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The White House of the Confederacy: President Davis and General Lee in Richmond.


The White House of the Confederacy: President Davis and General Lee in Richmond.
by Mrs. Jefferson Davis.

In July [1862] we moved to the "old Brockenbrough house," and began to feel somewhat more at home when walking through the old-fashioned terraced garden or the large airy rooms in the seclusion of family life.

The mansion stands on the brow of a steep and very high hill, that is sharply defined against the plain at its foot through which runs the Danville Railway, that leads to the heart of Virginia. On this plain, where the working class lived exclusively, the "Butcher Cats" laid in wait for, and were sworn to eternal enmity against, the "Hill Cats." These high contending parties had an hereditary hate which had impelled them for nearly a hundred years to fight, whenever close enough, with either stones or fists to strike. They were the children of the poor against the gentlemen's sons.

The house is very large, but the rooms are comparatively few, as some of them are over forty feet square. The ceilings are high, the windows wide, and the well-staircases turn in easy curves toward the airy rooms above. The Carrara marble mantels were the delight of our children. One was a special favorite with them, on which the whole pilaster was covered by two lovely figures of Hebe and Diana, one on either side in bold relief, which, with commendable taste, were not car3'atides. The little boys, Jefferson and Joe, climbed up to the lips of these "pretty ladies" and showered kisses on them. The entablature was Apollo in his chariot, in basso relievo. Another was a charming conception of Cupid and Psyche, with Guido's Aurora for the entablature. A lady more in love with art than learned in pronouncing gazetteers, said, with pleasure shining through her eyes, "I do so love Cupid and Pish, sometimes I forget anyone is talking to me in gazing at them."

The tastes, and to some extent the occupations and habits, of a master of a house, if he, as in this case, assisted the architect in his design, are built in the brick and mortar, and like the maiden's blood in the great bell, they proclaim aloud sympathy or war with those whom it shelters. One felt here the pleasant sense of being in the house of a cultivated, liberal, fine gentleman, and that he had dwelt there in peaceful interchange of kind offices with his neighbors. The garden, planted in cherry, apple and pear trees, sloped in steep terraces down the hill to join the plain below. To this garden or pleasance came always in my mind's eye a lovely woman, seen only by the eye of faith, as she walked there in "maiden meditation." Every old Virginia gentleman of good social position who came to see us looked pensively out on the grounds and said, with a tone of tender regret, something like this: "This house was perfect when lovely Mary Brockenbrough used to walk there, singing among the flowers;" and then came a description of her light step, her dignified mien, her sweet voice, and the other graces which take hold of our hearts with a gentle touch and hold them with a grip of steel. At first it seemed odd, and we regretted our visitor's disappointment, but after a while Mary came to us, too, and remained the tutelar goddess of the garden. Her name became a household word. "Whether Mary would approve," was a question my husband playfully asked when he liked the arrangement of the drawing-rooms.

Mrs. James H. Grant lived in another fine old house next door to us, and with her we formed a lasting friendship, which was testified on her part by every neighborly attention that kind consideration could suggest. If Mr. Davis came riding up the street with General Lee and their staff officers clattering after them, Mrs. Grant heard them and sent some dainty which her housewifely care had prepared, or fruit from her farm on the outskirts of Richmond. If our children were ill she came full of hope and kind offices to cheer us by her good sense and womanly tenderness. The very sight of her handsome face brought comfort to our hearts. She fed the hungry, visited the sick, clothed the naked, showed mercy to the wicked, and her goodness, like the city set upon the hill, "could not be hid." Her brothers, the Crenshaws, had great flouring mills near Richmond, and made a noble use of their surplus in their unostentatious Quaker fashion. When flour became scarce and so high-priced as to prohibit the use of it to the poor, they dispensed it with great alacrity to all who were in need. There were numbers who received it gratuitously and daily in small quantities from the mills. When a great fire consumed everything about them the mills were untouched, and we, who believed in a special Providence, thought they were saved through the righteousness of their owners. On my first introduction to the ladies of Richmond I was impressed by the simplicity and sincerity of their manners, their beauty, and the absence of the gloze acquired by association in the merely "fashionable society." They felt the dignity attached to personally conducting their households in the best and most economical manner, cared little for fashionable small-talk, but were full of enthusiasm for their own people, and considered wisely and answered clearly any practical question which would tend to promote the good of their families or their country.

