This year, 2018, we commemorated the bicentennial of the house most commonly referred to as The White House of the Confederacy. Our journey led us through 200 years of history, allowing us to use a variety of methods to explore themes and people that our regular house tours touch upon only briefly. As I look back over the roster of programs (one the first Saturday of every month), I am grateful to the many knowledgeable and talented individuals who made our trip back in time possible.
On October 1, 1872, Richmond’s Central School opened with 11 teachers and approximately 600 students – all of them white in a school system that was segregated racially from the start. Richmond and other Virginia localities did not have any kind of public school systems before Reconstruction, so the opening of Central School was remarkable in itself. What made the school more remarkable was the building it occupied: a 44-year-old mansion that seven years earlier had been the White House of the Confederacy.
What did an African-American spy for the Union working in Jefferson Davis’s Confederate executive mansion, a young African-American boy who lived in the mansion in 1864-1865, and the youngest daughter of Jefferson and Varina Davis, who was born in the mansion in 1864, have in common? The obvious answer to this no-brainer is that all three had an intimate connection with the building known today as the “White House of the Confederacy”
On April 3, 1865, Federal troops prepared to march into Richmond. A cavalry detachment under Majors Stevens and Graves moved up the Osborne Turnpike, east of Richmond. Here they met Richmond Mayor Joseph Mayo and a small party moving toward them in a carriage flying a white flag. The Mayor passed a note to Stevens advising him that Confederate forces had withdrawn from Richmond and asking that Federal troops occupy the city, some parts of which were on fire.
Waite Rawls’ May 12th “House 200” program on President Jefferson Davis’ military aides who occasionally worked at the Confederate executive mansion begs an obvious question: Was there any kind of guard – analogous to the U.S. Marine Security Guard stationed at the Washington White House – at the White House of the Confederacy? For most of the war, the surprising answer was “no.”
The Museum’s April “House 200” program, “Seizing Freedom,” offered an immersive tour of the Confederate White House that considered the motivations and actions of African-Americans who escaped enslavement from the Confederate executive mansion. One of the historical actors featured in that program not only seized his own freedom, but spent the remainder of the Civil War working in the North and in England for the cause of African-American freedom generally.
In honor of International Women's Day, a look at Varina's younger sister, Maggie.
Confederate “First Lady” Varina Howell Davis and her circle of friends were not the only upper-class women to grace the White House of the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Although young by First Lady standards (Varina was 35 when she moved into the Richmond executive mansion), she was no “belle.” And, as novelist Thomas Nelson Page observed after the war, “the key” of antebellum southern social life was set to young women.
The White House of the Confederacy turns 200 this year, so what better time to take a look back at the design and architecture of the house? In two posts below, Museum historian John Coski shares research findings by Museum employees and graduate students from the 1990s, and architectural historian Edwin Slipek suggests a brand new theory.
Who Designed the “White House of the Confederacy”?
By John Coski
American Civil War Museum Historian
Famous houses have famous architects. Or if they don’t, they should.