After a long day of strolling around Thomas Jefferson’s house on top of the hill, my friends, Monteon, Tina and I decided that it was time to head back to the eastern coast. As we drove along I-64, the freeway which connects Charlottesville to Norfolk, we passed through Richmond. Since we still had some time left, we decided to do a quick stop.
We decided to visit “The White House of the Confederacy and Museum.” It is located at a very unusual spot. We first imagined it to be a grand antebellum house with its stately columns adoring the facade, with more than an acre of a garden. But to our little bit of disappointment, it was surrounded by high rise buildings, particularly the growing hospital complex of the VCU and its adjacent buildings. We found the museum around the left side of the lot but I will provide more details about it later. Now, here is a brief history of the Forgotten White House:
The house was originally owned by Dr. John Brockenbrough, with the architectural designed by Robert Mills (same architect of the Washington Memorial). It is a beautiful interpretation of Federal and Neoclassical design. It was sold in 1844 and passed through several families, including Congressman James Seddon and Lewis Dabney Crenshaw who added the third floor. Before the Civil War, Mr. Crenshaw sold the house to the city who later rented it to the Confederate government.
After moving out from the first Confederate White House in Montgomery, Alabama the First family moved to the Confederate capital of Richmond. Jefferson Davis with his wife Varina, children Margaret (6), Jefferson Jr. (4) and Joseph (2) moved in August 1861. William and Varina Anne were both born in the same house.
During his term, the 2nd floor was used as his main office. Unfortunately, the house brought some events such as the death of Joseph who died after a 15-foot fall from the railing on the east portico. Another was during the end of the Civil War when the family finally evacuated the house on 2nd of April 1865 and retreated southwards.
Within 12 hours, the Union captured the Confederate White House and President Abraham Lincoln who was in the nearby city of Hopewell when he was visiting the house himself. The president refused to go up the second floor for he believed it wouldn’t be proper to intrude someone’s private home. Admiral David Dixon Porter was with the president during the visit and a couple of meetings were held at the Confederate White House.
During the Reconstruction, the White House became the headquarters of the Military District Number One of Virginia and when it ended, the city of Richmond took over the house and used it as the Richmond Central School, becoming one of the first public schools in postwar Richmond.
In 1890, the city made plans to demolish the house to make a modern school building so the Confederate Memorial Literary Society was formed with the main purpose of saving the Confederate White House from destruction. Looking at the exterior of the house, we headed to the side where another building is located.
Museum of the Confederacy
Adjacent to the White House is the Museum dedicated to the Confederacy. Even as of today, after more than 150 years after the Civil War, the issue about the Confederate and slaves is still a delicate one. At first, my friends were hesitant to go inside the building but I managed to convince them. Inside is the cashier and the gift shop. Its free for people who are in the military.
On the first floor, visitors can see where it all started–from the different views of the North and South to the election of Pres. Lincoln which the South believed have endangered their interests. The issue of slavery and the return of fugitive slaves led to serious tensions between South and North since the Mexican War. The growing opposite of opinions and thoughts ultimately led up to the South seceding the Union. A collection of personal memorabilia from Southern families.
Another is a replica of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s tent, pictures of Southern generals, and a clothing wore by the Confederate Pres. Davis when he was captured.
“The Confederate cabinet evacuate Richmond late on the night of April 2 and established a new temporary capital in Danville, Virginia. Lee’s surrender compelled the government to move to Greensboro, sheltered there by the presence of Johnston’s army. After Johnston’s surrender, the Confederacy became a government o the run – to Charlotte, North Carolina, Abbeville, South Carolina, and Washington, Georgia. It was at Washington that a few remaining cabinet members met with Davis for the last time, then essentially disbanded or “went to pieces,” as young Confederate soldier observed in his diary.
Guarded by a small force drawn from several cavalry units, Davis headed toward the Gulf coast, hoping to escape the country and create a government in exile. Fifty miles shy of the Florida border, the Federal military dragnet finally closed on the presidential party. Davis was captured. Two cabinet officers, Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge and Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin escaped overseas.“
Another thing that is worthy to mention is located on the third floor. This floor is mostly dedicated to the changing flags of the Confederacy and it has a huge collection of Southern battle flags during the Battle of Gettysburg. According to the description on the exhibit,
“Perhaps no event of the American Civil War has been romanticized and written about more than the last great charge by General Longstreet’s men on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. This exhibit tells the story of the dramatic event, historically referred to as “Pickett’s Charge,” primarily through the display of the battle flags carried by the units of Major General George Pickett’s Virginia Division. One eyewtiness recalled the “war flags fluttering in the gentle summer breeze,” as they marked the progress of the advancing Confederate soldiers across the one-mile no-man’s land separating the two armies. When the charge was broken, Union soldiers gathered in “sheaves of battle flags” – testimony to the high cost of the charge. Thirteen of the fifteen battle flags carried by regiments in Pickett’s division were captured in the charge. All but two of the thirteen were given to the Museum of the Confederacy in 1905 when, by resolution of Congress, the United State War Department returned the captured Confederate flags to the southern states.“
After looking at the flags and other memoribilia such as comics, a replica of a Confederate ship and other more flags and uniforms, I headed down to the basement. Upon descending, the first thing that caught my eye was the giant painting of Gen. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
“THE LAST MEETING OF LEE AND JACKSON
Everett B.D. Julio (1843-1879) oil on canvas, 1869
Originally titled “The Heroes of Chancellorsville,” E.B.D. Julio’s monumental painting depicts a moment which many southerners believed was the real “high water mark” of the Confederacy. After parting with his commander, Gen. Robert E. Lee, before dawn on May 2,1863, Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall: Jackson led his troops on a daring march and devastating surprise attack against a numerically superior enemy at Chancellorsville. At the end of the day of his most stunning victory, Jackson was mortally wounded by his own troops.
Hoping to become the “historian-painter of the South,: Julio recognized the symbolic importance of Lee, Jackson, and their last meeting. This picture proved to be, however, the first and last of his heroic Confederate paintings. Julio died in 1879 in debt, his painting still unsold. Col. John B. Richardson, of the Washington Artillery of New Orleans, finally bought it from Julio’s estate.”
After looking around at the basement where there were more collections of Southern clothes and accessories ranging from mourning clothes to spoons and cups, I headed upstairs to look for my two companions. After finding Monteon and Tina, we went to the cashier to learn that we had missed the last tour of the White House. Therefore, we just bought some souvenirs and headed to the grounds of the White House. We walked around the backyard or what was left of it, peeking into the windows.
After that, we took some photos with the remains of different ships from the Civil War. When we were leaving the premises of the Museum and the White House, I turned around to get one last look of the Forgotten White House of the Confederate.