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For a four-year period in American history, two official houses carried the name White House. Standing 90 miles apart, across the Virginia landscape, one overlooked the Potomac River and the other the James. They were the same age and architecturally were cousins. Designed by James Hoban, the White House had been rebuilt by him and completed late in 1817, after its destruction in the British invasion three years before. The house in Richmond, built by one John Brockenbrough to designs by Robert Mills, once a draftsman for Hoban, was completed in 1818. This was a glorious year in the period buoyantly called the Era of Good Feelings.

By the time the Lincolns moved there, the White House in Washington had been improved with the addition of porches north and south, making it the house we recognize today. The building in Richmond, which was built with a tall, columned porch on the rear or south side, had gained a third floor not so long before it was purchased by the city and furnished for Jefferson Davis as the presidential residence of the Confederate States of America. The Lincolns moved to the White House for a four-year term on March 4, 1861, immediately following the inauguration. The Davises moved into the Richmond house on August 1 for a six-year term. They had lived in a two-story frame house in Alabama during the three months the Confederate capital was at Montgomery, where Davis had been inaugurated in February. Both men went to their capitals on the train, and both took their families. Before each was a future that can only have seemed puzzling and, at its worst moments, rightly imagined as an impending nightmare. To his friends in Springfield, Lincoln spoke from the back of the departing train: “No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. . . . I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I will return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being, who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. . . . Let us confidently hope that all will yet be well.”1

Two days after his inauguration in Montgomery, Davis wrote to his wife: “I was inaugurated on Saturday night. The audience was large and brilliant upon my heavy breast was showered smiles plaudits and flowers, but beyond them I saw troubles and storms insurmountable. We are without machinery without means and threatened by powerful opposition but I do not despond and will not shrink from the task imposed upon me.”2

Each man hoped politics might solve the problem, and each soon realized that a peaceful solution was not possible. Both children of the generation that followed the American Revolution, Lincoln and Davis were born about 100 miles apart, not quite a year apart. It must have seemed incredible to them that the nation was falling apart. Just eighty-five years separated their inaugurations from the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Roads to Two First Houses

The Lincolns, Abraham, age 52, and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln, age 42, moved to Washington under the most perilous circumstances. A plot to kidnap or murder him was bypassed through the skillful management of Allan Pinkerton, a detective on the Chicago police force who also ran a private detective agency. Traveling with Mrs. Lincoln by another route were the three sons. Four boys had been born to the Lincolns in their hometown of Springfield, Illinois. Eddie had died in 1850. Robert, the eldest, turned 18 in 1861; Willie 11; and Tad 8.

The Lincolns were hardly the nobodies one is sometimes led to think. Certainly by any measure the father was among the most prominent corporation lawyers in the Midwest. Had Lincoln not remained close to politics and his life become less entwined in the new Republican Party with its key issue the prevention of slavery into the territories, he eventually might well have taken his family from Springfield to booming Chicago. It was only a matter of time. His humble origins are well known, and the idea was even promoted by him. When asked about his family history, he called up a line from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”: “The short and simple annals of the poor.” “That’s my life,” he said, “and that’s all you or any one else can make of it.”3

It was what Lincoln wanted known but not entirely accurate. He was seventh-generation American, from stable, if not always prosperous stock, with some history of public service. He had self-educated himself to become a lawyer and while serving in the Illinois legislature was admitted to the bar. The interest in politics had taken him as a Whig to the Congress in 1847, where he opposed the Mexican War. An effort to gain a public appointment and remain in Washington failed, and back home he did not run for reelection, but while not setting politics entirely aside, he devoted his interests to business for some years, in various law partnerships in the Illinois capital at Springfield. That he had married “up” when he married Mary Todd of Kentucky in 1842 was no secret, and in Springfield they occupied the only house they ever owned, a cottage to which she, with inherited money, added a second floor.

