House 200 White House of the Confederacy

House 200 | Jefferson Davis’ Staff

By Waite Rawls, Foundation President 

Like any other Chief Executive and Commander in Chief, Jefferson Davis was surrounded by many people who gave him advice. He listened to some and heeded their advice. He ignored others.

Thirteen men, including one native New Yorker, served on Davis’ staff and were perhaps closer to him than any others. Some were family relations; others were known by Davis before the war; and some were new to him. Taken together, they represented eight of the thirteen states of the Confederacy. All but one of them held military rank, usually as a cavalry colonel for the simple reason that they were more highly compensated than infantry colonels. Two of them, Burton Harrison and “Preston” Johnston, lived on the third floor of the White House of the Confederacy. Several others lived across the street and were constantly in and out of the house.  Some kept diaries or accounts which have been very important to our current understanding of Davis’ inner circle. Two of them had wives, Constance Cary Harrison and Mary Boykin Chesnut, who also left us with wonderful writings that captured the social environment of Richmond and the Davis family. Some had great influence on his military thinking; others were more politically valuable.

Robert Josselyn, Davis’ early personal secretary, Burton Harrison, his secretary for the remainder of the war, and Mike Clark, his secretary at his official office in the former U.S. Customs House carried out various duties and responsibilities. Robert E. Lee was a close military advisor early in the war, and Braxton Bragg served in a similar job description but not with similar effectiveness, later in the war.

Robert E. Lee’s eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, and Albert Sidney Johnston’s son, William Preston Johnston, were also important members of the group. Two were Davis’ nephews who gave military assistance—Joseph Davis, the son of Davis’ older brother, and John Taylor Wood, the son of the sister of Davis’ first wife. Three were important for their political influence and helped to keep the Confederacy together—James Chesnut of South Carolina, William M.  Browne of Georgia, and Francis R. Lubbock of Texas. And Davis’ lone Yankee, New Yorker Joseph Ives, seems to have been the best at keeping peace among this coterie of assistants and advisors.

Jefferson Davis used those men not as mere clerks and messengers, but as sounding boards and quasi-official emissaries. They were his eyes and ears, and he often dispatching them on inspection tours to distant corners of the Confederacy where he could not travel himself.