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[447]

A visit to BeauvoirPresident Davis and family at home.

by J. Wm. Jones.

Richmond, Va., August 1st, 1886.
A trip from Richmond to Beauvoir, by the Richmond and Danville route to Atlanta, the Atlanta, West Point and Montgomery to Montgomery, and thence by the Louisville and Nashville railway, is quick and comparatively comfortable, even at this season. Leaving here at 2 A. M. on Thursday we reached Beauvoir—a flag station on the Louisville and Nashville, half-way between Mobile and New Orleans—at 4:40 P. M. Friday.

The first questions asked are, ‘Where is Mr. Davis's house?’ ‘Is Mr. Davis at home?’ The grounds are pointed out as running down to the station, the large vineyard of Scuppernong grapes forming a pleasing contrast to the sighing pines around, and soon the large yard, shaded by live-oaks, is seen, and the dim outlines of the cottages and mansion, as we hurry along the road to the house of a relative on the beach, several hundred yards below. But I was greatly disappointed to learn that Mr. Davis had received a summons to his plantation up on the Mississippi river, and had left several days before.

I had, however, a very pleasant time—gazing on the beautiful Gulf, breathing its salt breezes, dipping in its brine, catching fish every morning for breakfast, making some very pleasant acquaintances, etc.—and made a most enjoyable visit to Beauvoir, where Mrs. Davis and Miss Winnie entertained me in most agreeable style.

The House and Grounds.

At this and subsequent visits I had ample opportunity of seeing the house and grounds. The house is a large, double-framed building, painted white, and contrasting very pleasantly with the foliage in which it is embowered. A wide veranda runs around it, and a broad hall through the centre makes a very pleasant sitting-room in the summer. On either side of the main building, and a few yards from it, are very neat cottages, also white, and in the rear are ample and convenient out-buildings. The house is very well furnished, mostly with handsome old furniture, the walls are adorned with some fine pictures—some of them copies of the masterpieces of the old masters—and [448] the rooms are tastefully decorated with bric — a brac and pretty ornaments, many of which are the products of the deft fingers and good taste of Mrs. Davis and her accomplished daughters.

Books, carefully selected from standard authors, adorn the tables or grace the shelves. In a word, the stranger who knew nothing of the occupants would have only to glance through the rooms to see at once that this is an abode of culture, refinement, and taste.

The grounds are ample, the live-oaks and their hanging moss are very beautiful, the Gulf of Mexico laves the beach in front of the house, and is certainly one of the most beautiful sheets of water that the sun shines upon. The grounds are certainly very beautiful as they are, but are capable of great improvement, and one could not repress the wish that our honored Confederate chief had the means of taking them all that his cultivated taste would suggest.

And yet it is a source of gratification to old Confederates that our great leader has this quiet retreat, where, away from the rushing crowd, on the soil of his loved Mississippi, breathing the healthful breezes of the Gulf that washes the southern shores of the Confederacy, in the shades of his own home and in the bosom of his family, he can spend the evening of his busy life, and fill out the record of his great duties and heroic deeds. But it ought to be added that his needed rest and quiet are often broken by visitors—loving admirers who are anxious to pay their respects and do honor to the greatest living American; but too often mere curiosity-hunters, some of whom partake of his hospitality and then go off to write all manner of slanders about him.

The family.

I would not be guilty of drawing aside the veil that conceals from the world the privacy of the home, or parading before the public even the names of our noble women; but the deep interest which our people take in all that concerns this noble family must be my excuse for saying some things which otherwise might not be admissible.

Those who knew Mrs. Davis in other days, as a Senator's or Secretary's wife, in Washington, or as ‘Mistress of the White House’ and ‘first lady’ of the Confederacy, in Richmond, would find no difficulty in recognizing her now; for, though time has wrought some changes in her, she is the same bright, genial, cultivated, domestic woman, who is equally well qualified to grace the parlor, preside at a State dinner with historic men as her guests, attend to the minutest [449] details of her housekeeping, or visit her neighbors, or look after the needy poor.

She is one of the finest conversationalists I ever met, and her recollections of society and events in Washington, in Richmond, and in Europe, and of the prominent men and women with whom she came in contact, are simply charming, and would make a book of rare interest were she disposed to turn her attention to authorship. Devoted to her husband, and taking a natural pride in his fame; an affectionate mother, who delights in her children and grandchildren; affable and pleasant with her neighbors; a noted housekeeper and fine economist, and a charming entertainer of visitors, she strikes all who know her as worthy to share the fortunes and comfort the declining years of our chief, as she was worthy to share his honors and reign in society at Washington and at Richmond.

She speaks in the most cordial terms (as does Mr. Davis) of Richmond and Richmond people, and inquires very affectionately after some of her special friends.

