Two weeks ago we visited the Jefferson Davis Beauvoir Home during an exhibition of a Fall Muster. I've visited the well-known, well-attended historic site before but I hadn't been there since its restoration after Katrina. And had never attended a Muster.
The weather on this particular Sunday afternoon was perfect. It was a nice, large crowd. Of course, because of the assemblage and reenactment of a battle scene, complete with musket and canon fire, (cover your ears) the passionate amateur reenactors were in period dress. Many of the attendees wore clothing and caps with various Southern regalia.
Notwithstanding the large crowd there was, however, a conspicuous absence of certain friends and neighbors in attendance. While we were only there for just under 4 hours it's possible they could've been there at another time. This is understandable I suppose, but sad. Having personally lived through Katrina, intimate with its history, I too have no interest in reliving miserable memories, either in a museum or a celebration of any kind. But one might say the diversity of the community's residents in attendance this day did not pass muster. But it's sad too because Beauvoir really is a first-class educational facility; not a place promoting certain politics or a specific ideology but a place providing a look into the past at how life was lived and understood. It is indeed foremost an education.
An education as in learning something new you never knew before. And so it happened that during this visit, in the same way we learned interesting and new things about Elvis Presley when we visited Graceland for the first time, we learned something new about President Davis and his times.
Like, for example, Davis became a widower at the young age of 27. He and his wife Sarah Knox Taylor, daughter of the president-to-be Zachary Taylor, both contracted malaria. He recovered but she died.
And if you didn't know it took a team of 5 soldiers to man, prepare, and fire a canon, you saw it in action here. And also, actually seeing the effects of flanking, and its advantages, during a battle, as opposed to reading about it gives one an interesting and different perspective on its maneuver and strategy.
And probably few people know that Davis and his wife Virena adopted a mulatto boy, rescuing him from a cruel guardian. I don't think the term mulatto is used or preferred these days, it being a child or adult born of parents one of whom is white, the other black. Similarly, as custom would have it, we refer to our current president, the product of a black and white parent, as black. If this new social construct applied to Mr. And Mrs. Davis then they adopted a black child, who played with their other children as normal siblings would. After the war, it being lost, a Union commander threatened to abscond the boy if they didn't release him to another guardian. And, having no choice, they did.
And incredible as it sounds, the Irish humorist Oscar Wilde paid the President a visit at Beauvoir after the war. Wilde was on his way to Montgomery, Alabama to give a lecture on "Decorative Art" at the local opera house. While traveling through Biloxi he met Davis and in conversation he commented on the comparisons their two native countries had with each other, the American South and Ireland. Wilde was interested in Ireland's independence from England. From his wife's account, Davis was apparently a cool host, not visiting long, excusing himself early from the porch visit, leaving Wilde with his wife and two daughters, who were enamored with him. Davis said, "I did not like the man," perhaps an opinion reflecting wide cultural disapproval of certain 'social indiscretions' of Wilde, for which he, Wilde, admittedly regretted and for which he also, during those times, served time.
And the architectural style of the U.S. Capitol building we see today is the result of a restoration project directed and controlled by Jefferson Davis, who at the time was Secretary of War, and assumed the control of the project through political machinations. He chose and directed the engineers and architects in expanding the working space of the nation's capitol building in anticipation of an increase in legislators who would be coming there from anticipated states born out of territories obtained during the Mexican-American War, during which in the 1850s there grew a long line. Even the statue atop the capitol dome, Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace, was the result of Davis' idea, and instructions to capitol architect, Thomas Crawford, that it represent the original liberty from which the United States was born -- and not the initially proposed statue that represented liberty born out of slavery.
In a quick perusal in the library, I learned that it was common practice for surgeons to hermetically seal gunshot wounds to the torso, contrary to allowing the wounds to remain open yet antiseptically covered and drained, which usually resulted in the victims death within 1-3 days in most cases.
Years ago I read Davis' memoirs and apologia, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Two things impressed me. One was Davis' use of the English language. He was a gifted writer and if he would have directed his talents into the literary arts he would have rivaled the likes of Faulkner and Twain and perhaps been remembered much differently today. Also the included letters from Southern soldiers without higher educations, displayed an astounding prose and style that would rival, perhaps even shame, some high school graduates today. The fallout perhaps of a more genteel culture and time.
There are many other interesting facts, and artifacts, to be learned at this last home of Jefferson Davis, including the character of Davis, who was much respected even by his opponents as an honest and principled man, true to his word, generous in spirit, and holding to the dignity and humanity of his servants.
Regardless of your politics, philosophy, race, religion, or creed, I highly recommend you make a visit to Beauvoir. And go with an open mind and an endearing heart. Because if you do, you just might learn something new. Perhaps a new perspective on things; perhaps a new insight. And that -- is a good thing.