Jefferson Davis Presidential Library. I know what you’re thinking, because I was thinking the same thing. Wait? Was Jeff D a president? Am I missing something in history? Isn’t he that guy who lead a rebellion and started a Civil War? I thought all those things, when Will told us it’s a great place to visit in Mississippi. Will is a young Mississippi native who we met at Crawford Landing in Slidell, Louisiana. We shared a campfire with him and Natalie and Chad for a couple nights. He gave us a list of places in Mississippi and since we enjoy touring Presidential Libraries, this one seemed like a no-brainer for Steve and I. You probably figured out it’s Noelle here, by the way.
According to archives.gov, “Presidential Libraries are archives and museums, bringing together the documents and artifacts of a President and his administration and presenting them to the public for study and discussion without regard for political considerations or affiliations.” Franklin D. Roosevelt is the first US president to have a library and there have been 15 more since him. So how does this apply to Jefferson Davis?
Is it Really a Presidential Library?
I think the answer to that is yes. Jefferson Davis, as the only Confederate President, does indeed have a Presidential Library. However, as he was not a recognized United States President, his library doesn’t fall under the National Archives and Records Administration. Basically, I think that means the library doesn’t receive federal funding, so they are completely reliant upon fundraising and entry fees.
I also think the answer is no. Jefferson Davis was not a US President and therefore has a nice museum, but not necessarily a Presidential Library. The Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress holds papers of presidents prior to Roosevelt. Davis does not have papers listed in that division as a president.
So why visit the Jefferson Davis Library?
This was a tricky visit for us. I was born in Louisiana and lived there until I was 12, when my family moved to Oregon. So I’m a born and bred Southerner. However, my cousin, who I adore, calls me his Yankee cousin (hey Darin!). And the truth is I
probably am more liberal than most all of our Southern relatives. I’m actually more liberal than many people we know and I’m good with that. I firmly believe that all people deserve food and shelter and kindness (among other things, but those are the basics). I also firmly believe that we are all created equal, yet our circumstances often dictate whether or not we share equally in that deservedness of food, shelter and kindness.
As we drove up, we realized a cemetery on the Library grounds had Confederate flags by each gravestone. With 2019’s spread of the Black Lives Matter movement and the general understanding in America that not all of us have truly been afforded the same equality, I felt appalled and sad to see those flags.
But here’s why we paid our money, took the tour, and explored the history anyway. I judge that if I only chose to learn about things which align with my perspectives, then I am sorely at a loss to join any relevant conversation. If I only visit libraries of presidents on my own “approval list”, then what kind of a human am I? By remaining open to possibility, I believe I am then open to growth and to change. We travel to explore, to learn and to grow as Americans, sure, but mainly as humans.
Who was Jefferson Davis?
I learned a lot during this visit. The many talents and successes of Jefferson Davis are not well known to me and maybe not to you, so here’s a tiny bit about him. He graduated from West Point in 1824 before beginning his military career. Davis held the rank of colonel in the Mexican-American War. He also served as a well-respected representative and senator, holding the position of Secretary of War, under President Pierce. In that role, Davis oversaw the construction of the new House and Senate wings of the US Capitol. The building looks like it does today because of him!
Did he charge into war?
One thing I didn’t previously know is that Jefferson Davis didn’t actually choose war. He sought a peaceful solution to the differences in States, as he understood the high cost that a war would demand. As talk of secession grew, Davis joined the “Committee of 13” to seek compromise and avoid war. On January 21, 1861, he and senators from three other states gave their farewell speeches to a packed Congress. While he declared Mississippi’s intention to separate from the United States, he implored his fellow congressmen to work for a continuation of peaceful relations. His six minute speech ended with reverent silence and then the sound of open weeping and applause. He solemnly left the chamber as his colleagues and the spectators rose to their feet in respect.