Miss Winnie Davis, the single daughter, who was born in Richmond not long before the close of the war, is one of the most thoroughly educated, accomplished young women whom I have ever met. At the same time she is simple, affable, and sweet in her manners, a brilliant conversationalist, a general favorite, and every way worthy of her proud lineage and happy inheritance as ‘Child of the Confederacy.’

Mrs. Hayes, the only other living child, was on a visit to Beauvoir, but was sick, and I had not the pleasure of seeing her; but I heard her spoken of in the warmest terms of admiration by some of the neighbors. I saw her four sweet children-and what pets they were with their grandfather, whose love of children is one of his strong characteristics!


President Davis.

Returning from a several-days' trip to Meridian, I was delighted to find that Mr. Davis had returned from his plantation, had done me the honor of calling at my brother-in-law's to see me, and was awaiting my arrival.

Those who knew him in Richmond during the war might not recognize him at once, as over twenty years have left their impress upon him, and he now wears a full beard instead of being closely shaven as then. But the handsome face, the courtly grace of his bearing, the flash of his eagle eye, his cordial manners, genial [450] humor, and almost unrivalled eloquence of conversation, soon bring back the Confederate President—the indomitable leader, the unflinching patriot, the high-toned, Christian gentleman, whom true Confederates will ever delight to honor.

Seventy-eight years of an eventful life are upon him, his health is not strong, and his physical powers begin to weaken, but his intellect is as clear as ever, and his heart as warm as ever for the land he has loved so well, and for which he has toiled, and suffered, and sacrificed so much.

I shall not be guilty of betraying to the public the confidence of private conversation, as at this and subsequent interviews, at his own home, he spoke freely of men and events and measures from that full knowledge and intimate acquaintance, and in that perfectly charming manner which make his lightest utterances of unspeakable value.

But there are some things of which I may, without impropriety, write, and which I know will be of deep interest to our people.

Mr. Davis loves to talk of his home, the Gulf coast of Mississippi and its advantages, his pictures, his books, questions in English literature, science, the arts, etc., in all of which he is perfectly at home and talks charmingly; his cadet life at West Point and the men he knew there, who were afterwards famous; the Mexican war and his services, of which he speaks very modestly, but the brilliancy of which all the world knows; his services in the United States Senate and as Secretary of War, and the men with whom he came in contact while serving in these high positions; his travels abroad, etc., etc.

But he seems to delight especially to talk of the Confederacy; its splendid rise, its heroic struggle, its sad fall, when ‘compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.’ He seemed thoroughly familiar with the minutest details of all the Departments of the Government. He gave some very interesting details of experiments made while he was Secretary of War, on the question of whether to cast guns hollow or to bore them out from solid castings, and spoke of the laudable pride with which Rodman sought him when he had prepared some cannon-powder, and exclaimed, ‘Eureka, eureka!’

He gave a very interesting account of some experiments made by Professor Bartlett, of West Point, under his direction, on the proper size and shape of bullets. The experiments failed, but last year at Beauvoir he got to thinking over it, and thought that he discovered the cause of the failure.

He at once wrote to Professor Bartlett, giving him his theory, but [451] received from him a very kind reply, in which the Professor said that he was now too old and infirm to make new experiments, and that, besides, he had lost their original memoranda and calculations.

He spoke with commendable pride of what progress the Confederacy had made in creating material of war, until at the end of the struggle the best powder in the world was made at the Confederate mill under charge of General Rains. He said that while a prisoner at Fortress Monroe he was told that the powder which produced the best results in firing at iron plates was some of this powder captured from the Confederates.

He talked freely, and in the most interesting manner, of the causes, progress, and results of the war, and, while fully accepting its logical results, he seems profoundly anxious that our children should be taught the truth, and that our people should not forget or ignore the great fundamental principles for which we fought. As for allowing the war to be called ‘The Rebellion’ and our Confederate people ‘Rebels,’ he heartily repudiated and condemned it. ‘A sovereign cannot rebel,’ he said, ‘and sovereign States could not be in rebellion. You might as well say Germany rebelled against France, or that France (as she was beaten in the contest) rebelled against Germany.’

He said that once in the hurry of writing he had spoken of it as ‘the civil war,’ but had never used that misnomer again.

He spoke of many of our generals and of the inside history of some of our great battles and campaigns, telling some things of great interest and historic value, which I do not feel at liberty to publish now.

After speaking in the most exalted terms of Lee and Jackson, their mutual confidence in each other, and their prompt co-operation, he said: ‘They supplemented each other, and, together, with any fair opportunity, they were absolutely invincible.’ He defended Jackson against the statement made by some of his warmest admirers (even Dr. Dabney in his biography) that he was not fully himself in failing to force the passage of White Oak swamp to go to the help of A. P. Hill at Frazier's Farm. He said that he thought that a careful study of the topography would show that Franklin's position was the real obstacle to Jackson's crossing.

He spoke warmly of the magnificent fight which A. P. Hill, afterwards supported by Longstreet, made that day—a battle which he witnessed—and told some interesting incidents concerning it.