The Kansas-Nebraska Bill, which negated the Missouri Compromise, brought Lincoln back on the platform in 1854 in passionate opposition. Strong in his feeling for preserving the Union, he believed that the compromise, whatever faults it may have had, provided a basis for that preservation. The Democratic Party’s radical branch disagreed. His 1858 Senate campaign debates (using more or less the same speech) with the sponsor of the bill, Senator Stephen A. Douglas, attracted news as a flea attacking a giant; his success was notable if not profound and Douglas defeated him in the election. But Lincoln kept talking, remaining a platform speaker for the next two years, when at last in 1860 his speech at the Cooper Union in New York made him a national figure. In that year he won the presidency over a divided Democratic Party.

Jefferson Davis, age 53 and his wife Varina, who was 35, moved to the White House of the Confederacy with a daughter, Maggie, age 6, and the two surviving of their three sons, Jeff, 4, and Joe, 2. They shared with the Lincolns the tragic loss of a son, Sam, who had died in 1854. Mrs. Davis was pregnant when they moved to the Confederate White House and gave birth to Billy four months later, in December 1861. Their last child, a girl named Varina but called Winnie (her mother was nicknamed Winnie by Davis), would be born in that house in 1864.

Davis had been a well-known public figure since his late 30s, first as a military man and then as a politician. A West Pointer, he first married Knox Taylor, daughter of his disapproving commander, Zachary Taylor; and he left the army to do so. Knox died very soon of a fever, while with Davis headed for Baton Rouge for a reconciliation with her parents. Davis was remarried to Varina Howell at Natchez in 1845, the year he was first elected to Congress. Ambitious and excited by the prospect of the Mexican War, he resigned in 1846 and served with distinction as colonel in command of the First Mississippi Volunteers.

Reunited in Mexico with General Taylor, the two became almost inseparable. It was Davis’s military skill that devised the famous V formation strategy that won the battle of Buena Vista, for which he became known in military circles the world over. The victory, in part, took Zachary Taylor to the White House in 1849. Sent to the Senate from Mississippi, Davis and Varina took every advantage of their White House connection to become social stars in the capital. After President Taylor’s death in 1850, Davis returned home to run for governor and lost, but his political influence was so strong nationally that he soon returned to Washington, appointed secretary of war by Franklin Pierce in 1853. His reforms in the military were highly influential in shaping the Union Army he was to fight later on. He was elected to the Senate in 1857 and, as a radical Democrat, was present as the fires of the oncoming Civil War burned away in the capital. A much-sought-after orator, Davis was cheered on platforms North and South. He never wanted to destroy the Union, but he believed that the Constitution, which he admired above all documents of government, allowed a state to secede if it wanted to. He held on to the last, and then supported secession ardently.

The Roles of the Two Official Houses

The two presidents had some things in common, and much that they did not share. One thing certain: they did share commitment to their points of view. Both firmly believed that the paths they had taken would have been approved by the Founding Fathers. The events of the Civil War and the two men’s involvements are well known. Their offices were not dissimilar, each with walls covered by large maps, dotted with pins and flags. Americans, whether Union or Confederate, still looked over a vast, virtually empty continent. Davis believed the Confederate empire would extend west, indeed perhaps even into Mexico. Lincoln saw expansion only as the new territories would become allies and hurried to make them states, lest they side with the Confederacy.

Each house, Washington and Richmond, served three roles: office, ceremonial place for entertainment, and home for the head of state. As such they were often crowded, the stairs trod muddy by people seeking favors. In each, secretaries and aides learned that they had to protect their presidents for their health and that the stream of callers would never end unless arbitrarily stopped. Lincoln was served by two, then three secretaries; Davis had two secretaries and four aides. Being able to see the president in person was a feature of the democratic ideal by then natural to the presidency and adapted by the Confederacy. The area in front of both presidential houses was as crowded as a county fair most days. Filtering this onslaught took tact and sometimes even muscle.