Later, describing the “unutterable grief” of that occasion, Davis said that his words had been “not my utterances but rather leaves torn from the book of fate.”US Senate archives
So, if things had gone differently, Americans would likely remember more of his accomplishments. More of the good he did in life. But instead, many of us, myself included, don’t know all that Jefferson Davis stood for. He did serve as the President of the Confederacy from 1861 until his arrest in 1865. But he entered war reluctantly. Charged with treason, Davis served two years in prison. After the Civil War and his release from prison, Davis spent most of his last years at Beauvoir in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Beauvoir, Beautiful View
The Jefferson Davis Presidential Library sits on the grounds of Beauvoir. In his time, the house rested on the edges of marsh that led to the Gulf. Now it backs up to Biloxi’s Beach Blvd, which is a four-lane street with a median between lanes. So it’s a bit of a hike to get to the water’s edge now. The grounds of the 52-acre estate are not in the best shape, but we did visit in winter. So I’m sure when the roses and other flowers are in full bloom that it’s a much prettier landscape.
We toured the house with a non-masked guide, which didn’t make either of us super happy. He also made masks optional for everyone, but we all kept ours on. The tour surrounded the history of the house, its survival of different hurricanes and its furnishings. I didn’t learn anything new about Jefferson or his wife, which felt disappointing. The house itself is beautiful for sure, and it’s history interesting. But I guess I wanted to hear more stories of its most famous occupant. It felt something like a lost opportunity to educate more people about the reason for Mississippi’s secession. And the consequences for generation after the Civil War. I guess I just wanted more depth.
We spent about an hour in the house and then another hour or so exploring the grounds and the library. About 700 veterans and their wives/widows are buried here. A different docent rode a golf cart out to the cemetery after seeing us walking out. He was a wealth of information about the grounds and the people buried there. He explained that the confederate battle flag is not actually the flag chosen by the Confederate States of America (CSA), as that was a bars and stars flag more similar to the Stars and Stripes. It had two red and one white stripe. The stars lay in a circle on a field of blue.
The battle flag was used primarily by the armies of Virginia and Tennessee. It mainly came about because it made recognizing “the other side” easier, with less similar flags. The museum docent said the cemetery uses the battle flag to symbolize the sacrifices made by the soldiers during the Civil War. He said they do not represent any other political or racial statement.
That Flag though…
I don’t agree with his assessment, but I do appreciate the stance that the Jefferson Davis Library is promoting…when you actually get to talk to someone about it. From an outside perspective, I think the battle flag stands for what White Supremacists have co-opted it to be. A message of hatred and oppression. To me, a better tribute to those who fought valiantly for their beliefs is the CSA’s bars and stars flag. It does not contain the same cultural overtones. And I think it more accurately portrays what the soldiers actually fought for, which is the rights of individual states. But what do I know?!
The Jefferson Davis Library
The Jefferson Davis Presidential Library is a little light on exhibits, but there is enough to wander through for a half hour or so. We especially enjoyed the video in a small auditorium (set up for social distancing). It was well written and informative. A lot of what I’ve written about comes directly from that short movie. Above the good-sized gift shop, is a huge actual library. It’s complete with a card catalogue, which delighted the nerd in me. I sat for a while and looked through some of the many photograph albums on the tables. We were the only guests, so I felt comfortable taking my time.
Following Davis’ death, Beauvoir became a Confederate Soldier hospital and home. At one point about 250 people lived there. However from 1903 through its closing in 1957, approximately 1,800- 2500 veterans and their wives came through the home. The museum’s docent told us that the veterans married even into their 80s or 90s. He said their generally young wives could then receive the veterans benefits for the entire rest of their own lives. I saw many album photos of weddings on Beauvoir’s lawns.
Overall, our visit to Beauvoir and the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library was informative. Like I said earlier, I wish our guide shared a little more info about Davis’ life. The old furniture was beautiful, but we didn’t actually stop to see antiques. We stopped there to learn. It’s definitely worth a stop. Keep an open mind. Determine to learn something new. Then I think it’s a great place to visit.