Jefferson Davis and Beauvoir

Jefferson Davis lived in a cottage at Beauvoir at the invitation of Sarah Dorsey. Dorsey invited him to stay for free, but Davis insisted on paying her fifty dollars a month.  He wrote his memoir while residing in Biloxi.  Davis lived at Beauvoir for the last twelve years of his life.

Dorsey had terminal breast cancer.  In her will, she left Beauvoir to Davis along with all of her assets.  After her death, Davis paid for the house and all her medical bills.  In Davis’ will, he provided that the plantations Dorsey owned went back to the Dorsey family. 

Varina Davis and the children

Davis’ brother Joseph introduced Jeff to Varina in 1844.  She was 18, and Jeff was 35.  Married only a month after being introduced, Jefferson and Varina had six children. Only the eldest, Margaret survived and married.

1903-1957 Confederate Retirement Home

Davis’ youngest daughter, Winnie, left Beauvoir to her mother in her will. Varina had offers to sell for the house, she declined.  She sold the sell the house to the Sons of the Confederacy for ten thousand dollars with two stipulations:  1) to take care of her confederate boys and 2) to remember her husband. 

In 1903, the first Confederate veteran moved into the house.  During its time as a retirement home, the magnificent Cypress doors in the house were whitewashed. Today, they have all been restored to beauty except for one.  

whitewashed door at Beauvoir Biloxi Mississippi

The retirement residence served eighteen hundred confederate veterans and spouses. The last Confederate widow moved out of the home in 1957. In 1998, it became a museum to honor Jefferson Davis.

Significant Artifacts at Beauvoir

Grandfather clock Beauvoir

The eight-day Grandfather clock, built in 1783 by John Turnville in Georgetown, Virginia, sits in the reception hall. The clock was a wedding gift from Samuel Davis, Jefferson’s father, who was a soldier in the Revolutionary War.

Sideboard at Beauvoir Biloxi Mississippi

The Italian mahogany and marble sideboard weighs seven hundred pounds. Brown’s widow could not afford to have it moved, so it remains in the home.

Harp Beauvoir Biloxi Mississippi

Davis’ youngest daughter Winnie learned to play the harp. The piano that Winniw also played was taken from the house by Hurricane Katrina and found atop an oak tree. The stool in front of the harp is called a tuffet.

Portrait of Jefferson Davis at Beauvoir Biloxi Mississippi

In the portrait of Jefferson Davis’, his hand rests on his memoir, “The Rise and Fall of The Confederate Government.”  The two-volume set took him three years to write in the cottage next door to Beauvoir.

Gentlemen enjoyed cigars and libations in the library.  Above the fireplace is an Admiral’s mirror or chaperone’s mirror. It was a gift to Jeff and Varina on their wedding day.   

Jefferson Davis rocking chair at Beauvoir
Davis’ rocking chair, built by Davis

Hurricane Katrina’s damage

Katrina damage beauvoir
Katrina’s damage to Beauvoir

The boardwalk that surrounded the house was driven beneath the house damaging thirty of the sixty-two supporting columns.  Eighteen inches of water entered the house. The surrounding city of Biloxi experienced a twenty-five-foot water surge during the storm.

The Confederate Cemetery

The Confederate Cemetery, located a short walk from the house, is the final resting place of 784 Confederate soldiers and their spouses.

The Unknown Soldier

The marble arch was initially erected on the beachside of the home by the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1917.  The arch now sits as the entrance to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier when Katrina damaged it. The Unknown Soldier was found in a Mississippi farmyard and identified by his belt buckle. He was only sixteen years old.  His bullet pouch was full when found. He never fired a shot. 

Beauvoir today

The home receives 130 visitors daily, and guided tours are available throughout the day.

This exceptionally preserved historic residence on the Mississippi Gulf Coast stands to tell the story of a man who filled a unique role during the Civil War.

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