Neither house was heavily guarded by our standards today. At the start of the war Jim Lane’s Frontier Guard from Kansas camped in the East Room of the White House. Cassius Clay of Kentucky, sporting two pistols and an Arkansas Toothpick, bivouacked his Clay Guards outside at the foot of the stairs to the South Portico. Both soon went off to try their skills elsewhere on the battlefield. All during the war a patrol walked back and forth down the long Second Floor corridor of the White House. Two guards were at the north door. In Richmond a guard was stationed at the front door and one at the basement door; outside a dozen or more soldiers sat around a campfire. No one else guarded Jefferson Davis except his secretaries, who slept in the house with firearms close at hand.

The wartime White House of Abraham Lincoln was open to the public most mornings. People walked into the East Room and sometimes into the Green, Blue, and Red Rooms and then back out again, to satisfy their curiosity. Now and then for a souvenir an East Room tassel was cut off or a book was taken from a Red Room table. Opening the house to tourists had been started by Thomas Jefferson in 1801, recalling how he had been able to see great houses in Europe because they were available to the public. During the Civil War, newspapers abounded in letters to the editor and columns describing the White House, its big rooms, the crowds waiting to see Lincoln. Written descriptions of the Richmond White House are rare, suggesting that, being a smaller house, it was not usually open to the public. Jefferson Davis’s appointments secretary sat at a table at the foot of the main stair, which curved up to the second floor office, which had the master bedroom on one side and the children’s nursery on the other. The arrangement was eased by creation of another office for Davis in the customhouse, where he met the greater number of his guests. Lincoln, however, kept his office in the White House, perhaps seeing it as more peaceful than one of the departments, which were all overrun with callers looking for wartime jobs.

In the hall of the White House in Washington guests registered with two “ushers,” only recently given that title instead of “doormen.” At both houses, visitors wrote their names on a blank card or presented their printed card, which was sent upstairs by a household messenger to the secretary to determine admission or refusal. Some people called every day until they were admitted. Some never got to see the president at all.

Public receptions were held from time to time in both houses. The Confederates still celebrated the Fourth of July and also New Year’s, as had long been the case at the White House. In Washington, when Andrew Jackson took over in 1829, January 8, the anniversary of the battle of New Orleans, became a regular reception day, but it was dropped during the 1850s, as the Democratic party began moving away from Jacksonian ideals and sought other heroes.

Life in the Washington White House

Inside both presidential houses, the dynamics behind the scenes were directed toward a smooth public presentation. Backstage all was by no means calm at the White House in Washington. Well before he went to the White House, Lincoln was concerned that all ceremonial activities be conducted properly. He sent his secretary George Nicolay to Jeremiah Black, outgoing secretary of state, for instruction on how dinners, receptions, and other events were traditionally handled. Nicolay was supplied with seating charts he might use as models and made notes on other details. Once Lincoln was in the White House, his secretary managed social affairs. Mrs. Lincoln, cut out of the basics, was allowed to advise only on menus and the like. She resented this as a violation of her rights and, given the anxieties from which she suffered, felt people in Washington were laughing about it behind her back. Her predecessor, Harriet Lane, had found Mrs. Lincoln too “western” for polite society, and the opinion was not exclusive to her.

For his power over matters Mrs. Lincoln wished for herself, she loathed the Belgian George Nicolay. He seems to have returned the favor with chilly silence, but not a word to her face. While Nicolay resigned at the end of the first term, in part because of her, to go elsewhere, he stuck it out for four years, greatly imposed upon. Lincoln, however, stood by his staff. So Mrs. Lincoln turned her rage on the servants—there were fourteen—as her enemies and began to drive them away on various pretenses. She created little crises; she harassed and threatened them—notably James Buchanan’s English domestics. They slowly departed, taking jobs in the government departments, joining the army, and leaving a dubious, rather low-brow crew as survivors; the replacements that came in were some of the most devious characters that could be imagined. The worst of them knew how to flatter the president’s wife to serve their own ends. Mrs. Lincoln, with little to occupy her and personal tragedy to wear away at her emotionally, was constantly in trouble, whether spending too much to buy and drape the bed we know as the Lincoln Bed or welcoming fortune-tellers and mediums to the Red Room to communicate with “the other side.” She was the first president’s wife criticized openly in the press.4

