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Opinion

Jefferson Davis’ ‘presidential’ library

Jefferson Davis’ ‘presidential’ library
The Sons of Confederate Veterans have co-opted the idea of a presidential library with a library located in Biloxi, Miss. named after the polarizing leader Jefferson Davis.
(Mathew Brady, The National Archives / Associated Press)

This spring will be remembered, by history junkies at least, for the opening of a major new institution, one named after a polarizing leader, devoted to a divisive period, subsidized by taxpayers and stationed in the South. I’m not talking about the presidential library of George W. Bush but the “presidential library” of Jefferson Davis, the one and only chief executive of the Confederate States of America, which will be dedicated Monday in Biloxi, Miss.

The Davis library, of course, is not one of the 13 official libraries overseen by the National Archives and Records Administration. After all, Jefferson Davis was not exactly an American president. But that hasn’t stopped the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an influential Southern heritage group, from co-opting the idea of a presidential library.

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For the Sons, the library is a chance to defend a man who’s been mocked since the end of the Civil War, when Northerners delighted in rumors that Davis was captured wearing women’s clothing. For the rest of us, it’s a reminder that history, and especially the sort of public history you’ll encounter this summer on vacation, is shaped and supported by powerful interests. Best to apply some skepticism with your sunscreen.

Last year, I visited Biloxi to learn about the Davis library, which shares a beachfront site with Beauvoir, the mansion Davis retreated to in 1877. “Our pine knot fires soar in the chimneys,” he wrote during his first winter there. “In their light I try to bury my unhappiness.”

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Richard Forte, the chairman of Beauvoir’s board and a longtime member of the Sons, served as a friendly guide. Forte (it’s pronounced fort, as in Ft. Sumter) explained how, after Davis’ death, a ritzy hotel offered his widow $90,000 for Beauvoir. Instead, she sold it to Sons’ Mississippi Division for a mere $10,000. Her one request was that the property become a home for Confederate veterans — and, as the new deed put it, a “perpetual memorial sacred to the memory of Jefferson Davis.”

That’s exactly what happened. Beauvoir was preserved as a gorgeous historic home and decorated with artifacts such as Davis’ shaving stand, his family heirlooms, even the decidedly masculine outfit he wore at his capture. In the 1990s, however, Beauvoir’s board decided to add a research library — or, at the suggestion of someone from the Museum of the Confederacy, a presidential library.

The board loved the idea, and Mississippi’s Legislature liked it too. The state gave Beauvoir $4.5 million, and when the library opened in 1998, more than 3,000 supporters attended the dedication, including the last known Confederate widow, and then-U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, who frequently had his family’s Christmas photo taken at Beauvoir. In a speech, Lott said: “Sometimes I feel closer to Jefferson Davis than any other man in America.”

Then, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit. Forte showed me a stack of photos that captured the devastation. Much of Beauvoir’s roof was sheared off. The library’s entire first floor was swept away. The old soldiers hospital, whose three-brick-thick walls had led the staff to joke about holding a sleepover there when the next big hurricane hit, had simply disappeared.

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Forte and the other Davis die-hards got right to work, patching Beauvoir’s roof with the banner from a local car dealership and cleaning the artifacts, a third of which had been lost, with diesel fuel. When it came time to rebuild, FEMA stepped in, contributing about $4 million to rehab Beauvoir and about $10 million to build a new library.

At 24,000 square feet, this library will offer an impressive rallying point for the “Lost Cause” — the myth of a gentle and just South dragged into the War of Northern Aggression.

Sometimes this mythologizing is useful. (Southern heritage groups have done a good job exploring the lives of regular Confederate soldiers.) Sometimes it’s harmless fun. (The library’s gift shop features a machine that turns Lincoln pennies into Davis pennies.)

But sometimes it’s neither. “There were black Confederate soldiers,” Forte told me several times. In fact, a few lived at Beauvoir — “two for sure” — and the old library hosted a symposium on the topic.

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The black Confederate soldier — and its concurrent image of the beloved slave master — is a favorite way for outfits like the Sons to prop up the Lost Cause. It’s also nonsense. Historians’ best estimates suggest that black soldiers made up less than 1% of the Confederate army (and fewer than 1% of military-age black males). When, at the start of the war, someone told Davis he might recruit black soldiers, he replied that the idea was “stark madness.”

And yet, today, the idea continues to circulate, and not just in places like the Davis library. In 2010, a new textbook for Virginia’s schools described “thousands of Southern blacks [who] fought in the Confederate ranks.” The textbook author had found this information on a Sons website, and it remained in the book until a parent who was also a history professor spotted the mistake.

As Forte showed me around the new library, with its foundation of reinforced 60-foot piers and its decorative flourishes (bronze seals from each Confederate state), he made it clear that, from his perspective, the South is still treated unfairly. “Let’s tell the side of the story that never gets told,” he said. Forte also made it clear that this mistreatment fits in a larger trend. “Every day in the papers, it’s, ‘Mississippi’s last in this’ or ‘last in that.’ How many pro-Southern movies has Hollywood made?”

The Davis library and its museum galleries hope to counter that. And yet the title of “presidential library” is as symbolically empty as the presence in the Confederate army of a few black soldiers. Davis’ personal papers do not reside in Biloxi. Instead, they’re scattered across several universities and, in a particularly painful twist for Southerners, the New York Public Library.

Regardless, Beauvoir remains worth a visit. The mansion’s tours focus less on the Lost Cause than on the facts of Davis’ impressive life — his service in the Mexican-American War and the U.S. Senate, both of which led his contemporaries to think he might someday be an American president.

But the Davis library deserves a visit as well. After all, in their public exhibits and programming, even the real presidential libraries relate a self-serving version of history. Let’s stick with George W. Bush’s library, where visitors can enter the Decision Points Theater, select a scenario from his presidency, watch video “briefings” from advisors and, ultimately, choose how they would handle the decision. Never mind the one-sided choreography that went into these presentations — at the end, the library adds in a recording of present-day Bush explaining why his decision was the right one.

That’s the method you’ll find in Ronald Reagan’s library in Simi Valley, in Bill Clinton’s in Little Rock, Ark., and in all the rest. But the best place to see it in action — and to see it exposed — is in Biloxi.

Craig Fehrman is working on a book on presidents and their books.


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