A Brief History of Beauvoir
By Jane K. Sullivan
The land included in the Beauvoir property in 2019 was initially a part of a government tract patented by John Black on September 25, 1832. Black purchased Lot 1, Section 34, Township 7, Range 10, which consisted of 85.06 acres. In 1832, John Henderson of Pass Christian purchased John Black’s held together with an adjacent 81-acre tract.
Madison County planter James Brown bought Henderson’s Gulf-front acreage on September 2, 1848, and began planning the construction of a summer home. Acting as his own architect and construction superintendent, Brown brought his staff and slaves from his Madison County plantation to perform the routine work. He hired craftsmen from Biloxi and New Orleans for skilled jobs. The house was built from area cypress and longleaf heart pine processed in a sawmill that he owned in nearby Handsboro. Brown imported slate for the roof from Wales. He imported marble for the fireplaces and the etched glass for the front and back doors from Italy. The house, containing nine rooms and a long reception hall, was built upon sixty-two eight-foot-tall brick piers. Brown elevated the house so that sea breezes could pass under, around, and through it thus keeping it cool. In doing so, he inadvertently saved the house from storm surges that he did not foresee. Brown completed the house by 1852. He called the property “Orange Grove” because of the groves of Satsuma oranges located on the property.
Brown also constructed two small cottages, originally identical in plan, one east and one west of the house. The cottage to the east became known as the Library Cottage. The cottage to the west became known as the Hayes Cottage.Though Brown was indeed a planter, Beauvoir was never a plantation due to infertile soil. Like so many other homes built along the Mississippi Gulf Coast during the late antebellum period, Beauvoir served as a vacation retreat. Throughout Brown’s ownership of the property, he continued to operate his Madison County plantation, which was his primary residence.
James Brown died in 1866. In May 1873, the Brown property on the Coast was sold by order of the United States Court for the Southern District of Mississippi for taxes and to settle his estate. Land speculator Frank Johnston of Jackson purchased the property. However, Johnston never lived in the house and within three months sold it to Sarah Ann (Ellis) Dorsey. Dorsey, the daughter of a wealthy planer, grew up in Natchez. She was a childhood friend of Varina Howell, second wife of Jefferson Davis. Dorsey had known Jefferson Davis most of her life and often visited in the home of his elder brother, Joseph, at Hurricane Plantation on the Mississippi River south of Vicksburg.
Sarah Ann married Samuel Worthington Dorsey, a native of Maryland, who owned plantations in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Sarah Dorsey purchased 608.8 acres, including James Brown’s house, on July 7, 1873, from Frank Johnston. After the death of her husband, she took up residence in the house. Soon thereafter she gave the house the name “Beauvoir,” signifying its “beautiful view.”
Jefferson Davis came to the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1877 looking for a place to write his memoirs. He visited his family friend, Sarah Dorsey, at Beauvoir. When Dorsey discovered that Davis was seeking a place to write, she showed him her east cottage, which consisted of one room with a pillared gallery surrounding it. She told him that the rear of the gallery could be enclosed and become a bedroom and a dressing room, while the central room could be lined with bookshelves and used as his office. She encouraged him to stay. Davis agreed to rent the (Library) cottage for $50.00 per month (room and board) and did so for two years until he purchased all her Beauvoir property on February 19, 1879.
[Insert from “Beauvoir: A Walk Through History” by James West Thompson (c) 1988, page 8.
In February 1879, Sarah Dorsey offered to sell Beauvoir to Jefferson Davis, and on February 19, the title was passed to Davis for $5,500, to be paid in three installments, the first of which was paid immediately. Dorsey then moved to New Orleans.
Following General Early’s visit, and well before the sale of Beauvoir to Davis, Sarah Dorsey made her will on January 4, 1878, leaving her estate to Jefferson Davis. It is noteworthy that after her death, Davis paid the two remaining installments due on Beauvoir in order to liquidate debts owed by Dorsey’s estate. Consequently, Davis did buy Beauvoir, and he paid for it in full.
Apparently, Sarah Dorsey had known for some time that she had cancer, which seems to have prompted her will and the sale of Beauvoir to Davis. By June of 1879, her doctors knew that she would not live much longer, and she died in the early morning of July 4, 1879. In a letter to Major Walthall dated the same day, Davis expressed his sadness in losing such a devoted and exceptional friend:
“You know more than most others how self-sacrificing she was, how noble in sentiment, how grand in intellect, but you cannot know how deeply grateful I am to her for years of unvarying kindness and service and therefore cannot realize how sorrowfully I feel her loss.”
Jefferson Davis and other prominent Southerners accompanied her body to Natchez for burial beside her husband. In her will, Sarah Dorsey stated:
“I owe no obligation of any sort whatever to any relative of my own. I have done all I could for them… I, therefore, give bequeath all my property, real, personal, and mixed, wherever located and situated, wholly and entirely, without hindrance or qualification, to my most honored and esteemed friend, Jefferson Davis, ex-president of the Confederate States, for his sole use and benefit, in fee simple forever; and I hereby constitute him my sole heir, executive, and administrator. If Jefferson Davis should not survive me, I give all that I have bequeathed to him to his youngest daughter, Varina. I do not intend to share in the ingratitude of my country towards the man, who is in my eyes, the highest and noblest in existence.”]