The White House was a much larger house than the one in Richmond. Lincoln had his office in the east end of the Second Floor. There his secretaries had a bedroom in addition to several workrooms and a reception room. At the opposite end of the hall were the seven rooms of the family quarters. The large formal rooms downstairs were usually only for social occasions. The Lincolns did sit in the Red Room to read newspapers. In the evenings Mary awaited her husband there when he spent late hours in the telegraph office next door. The Lincolns were the last family to use any of the State Rooms for everyday pursuits.

Life in Lincoln’s White House was thus fraught with tension, not only because of the war being conducted outside its doors but because of the little wars going on inside. Lincoln and his secretaries formed almost a unit. He enjoyed the company of these two young men, John Hay and George Nicolay. Often with them and his sons Tad and Willie he went about town or visited battlefields after the smoke had cleared. Sometimes they were joined by William Slade, a quiet, gentlemanly man who served as Lincoln’s valet, an African American who took no part in the machinations of the other staff. Work hours were long. Late at night Lincoln was likely to waken the secretaries and talk to them for hours as they dozed against the bedposts. Years later the secretaries tried to remember every word he said.

Among the members of the staff who gained access to Mary Lincoln was John Watt, a gardener with about a decade’s White House service. He made himself a presence in the Conservatory at the right times and thus put himself close to Mrs. Lincoln when she went there for sun and to enjoy the flowers. She was too naive to keep her distance. A talkative Scot, he was soon advising her on important matters and personalities, and he gained access to the entire house. His tenure climaxed when in collusion with another man he took a copy of one of Lincoln’s speeches from the office and sold it to the press.

Similar difficulties arose with Henry Wikoff, a flashy Frenchman who styled himself a chevalier of France and claimed fond intimacy with Louis Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie. He called on Mrs. Lincoln frequently, a giddy, entertaining man amply supplied with gossip from the European courts. She unburdened herself to him. He betrayed her also by stealing and selling papers. Lincoln, who found him repulsive anyway, personally appeared in the Red Room at a tea and ordered the Chevalier out of the house on threat of arrest. Notwithstanding the dramatic denunciation by her husband, Mrs. Lincoln kept her fondness for the Chevalier and counted him as her friend.

The formality of White House life necessarily proceeded. Dinners were held for forty once or twice a week from about November to April. The fare was French, by long White House tradition; six wines were poured. Toasts had been déclassé for a while, so there was no fanfare except a march from the Blue Room to the State Dining Room with the Marine Band, stationed in the hall, playing a waltz. Thanks to gaslight, White House dinners were no longer at 4:00 in the afternoon, but were at 8:00 p.m. Guests were expected to arrive within fifteen minutes of the time designated on the invitation. At the close of fifteen minutes, the president appeared with Mrs. Lincoln. A receiving line formed, after which, two by two, the guests followed the president to the State Dining Room, where seating was carefully arranged by rank, the president and his wife sitting across from each other on the long side of the table.

After dinner, when the president rose from his chair, all the men stood; then the women departed to the Second Floor Library to freshen up for half an hour. Chamber pots were brought out in the dining room and a screen set up around them. Men and women joined after that in one of the parlors for coffee. When the band struck “Yankee Doodle,” the president and Mrs. Lincoln went upstairs and the party was over. Most of the time these dinners were all business, at least around the edges of the social interaction. A preoccupied Lincoln was likely to pull men guests aside for a talk. More than once he assembled the whole cabinet in a room for discussion and pulled the doors closed.