Early in the day he met General Lee near the front, and at once [452] accosted him with ‘Why, General, what are you doing here? You are in too dangerous a position for the commander of the army.’

‘I am trying,’ was the reply, ‘to find out something about the movements and plans of those people. But you must excuse me, Mr. President, for asking what you are doing here, and for suggesting that this is no proper place for the commander-in-chief of all our armies.’

‘Oh, I am here on the same mission that you are,’ replied the President, and they were beginning to consult about the situation when ‘gallant little A. P. Hill’ dashed up and exclaimed, ‘This is no place for either of you, and, as commander of this part of the field, I order you both to the rear.’

‘We will obey your orders,’ was the reply; and they fell back a short distance, but the fire grew hotter, and presently A. P. Hill galloped up to them again and exclaimed, ‘Did I not tell you to go away from here? and did you not promise to obey my orders? Why, one shell from that battery over yonder may presently deprive the Confederacy of its President and the Army of Northern Virginia of its commander.’ And with other earnest words he finally persuaded the President and General Lee to move back to a more secure place.

Mr. Davis spoke in the warmest terms of praise of A. P. Hill. ‘He was,’ he said, ‘brave and skillful, and always ready to obey orders and do his full duty.’ Reminding him that General Hill was killed at Petersburg ‘with a sick-furlough in his pocket,’ having arisen from a sick-bed and hurried to the front when he heard that the enemy was moving, he said, ‘Yes, a truer, more devoted, self-sacrificing soldier never lived or died in the cause of right.’

Speaking in general of the Seven Days battles around Richmond, he said that we accomplished grand results, and that the failure to annihilate McClellan's army was due chiefly to the fact that when General Lee took command there were at headquarters no maps of the country below Richmond, and it was then too late to procure them, and that our army moved all the time in ignorance of the country and with guides who, for the most part, proved themselves utterly inefficient.

He said that General Lee's object in the retreat from Petersburg was to reach Danville, and then to unite with Johnston and crush Sherman before Grant could come up.

After General Johnston's surrender, his object was to reach the Trans-Mississippi department and see if he could rally the forces there. And this he believes he could have accomplished, as he knew [453] every swamp along his proposed route, but he was turned aside by information that a band of robbers were about to attack his family, who were traveling on a different line.

He gave deeply interesting details of the foreign relations of the Confederacy, and of how near we were several times to recognition by England and France. He spoke in the highest terms of praise of Captain Bullock's ‘Secret Service of the Confederacy in Europe’—a book which he thinks should be in every library—and said that the Confederacy had nothing to fear from the publication of all of its official correspondence.

He spoke in strong terms of the double dealings of Louis Napoleon, who, after inviting Mr. Slidell, the Confederate commissioner, to have Confederate vessels built in France, and assuring him that there would be no obstacle to their going out afterwards, went square back on his word (because of certain representations of Mr. Dayton, the United States Minister), and refused to allow them to go out. When he was in France, after the war, the Emperor sent him word, that ‘If he desired an interview with him he would be glad to grant it.’ ‘But,’ said the grand old chief of the Confederacy, ‘I wanted no interview with the man who had played us false, and so I promptly replied that I did not desire it.’

He spoke of General Lee's high opinion of the ability of General Early as a soldier, and of his own emphatic endorsation of that opinion, and said many other things of deep interest which I may not write now.

He and his family were evidently deeply touched by the grand ovation accorded him at Montgomery, Atlanta, Savannah, etc., last spring, and I assured him that if he would accept the invitation which I bore him from Governor Lee to be present at the laying of the corner-stone of the Lee monument next October we would give him in the last capital of the Confederacy a welcome equally as warm —an ovation fully as imposing. He could not promise so long ahead what he could do, in view of his declining years and uncertain health, but said, ‘There is no place I would rather visit than Richmond; no occasion I had rather be present upon than one that is to honor R. E. Lee. If possible I shall do myself the pleasure of going.’

I came away from Beauvoir with the highest gratification that I had had the privilege of seeing at his home, eating with at his table, and mingling in free social intercourse with the great statesman, the peerless orator, the gallant soldier, the stainless Christian gentleman, the devoted patriot, whom, with one voice, the Confederate States [454] called to be their chief, who never betrayed their trust, but who was true in war, and has been true in peace—‘who did not desert during the war and has not deserted since.’

What true Confederate—what true citizen of any section of the country—can fail to join in the earnest prayer that Heaven's choicest blessings may rest upon that beautiful home at Beauvoir — that his last days may be his best days, and that he may finally rest in peace, wear ‘the fadeless crown of victory,’ and rejoice in the plaudit of the Great Captain—‘Well done, good and faithful servant’—when he shall join Lee and Jackson and others of our Christian soldiers in that bright land where ‘war's rude alarms’ are never heard?


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