In his dozen years at Beauvoir, Davis wrote his monumental two-volume memoir title The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, and he archived greatness as the symbol of the South. The pages of history reveal no other instance in which a vanquished people so idolized the leader of a cause that failed. Because of his presence, together with that of his wife (Varina) and daughter (Winnie), Beauvoir became the Mount Vernon of the Confederacy. The 81-year-old Davis died in New Orleans of complications stemming from bronchitis on December 6, 1889, while en route back to Beauvoir after a visit to his plantation near Vicksburg. Following the South’s largest funeral, he was interred in the vault of the Army of Northern Virginia in Metairie Cemetery. (His body was later re-interred in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.)
In 1892 Varina and Winnie Davis moved to New York City, leaving Beauvoir in the hands of a caretaker. A violent hurricane swept the Coast on October 1-2, 1893, felling trees all over the Beauvoir property. One of these crashed through the roof and rain poured in on frescos and family portraits and furniture. Mary Southworth Kimbrough, a good friend of the Davis’ who had a summer home in the area, came to the rescue. Over the next decade this “Guardian Angel of Beauvoir” worked tirelessly to save the house from the elements and neglect.
At last in 1903, in a sale engineered by Mrs. Kimbrough, Varina sold the Beauvoir property to the United Confederate Veterans. Two conditions of the sale were (1) that the property is used as a home for Confederate veterans, their wives or widows, and their servants; and (2) that the property be a memorial to Jefferson Davis in perpetuity.
The property was used as a Confederate home from 1903 until 1957. During that period, more than 2,000 veterans, wives, widows, and servants resided as inmates of the home and 771 of these inmates are buried in the Beauvoir cemetery.
On June 3, 1941, the 133rd anniversary of the birth of Jefferson Davis, the house was opened to the public as a shrine to the Confederate President with a Confederate Soldiers Museum underneath. Beauvoir’s role as a Confederate home ended February 19, 1957, when the last three widows were transferred to the Golden Age Nursing Home in Greenwood. On June 3, 1957, the soldier’s home-era brick hospital east of Beauvoir house opened as the Confederate Soldiers Museum, and the area beneath the house then became the Davis Family Museum.
Camille struck on August 17, 1969. The 20-foot storm surge (which was eight feet higher than the ground level of Beauvoir) ripped the front and back stairs off of Beauvoir house, gutted the Davis family museum, and flooded the Brick Hospital Confederate Soldiers Museum. The surge heavily damaged the Library Cottage and the Hayes Cottage, destroyed the manager’s house, destroyed the last Confederate veterans’ barracks, and toppled many stones in Beauvoir Cemetery. Total damage was estimated at $700,000. The shrine reopened in January 1970.
On April 19, 1980, the remains of a young soldier discovered on “some scarred slope of battered hill” was interred as the Unknown Soldier of the Confederacy in Beauvoir Cemetery. On May 30, 1998, the two-story, $4 million Jefferson Davis Presidential Library and Museum were dedicated and opened.
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated Beauvoir. The 24-foot storm surge (which was 12 feet higher than the ground level of Beauvoir) not only ripped off the steps of Beauvoir house but also the front and side porches. The back porch collapsed as thirty –one of sixty-two brick piers fell. Waves in excess of a foot entered the house, causing the furniture to float and strike against the walls. Paintings and artifacts fell into the swirling waters. The battering waves annihilated the Library Cottage, the Hayes Cottage, the Brick Hospital Confederate Soldiers Museum, the director’s house, and the replica veterans’ barracks built on the site of the original that had been destroyed by Camille.
The President Casino barrage broke from its mooring in the Broadwater Hotel Marina and passed 150 feet in front of Beauvoir house, striking and shattering the 15-foot tall white marble post and lintel Memorial Gateway dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1920. The waves took out the first floor of the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library and Museum, leaving only the first-floor steel girders holding up the second floor. The only historic items to escape destruction or damage were those on that second floor. As in Camille, the stones in the Beauvoir Cemetery were knocked down and covered by debris. Damage estimates to the Beauvoir property exceeded $25 million in renovation and reconstruction cost. The loss of forty percent of the artifacts and the damage to the artifacts that were recovered are incalculable.
The Combined Boards of Beauvoir adopted a new master plan centering around Beauvoir house, which through renovation and replication, sought to return the site to an interpretation of the period of Davis family occupancy. Beauvoir House re-opened on June 3, 2008, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Jefferson Davis. The reconstructed Memorial Gateway replicated in front of the Beauvoir Cemetery was dedicated April 30, 2011, in special Confederate Memorial Day ceremonies. The new Jefferson Davis Presidential Library, (JDPL) located just west of the old one, received its cornerstone on June 3, 2011, and was dedicated March 16, 2013.