The White House was elegant, make no mistake. In the winter of 1862 the servants were newly attired in mulberry livery (it had always been blue) to match the new state china Mrs. Lincoln had purchased. Invitational receptions required a ticket of admission, as did all dinners and afternoon parties. For a reception for five hundred in February 1862, the guests were directed to the East Room, where the president awaited in a finely tailored new suit and Mrs. Lincoln was in a black and white ball gown with a tall headdress of flowers. A feast was served at midnight, ordered from the Manhattan confectioner Henry Maillard. In the center of the table were large models in sugar of Fort Sumter, Fort Pickens, and the Ship of State. The Marine Band played “The Mary Lincoln Polka.”5

Great receptions sometimes greeted six thousand people. The line always had to be cut off, and some went home never having entered the White House. Again, the Lincolns had little to do but be there. Mrs. Lincoln always dressed in grand style, with a court train (4 yards from the shoulder to the tip). Diplomatic rules were maintained, assuring deference to rank. At that time the highest rank foreign powers sent to the United States were ministers plenipotentiary; there were no ambassadors for another thirty years. Always the diplomats were admitted an hour early, received by the president, and given time to station themselves through the State Rooms. The court uniforms were varied and exotic, from the British velvet trimmed in gold lace, with tricorn hat and medals on a cross-ribbon, to the Turks with their turbans, magnificent jewels, and shocks of ostrich plumes. No food was served. Ice water stations were provided on the Fourth of July. For those receptions anticipated to be very large, steps were put up to the windows of the East Room to encourage early exit.

It was during the 1863 New Year’s reception that Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. His hands were black and blue from shaking hands downstairs. He rubbed them to be sure his writing was firm, commenting that, by the steadiness of his hand history would judge whether he hesitated or did not.

Life in the Confederate White House

In Richmond, social responsibility was an easier matter for Varina Howell Davis. President Davis took no part in planning anything, so capable was his wife. An aggressive woman by nature, she had gone to Washington in 1845 and again in the 1850s and demanded and won a place at the head of political society. Her access to the White House during the administrations of Zachary Taylor and Franklin Pierce gave her a certain cachet, but her husband’s position in the Democratic Party and generally in all the events in Washington was very center stage. They were what would be described today as a power couple, and she relished capital life far over that of Davis’s Mississippi River plantation Brierfield.

It was Davis who provided Stephen A. Douglas with access to President Pierce when Douglas sought to gain Pierce’s support for the Kansas-Nebraska Bill in 1854. Promoting the bill into law behind the scenes with all the influence he had, Davis emerged before the public as never before. Within three years he had returned to the Senate, where he would remain until he resigned and headed south in January 1861. The morning he departed Washington he wrote to former President Pierce: “I leave immediately for Mississippi. Civil War has only horror for me, but whatever circumstances demand shall be met as a duty and I trust be so discharged that you will not be ashamed of our former connection.”6

Emerging from the national political drama and onto another stage as wife of the president of the Confederacy, Varina Howell Davis had every credential for her role in such a challenge. She knew social Washington by heart, and under her direction social life in the Confederate capital became a clear reflection of Washington as it had been in the 1850s. (Witness the name “White House” for the president’s residence.) Engraved invitation cards, engraved menus, orchestras, flowers, French cooking, and lots of wine and spirits were all a part of official entertaining at the Richmond White House. Receptions, dinners, balls, and garden parties characterized the social seasons, as they had in Washington.

