A Southern Legacy: The Confederate Executive Mansion

Situated on a hill overlooking Shockoe Valley in Richmond’s historic Court End neighborhood, the White House of the Confederacy is one of the nation’s finest historic, architectural and decorative treasures. The official residence of the first and only President of the Confederate States of America Jefferson Davis and his family during the Civil War, the building has earned a unique stature in American history as the social, political and military center of the Confederacy.

Little is mentioned about the stately home in the voluminous literature of the Civil War. In its years as the executive mansion, it functioned much like its northern counterpart, as a hub of social activity and strategic decision-making. And, like some of its more prestigious counterparts in the north as well, a battle was waged to maintain its existence as a historic site long after its principal function was past. Now a National Historic Landmark, this Southern treasure is a premier artifact in the most comprehensive collection of Confederate artifacts anywhere in the nation. Download a chronology of the White House of the Confederacy.

Long before earning the designation of White House, the home was known for decades as the Brockenbrough house, after John Brockenbrough, president of the Bank of Virginia who commissioned the building of the large residence. The house built on two adjoining lots on the southeast corner of 12th and K (later Clay) street overlooking the Shockoe Valley is typically attributed to Robert Mills, a prominent American neo-classical architect and acquaintance of John Brockenbrough’s. The home, typical of Richmond’s finer early nineteenth century dwellings, was two-stories tall with a slate flat roof. The principal floor featured a parlor, drawing room and dining room, while the bedrooms were upstairs. A kitchen and servants’ residence were located in an adjoining outbuilding. A garden was built on the remaining land, with terraces down the hillside to the east.

Brockenbrough made changes to the house a few years after its completion, remodeling the front door and entrance hall, enhancing the wood trim especially on the first floor, and replacing the rectangular staircase with a graceful circular one. Brockenbrough and his wife lived in the showcase home in Richmond’s elite Court End neighborhood until 1844. The home changed hands several times in the prewar period, each owner making additional improvements, putting their personal mark on the estate, including adding a carriage house and stable. When wealthy Richmond flour manufacturer Lewis Crenshaw purchased the home in 1857, he added the third floor and undertook a major refurbishing and redecorating of the residence. But, Crenshaw and his family enjoyed the fruits of their labor for only a brief period.

In the spring of 1861, Virginia seceded from the Union and Richmond was declared the new capital of the newly-formed Confederate States of America. That May, arriving from the original Confederate capital in Montgomery, Alabama, President Jefferson Davis and his family arrived in Richmond to great fanfare the “honor due to a new Washington.” They were ensconced at the Spotswood Hotel on Main Street while the city acquired appropriate accommodations. Soon after, at Crenshaw’s invitation, the City of Richmond purchased his house and its contents, and then leased it to the Confederate government to serve as the new nation’s executive mansion.

White House entrance hallThe Civil War had already been underway for four months, before the Davises and their three young children settled into their new home in August of 1861. The President, faced with the threat of invasion of his new capital and frequent bouts of debilitating illness, took rooms on the second floor as his office and that of his secretary, Burton Harrison. The Davis family’s private quarters were on the second floor. The third story provided rooms for Harrison, military aides, the housekeeper and family guests. The first floor was reserved for formal state affairs, with the exception of a small, private library. The basement of the home housed a family dining room, warming kitchen, butler’s pantry, coal and wine storage and possibly sleeping space for slaves and servants. Outbuildings used by the first family, included slave quarters, a two-story brick kitchen, large stable and carriage house, and a gardener’s cottage.

While Davis tried to spend his days at his executive office in the Treasury Building on Main Street, his stern devotion to work and unpredictable health, forced him to conduct much of his military and state business in his private office in the executive mansion. Military advisors, members of his cabinet, other political aides and petitioners were often met in the White House. Despite the stress and business of war and state going on so close about them, the Davises maintained a warm family life. Their first child, Samuel Emory died before their arrival in Richmond. Margaret, Jefferson, Jr., and Joseph Evan moved into the large nursery and were eventually joined by William and Varina Anne, who were born in the Confederate White House. Visitors to the home were likely to hear ringing laughter and screams of bedlam from the playing children, who were infamous for having unbridled spirits and unbroken wills. Tragically, Davis lost his young son, Joseph “his hope and greatest joy in life” when the five-year old fell from the east portico on April 30, 1864 and died within an hour. In the decades after the war, three more Davis children succumbed to disease. Ultimately, only one daughter, Margaret, survived her parents and had children of her own.

When Richmond’s fall to Federal troops was imminent in the spring of 1865, Davis and his family evacuated the city, leaving behind the fully furnished house and ending its term as an executive mansion. Davis would never set foot again in the Confederate White House, although his wife returned several times later to provide valuable insight as the home became the Confederate Museum (later The Museum of the Confederacy). On April 4, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln came to Richmond to inspect the former Confederate capital and the Davis residence, which had become the headquarters for the occupying army. This heralded the beginning of a Federal military occupation of both the house and the City of Richmond that lasted five years. Souvenir hunters removed many items, while the more substantial furnishings were sold a public auction in the fall of 1870 after the residence and its contents were ceded back to the City of Richmond. The City used the elegant home as part of a new public schools system. Over six hundred students attended school every year in the mansion and its outbuildings. In 1889, threatened with destruction, the home was saved and ultimately became a museum dedicated to preserving the history of the Confederate nation.

To learn more about the history of this National Landmark, click here to read about the beginnings of the Museum of the Confederacy.