I was impressed by a certain offishness in their manner toward strangers; they seemed to feel that an inundation of people perhaps of doubtful standards, and, at best, of different methods, had poured over the city, and they reserved their judgment and confidence, while they proffered a large hospitality. It was the manner usually found in English society toward strangers, no matter how well introduced—a wary welcome. In the more southern and less thickly settled part of our country, we had frontier hospitality because it was a necessity of the case. In Virginia, where the distances were not so great, and the candidates for entertainment were more numerous, it was of necessity more restricted.

We were fortunate in finding several old friends in Richmond—the Harrisons, of "Brandon," and the handsome daughters of Mr. Thomas Ritchie, who had been for many years dear and valued friends. During our stay there we made other friends, who, if I never have the good fortune to meet them again, will remain to me a blessed memory. As I revert to the heroic, sincere. Christian women of that self-sacrificing community, it is impossible to specify those who excelled in all that makes a woman's children praise her in the gates and rise up and call her blessed; and this tribute is paid to them out of a heart full of tender reminiscences of the years we dwelt with them in mutual labor, sympathy, confidence and affection. They clothed and cared for their own households, sewed for the soldiers, made our battle flags, and sent their dearest and only bread-winners to give their lives for them. They fed the hungry, cared for the orphans, deprived themselves of every wonted luxury to give it to the soldiers, and were, amid their deprivations, so cheerful as to animate even the men with hope. When all was lost, they awaited their fate with as much silent courage as was evinced by the men. The exception was a woman who did not nurse at some hospital. I did not, because Mr. Davis felt it was best for me not to expose the men to the restraint my presence might have imposed; and, in lieu of nursing, I issued provisions which had been sent to me from the Governor of Virginia and other persons charitably inclined toward the families of soldiers.

Among those who labored in the hospitals, I recall now with great clearness Mrs. Lucy Webb, Miss Emily V. Mason, Mrs. Phoebe Pemberton, and, as well, Mrs. James Alfred Jones's beautiful young face, in a tobacco warehouse which had been converted into a hospital ward for desperately wounded men. She came forward with a bowl of water and a sponge with which she had been wetting
the stump of a suffering soldier's arm. The atmosphere was fetid with the festering wounds, and must have oppressed her greatly, for she was as fragile as she was beautiful; the tears brimmed over her lovely eyes as she exclaimed: "Oh, Mrs. Davis, there has been a case of pysemia here; can nothing be done?" We took counsel together for a moment, and then I went to my husband, who had the wounded men camped out, and fortunately only one died.

Here I saw a remarkable instance of the position our private soldiers occupied at home. Some money had been sent to me from Vicksburg to relieve the "boys from Warren County." Hearing that there were several at this hospital, I walked from one end to the other and tried in vain to find a man who desired pecuniary aid. One fair-haired boy, with emaciated face and armless sleeve, looked up and whispered:" There is a poor fellow on the other side who I think will take a little, I am afraid he has no money; my father gives me all I want." I crossed the room and asked the sufferer, who had neither hand, if I could not get him something he craved. He flushed and said: "I thank you, madame, for your visit, but I do better than that poor fellow over there ; he has lost his leg and suffers dreadfully." And so on to the end of the ward.

Mr. James Lyons and his handsome wife dispensed a large and graceful hospitality at "Laburnum," their country home in the suburbs, and a finer example of a high-bred Virginia household could not have been found. The Haxalls, MacFarlands, Aliens, Archers, Andersons, Stewarts, Warwicks, Stanards and others well and admirably remembered, kept pace with them, and bravely they bore aloft the old standard of Virginian hospitality.

Toward the end of the war, my husband's health was very precarious, and he was too weak to ride to headquarters. General Lee came up from camp one day, evidently worn out and worried, to find Mr. Davis lying quite ill on a divan, in a little morning room in which we received only our intimate friends. General Lee, with a bow and excuse for coming in on the white carpet with his splashed boots, sat down and plunged at once into army matters; the outlook was not encouraging, and the two friends talked in a circle until both were worn out. There was a little silver saucepan on the hearth, and the general stopped abruptly and said: "That is a comfortable and pretty little thing; what do you use it for?" And then what a delight it gave me to heat steaming hot the cafe an lait it contained and hand it to him in a little Sevres cup. When I attempted to ring for a servant to bring luncheon, he said: "This drink is exquisite, but I cannot eat; do not call a servant, it is very cosy just so." Then looking at the cup he remarked, with a twinkle in his eye, "My cups in camp are thicker, but this is thinner than the coffee." Behind the playful speech I saw the intense realization he had of the coarse ways and uncomfortable concomitants of a camp, and that he missed as keenly the refinements of life to which he had been accustomed after four years as he did at first.