Where Lincoln functions were stiff, the Davises had a way of seeming almost casual in the midst of
the strictest formality, a charming manner entirely Washingtonian in character. As dinner ended and the guests rose from the table, the Davis children were likely to appear with their nurse, descending the staircase for a brief introduction. The two little boys had Confederate uniforms. Unlike Lincoln’s, the Davis children were well behaved, receiving daily attention and schooling from their mother in spite of her busy schedule. Varina Davis once wrote of bedlam breaking out in the nursery as the strong-willed children objected to some order. Mother “scolded, laughed, cried.” But they did her bidding.7

Two of the mansion’s servants were slaves from Brierfield, the Davis’s Mississippi plantation (named for Mrs. Davis’s family home in Natchez, The Briers—the word spelled as in Sir Walter Scott’s romances). The rest were hired and never stayed long. In addition to an excellent cook (who had been chef on one of the transatlantic Cunard steamers), there were dining room attendants, a coachman, grooms, butler, valet, lady’s maid, never large in number. By White House tradition, Lincoln’s servants were paid as laborers by the various departments of the government, while officially the Confederate president was supposed to pay them from his own pocket; Mrs. Davis made unsuccessful application to the Confederate treasury for pay for her servants. The turnover of employees was very trying upon Mrs. Davis, who was demanding enough in what she expected of them to personally attend to their training. Even the steward Jim Pemberton, a slave and son of a man also enslaved, who had been at Jefferson Davis’s side most of their lives, disappeared one night, as the Confederacy’s fortunes sank.

Whether she had adequate assistance or not, the routine of entertaining had to go on, and Mrs. Davis, rarely complaining, pressed the schedule forward through her four years even after the blockade made delicacies so dear that only the minimum of refreshments could be served to the sweet-toothed Rebel court. The president needed to meet with particular people, and, as with Lincoln, social occasions were perfect for this. The Confederate White House was aglow with parties. Furnished from auction house and estate furniture, the house was not beautiful, nor did Mrs. Davis have the funds to expend as did Mrs. Lincoln. The furniture she ordered from Europe fell to the Union blockade. So she did her best. She enlivened her reception room by adorning it with whittled curios made by the soldiers and given to her on her visits to the hospitals. That room had a carpet with a cream-colored field that always gave General Robert E. Lee pause, fearing his boots would muddy it. She planted the garden behind the house, overlooked by the long-columned porch, in peonies and roses, and its fragrance was more often noted than other details of the house. Summer slipcovers covered worn damask in the parlors. Crisp lace curtains at the windows, starched and stretched in the sun on wooden frames, kept the rooms looking fresh.

Davis’s recent biographer, William Cooper Jr., wrote that the bill of fare at the Confederate White House varied from the “sumptuous” to the “simple.” He continued: “One meal included gumbo, ducks, liver, chicken in jelly, oysters, claret soup, champagne, salad, and chocolate jelly cake. Another time brains en papillote adorned the table.”8 The Davises’ close friend, cabinet member Judah P. Benjamin, was especially delighted when Mrs. Davis served him anchovy paste on bread baked locally with Crenshaw’s flour (a noted miller in Virginia) and scattered over with crushed walnuts (which came from the garden) and a glass of McHenry sherry. Davis himself, like Lincoln, was indifferent to food and rarely cared whether he ate or not. A plate of turnip greens and cornbread were a repast for him, and he might taste a little pork and beef. He also was pleased when fish was put before him.9

Being a bit happy with itself already, Richmond tried to look down upon the occupants of the Confederate White House. If Davis did not care, Mrs. Davis did and was astute in dealing with female enemies, a skill honed by her experiences in Washington.

She somewhat kindly noted Richmond’s “offish” provinciality in not trusting new people and speculated that their attitudes against the new government’s officials probably were in reaction to the changes they saw all around them. Small town folk never welcomed change. Others found Varina Davis, as they said, “too much”; nor were Richmond Confederates the first and only ones to say so. She did unmistakably have her pushy side. Grumpy diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut perceived beneath the polish a sarcastic tongue that Mrs. Davis usually—but not always—masked with a pretty smile.10

Not far away, old Richmond society flourished in the Virginia Governor’s Mansion, a house of similar vintage to the Confederate White House. Governor Henry A. Wise greeted party goers there, but seldom the Davises. He was a teetotaler who boasted that he had never felt “obliged to raise the familiar cup” and had reservations about those, like the Davises, who did. When Stonewall Jackson was killed, his body was brought to Richmond. Davis offered the Confederate White House where it might lie in state. Local politics intervened. Stonewall lay instead in the Governor’s Mansion.

