Caretakers vow Beauvoir - Jefferson Davis' cottage will rise again
Symbol of South takes a beating
Wednesday, September 07, 2005
BY SULEMAN DIN
BILOXI, Miss. -- Beauvoir, the seaside
retirement estate of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, stood
for more than 150 years as a great example of Southern
architecture and antebellum lifestyle.
With lawns shaded by tall oaks, cedars and
magnolias, Davis' cottage was simple in design but elegant in
detail. A tapered staircase led to the center of its extensive
wrap-around porch. The front door was cut glass, the windows
covered by louvred green shutters. The building was painted bright
white with green trim.
Just nine months ago, the historical society
that maintains the grounds finished repainting Beauvoir's numerous
chimneys and shutters, reattaching the shutter frames, and
installing a lift in the back for disabled visitors.
"It was looking its best in 50 years," said
Patrick Hotard, the historical director of the house, a state and
national landmark operated by the Mississippi Division of the Sons
of Confederate Veterans. "Now I feel like we are even before
square one. I've been working here six years, and you get attached
to a place. It's very trying on the emotions. It is one of the
last great old houses of the South."
Early reports out of Biloxi said the cottage,
which houses Davis family furniture, art, and archival items such
as letters and artifacts, had been leveled, but Richard V. Forte,
chairman of the Sons, was happy to paraphrase Mark Twain, noting
such reports of Beauvoir's demise were greatly exaggerated.
"I am confident that it will be rebuilt," Forte
said. "It's just a matter of cleanup and restoration."
The winds and storm surge of Hurricane Katrina
did damage the home heavily: The porchline and front steps are
entirely gone, part of the roof is torn away, windows are smashed,
and the back portion is crumbling. Floodwaters water pushed many
of its artifacts out into the mud, where some of them were stolen.
Other buildings on the 52-acre site fared
worse. The war veterans hospital next to Beauvoir, which had been
converted into a museum, was flattened, along with two matching
pavilions that stood in front of it. A marble monument that framed
the brick walkway to the home was broken. The Jefferson Davis
Presidential Library, built for $4.5 million in 1998, had its
first floor washed out.
Davis holds the distinction of being the only
president of the Confederacy, but the West Point graduate was also
known as a hero in the Mexican War of 1847. He was a congressman
and senator, and was secretary of war under President Franklin
He was captured by Union soldiers in 1865 and
jailed for two years. He moved to Beauvoir in 1877 and lived the
last years of his life there, writing his memoirs. He died in
Beauvoir -- French for "beautiful view" -- had
been built in 1851 and went through the Civil War unscathed. But
Hurricane Camille damaged the home extensively in 1969. Forte said
the cottage's raised design is what saved it from being washed
away then, and now.
"They knew what they were doing back then,"
Forte said. "The way they built that cottage, it lets the water
and air go right under it."
Still, the place is a wreck, and Forte and
Hotard had no estimate on the cost of repairs.
"It's going to be very substantial," Hotard
Forte said that because Beauvoir is a
historical landmark, there will be grants available for
reconstruction. Private donations also will be solicited, he said.
The Friends of Beauvoir have set up a fund for those wanting to
help reconstruction efforts.
Architectural experts have been brought in to
examine the building and see what can be recovered.
Many valuable pieces inside the home, such as
portraits of Davis and his family, are still intact, Hotard said.
The hospital museum, now in rubble, housed a
priceless collection of military artifacts from Confederate
soldiers, including uniforms and weaponry, and much of that was
stolen when the walls came down.
Forte said that the historical society has
provided a list of missing items to eBay, so that if any appear
for sale, they can be confiscated and returned.
"There is a market for these items," he said.
"That's just an unfortunate human trait, and I don't understand
that why someone would steal from a home, especially this one."
To prevent further theft, the grounds are now
guarded by Beauvoir's own security people and the army.
Bertram Hayes Davis, the great-great-grandson
of Jefferson Davis, said the family is relieved that enough of the
structure remains for restoration efforts.
But right now, he said, the family is more
concerned for the people in Biloxi and along the Gulf Coast who
have lost their homes and their loved ones. It's what Jefferson
Davis would have felt, he said.
"He would have put the needs of others first,"
Davis said. "The home can be reconstructed. Beauvoir will be a
part of the Gulf Coast for hundreds of years to come."
Suleman Din may
be reached at