In the last part of the war no one had delicacies; invitations very common among intimate friends were, "Do come to dinner or tea; we succeeded in running the blockade this week." This meant coffee after dinner, preserved fruits, loaf sugar, good tea, or sometimes that which was always very acceptable to Mr. Benjamin's palate, anchovy paste. He used to say, with bread made of Crenshaw's flour spread with the paste, English walnuts from an immense tree in the grounds, and a glass of the McHenry sherry, of which we had a small store, "a man's patriotism became rampant." Once, when he was invited to partake of a beefsteak pie, of which, he was very fond, he wrote: "I have never eaten them in perfection except in the Cunard steamers (my cook had been chef on one), and I shall enjoy the scream of the seabirds, the lashing of the sea, and see ' the blue above and the blue below,' while I eat it; so you may expect me."

The close relations that fellowship in danger brings about are sweet memories, and are harder to relinquish than those of courtly ceremony or triumph. Our women knitted like Penelope, from daylight until dawn. They did it, however, not as a subterfuge, but to clothe their families and the soldiers—socks, gloves, mufflers, underclothing, every thing that could be worn of this fabric was made and admirably shaped.

Mr. W. C. Rives was an exceedingly neat, well-dressed man always, and the careful attention he gave to his attire made him appear much younger than his long and distinguished service proved him to be. He came by invitation to our house one morning to breakfast, wearing such a beautifully fitted suit of gray clothes, with gaiters of the same, and they became him so well, that some of the young men remarked upon it and suggested that Mr. Rives must have "run the blockade;" he overheard them and whispered to me, "Look at me; my wife knitted every stitch of these clothes herself, and had the yarn spun and dyed first. She even knitted covering for the buttons." It required very close inspection by young eyes to see that they were knitted, and the dainty soigne old gentleman looked his best in them.

Mrs. Robert E. Lee and her daughters, all honor to them, furnished one hundred and ninety-six pairs of socks and gloves to Posey's brigade, and this when Mrs. Lee was confined to her chair, a hopeless victim of rheumatism, and her daughters' time was consumed by nursing in the hospitals.

Mrs. Mary Arnold, wife of W. T. Arnold, of Coweta, Ga., made in the year 1863 one thousand and twenty-eight yards of cloth, besides knitting gratis, socks and gloves for the soldiers.

The ladies made themselves natty little gloves, embroidered beautifully. Mrs. Pemberton sent an admirable pattern, which, with increase or decrease, served our whole family. They covered their  worn-out shoes with pieces of silk and satin, drawn from old boxes long unused; old scraps of silk were cut in strips, picked to pieces, carded and spun into fine yarn, and silk stockings knitted from it. The most beautiful hats were plaited from palmetto, dried and bleached, as well as from straw. The feathers from domestic fowls were so treated that they were very decorative to their bonnets, and if one sometimes regretted that millinery should be a matter of private judgment, still, in their pretty homespun dresses they would have passed favorably in review with any ladies.

All their accomplishments were pressed into the service of the soldiers. I remember going to one of the hospitals, to carry delicacies to the sick. Miss Emily V. Mason sat by one bed reading the prayers of the church to a man in extremis while her gentle sister, Mrs. Rowland, sat in an another ward singing old-fashioned songs to her guitar as the dying boy would call for them, her eyes full of unshed tears and her voice of melody. She was going blind and could not work, so she gave what she could.

We had no artificial appliances at the beginning of the war to supplement the loss of any member of the body. There had been, happily, little need for such aids before the war, and these few had been  bought at the North; but very soon the most perfect artificial limbs were made in Charleston, as good, one maimed general told me, as those to be had anywhere.

It is a proud memory that the people of our country rose in their might, and met every emergency with industry, ingenuity, self-sacrifice and reckless daring, worthy of their noble cause.

R. A. Brock, Gen. Robert Edward Lee Soldier, Citizen, and Christian Patriot (Richmond: B. F. Johnson Publishing Company, 1897), 207-215.

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