Now and then papers in the Union reported on life in the Davis White House. There was a controversial report in 1863 that a ball held at the mansion featured a United States flag drawn and colored in chalk over the floor; the dancers danced it away. While this event was denied, it is hard to doubt. One of the popular things to do in 1850s Washington was to call in a decorative painter to use colored chalks and decorate in scenes and designs the “crash” or linen cloth that was stretched over the carpets and waxed to make a floor compatible to those athletic dances treasured at the time, like the gallop and the quadrille, where twirling, hurried steps, and other fast movement caused the slippers of the dancers to “dance the chalk away.” Why not at a Confederate ball, and why not the enemy flag?

Family Tragedies and Last Days

Both the Lincolns and the Davises lost sons in the White House. Willie Lincoln died at the White House, in the Lincoln bed, on February 20, 1862, probably of typhoid. He was a sickly child. The illness dragged out. At a state reception the Lincolns took turns climbing the stairs to sit beside him. When he died they were disconsolate. The body was embalmed and laid out in the Green Room, the funeral adjacent in the East Room. Willie was put temporarily in a borrowed tomb, awaiting the end of the presidency when the body was to be returned by the family to Springfield.

In the spring of 1864, Joseph Davis II, age five, out of sight of his nurse and siblings, climbed upon the railing of the rear porch and attempted to walk across it, like a trapeze artist he had admired at the circus. He fell on the brick terrace below and crushed his skull. There was no saving him, but he lingered for hours. The parents, away in the city, were brought to the scene and Davis, stone-faced, and Mrs. Davis barely in control of her anguish, watched as Joe died. Friends and the public called to view the child’s coffin at the White House. The funeral was held at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, where Joe Davis was buried. Two months later, Winnie, the last of the Davis children was born in the Confederate White House.

The Davises absorbed the tragedy and lived with it, moving on. Lincoln was eventually able to do the same, but Mary Lincoln did not and after Willie’s death was never really herself again. At one point she seems to have been coming out of her melancholy, right at the close of the war; then Lincoln was assassinated.

In Richmond, President Jefferson Davis, with the advice of Lee, held on as long as he could. By March 1865, when he knew it was only a matter of time to the end, he and Mrs. Davis decided that she would leave with the children. She seems to have made little secret of her departure. A sale was made of some of the furniture in the house, personal items were stored, and many things left behind in the big rooms as she prepared herself and the children to leave. Davis gave her a pistol and instructed her in its use, firing off the rear gallery to targets on the garden’s brick walls. He advised her to keep running, not to get caught if at all possible. She was to make her way to Florida, there to take a boat out of the country. He gave her all the gold in his possession, retaining $5 for himself, and on March 29 she departed Richmond by train with her four children, two maids, and the president’s secretary Burton Harrison.

On the morning of April 2, 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant’s army broke through Confederate lines and marched on Richmond. Jefferson Davis was attending the church service at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, across from Capitol Square. Seated in his pew, he was given a message from General Lee saying that Richmond must be evacuated. He rose and walked out, every eye in the congregation on him.

Davis had no intention whatsoever of yielding to defeat. That afternoon he finalized a plan some time in the making of meeting Lee in Danville, Virginia, near the North Carolina line, and proceeding through the “lower Confederacy” to Texas, where he felt the men and loyalty were strong enough to sustain victory. Appomattox ended that plan, and the government fled. United on the road with Mrs. Davis, Jefferson Davis was apprehended in Georgia. Mrs. Davis, following his direction, headed with the children for Florida but stopped at Savannah and booked passage on a boat to England. Union troops stopped the boat and put her under house arrest in a Savannah hotel, from which the spunky former first lady began firing off letters on behalf of her husband to Union celebrities she had known, entertained, and even helped in Washington before the war.11

After the Civil War

The two houses lived on in history. The White House in Washington probably would not be standing today had Lincoln not lived there. His triumph in saving the Union, and also the melodrama of his life there, fairly much sanctified the house in the minds of the American people. Already in the summer of 1865 a new house was ordered, to be built in the Washington suburbs on a large tract of land. By the 1870s it became clear that Congress would never dare fund such a new mansion, so adamant was the public that the president remain in the White House.

The White House of the Confederacy had a historical moment after Davis left. After the fall of Richmond, Lincoln and his son Tad went by train to view the captured city, a landscape of ruins, except for the Capitol, Governor’s Mansion, and the White House, which were among those that survived the fires caused by the invasion. Lincoln went to the White House, climbed the curving stairs, and sat at Jefferson Davis’s desk. An aide signaled through the window, and huzzas rose from the thousands assembled outside. Davis at that time was in flight overland through North Carolina, headed south. Lincoln would be dead within a week.

The Confederate White House was locked. An inventory taken in 1870 listed a good bit of furniture collected in the rooms downstairs, rather haphazardly, seemingly piled, rug upon sofa upon bed, upon box. Before the century’s close the house would be acquired and renovated to serve as an archive for Confederate records and a museum. Each state of the old Confederacy sponsored a room. They were odd assemblages. The Texas room was outfitted with longhorn furniture. Mrs. Davis, who lived until 1906, surviving her husband by seventeen years, took tremendous interest in the museum, visiting it often and donating generously of artifacts she had. The museum today still uses some labels written in her hand.

Mary Lincoln and Tad left the White House in May 1865, more than a month after Lincoln’s death. They were driven in a carriage to the train station. All along Pennsylvania Avenue and in front of the White House bleachers were being built for the Grand Review of the Armies of the Union, a two-day event that would be the largest and longest parade ever held in American history up until that time. Her departure was barely noticed. Very few came to say goodbye. While she was to refer to the White House now and then in the hundreds of letters she was to write, her feeling was always the same: “It broke my heart.” She never returned.

This article was originally published in White House History Number 25 Spring 2009

Footnotes & Resources


1. Quoted in David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (London: Jonathan Cape, 1995), 273.

2. Jefferson Davis to Varina Howell Davis, Montgomery, Alabama, February 20, 1861, Jefferson Davis Papers, Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond. See also Varina Howell Davis, Jefferson Davis, Ex-President of the Confederate States of America: A Memoir by His Wife (New York: Belford Company, 2 vols. 1890).

3. Quoted in Donald, Lincoln, 20.

4. Mrs. Lincoln’s various domestic trials as well as her attitudes are vividly shown in her letters. See Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, eds. Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972).

5. New York Herald, February 6, 1862; see also Jean H. Baker, Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton, 1987), 206; William Seale, The President’s House: A History, 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association, 2008), vol. 1.

6. Jefferson Davis to Franklin Pierce, Washington, D.C., January 20, 1861, Jefferson Davis: Private Letters 1823–1889, ed. Hudson Strode. (New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1966), 122.

7. Varina Howell Davis to Jefferson Davis, Mill View, Georgia, September 22, 1865, Eleanor Brockenbrough Library, Museum of the Confederacy.

8. William J. Cooper Jr., Jefferson Davis, American (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), 463.

9. Robert Douthat Meade, Judah P. Benjamin: Confederate Statesman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1943), 285.

10. Mary Chestnut, diary, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, C. Vann Woodward, ed., (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 85, 609, 746, 747, 785.

11. Varina Howell Davis to General Montgomery Meigs, n.p., n.d.; to Mrs. John Tyler, Savannah, July 24, 1865; to Frances P. Blair, Savannah, June 6, 1865, all Davis Papers.

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