Living

Beauvoir's story began with a sawmill

Beauvoir is best known as the oak-laden, Gulf-fronted estate where Jefferson Davis spent his final years, but when Beauvoir House was built in 1852, Davis was out of the picture.

He was 46 years old and had resigned as a U.S. senator and was soon to be the U.S. secretary of war. He'd served in both the Mississippi and U.S. House of Representatives and was a Mexican War hero and graduate of West Point.

The Beauvoir story begins in 1848 when a Madison County planter bought the land for $3,000. That planter, James Brown, built a sawmill on the 87 acres and used mostly native wood in the construction. Brown is also thought to have been his own architect, as gentleman planters often were, with Thomas Jefferson as one of the best known.

In addition to the main house, Brown also constructed two cottages, one used as his office and children's classroom, the other for guests and circuit rider Methodist ministers. Poor coastal soil precluded using Beauvoir as a producing plantation, so it joined a row of other beautiful beachfront retreats owned by the wealthy of Mississippi and Louisiana.

After Brown's death in 1873, the estate was sold to Sarah Ann Dorsey of a prominent Louisiana family. She named it Beauvoir, or "Beautiful View."

Recognized for her intellect, Dorsey was a novelist and rare female member of the New Orleans Science Academy. She was a childhood friend to Davis' wife, Varina, who'd also purchased undeveloped Coast land. In 1875, while checking on the status of their property, Davis dropped by Beauvoir.

Dorsey was out of town, but Davis noted Beauvoir as "a fine place." A year later he was back on the Coast, contemplating building a cottage to write the memoirs of his Confederate presidency. This time Dorsey was home and offered the use of one of her cottages.

In 1879, she sold Beauvoir to Davis for $5,500. He made the first of three payments before Dorsey's death, and although she left him Beauvoir in her will, he made the other two payments to liquidate Dorsey's estate debts.

The Davises lived there until his death in 1889, and whether or not he wanted it, Beauvoir became a symbolic Confederate White House as old and young, Northerners and Southerners, knocked on the door.

Davis left Beauvoir to his youngest daughter, Winnie, following the succession suggested in the Dorsey will. But Winnie died before her mother, who then inherited Beauvoir. Both Davis women had refused $90,000 offers from land developers and in 1903 Varina Davis sold Beauvoir for $10,000 (about $234,000 today) to the Mississippi Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans. Her stipulations were that the house be a shrine to her husband and that the grounds be a Confederate veterans home and soldiers' memorial.

From 1903 to 1957, barracks and a hospital served the veterans and their wives, with the state of Mississippi taking over operation until the last two widows left in 1957. More than 1,800 "inmates" lived there and some died there, with more than 760 headstones at the Beauvoir cemetery.

The Tomb to the Unknown Confederate soldier is also there. The body was discovered on Vicksburg Campaign land by Rick Forte Sr., a Hattiesburg military antiques specialist who would later become chairman of the boards that oversee Beauvoir.

Mississippi SCV, which still owns the now 51-acre property, opened the house to public tours and the Old Soldiers Hospital became a museum.


The chapters of Beauvoir

Yesterday: 1852 Beauvoir House, Library Cottage, Hayes Cottage, Varina Howell Davis Rose Garden; wooden rain cistern; Old Soldiers Hospital built in 1920s used as museum and gift shop in modern times; replica barracks of how the Confederate veterans lived; Jefferson Davis Presidential Library built in 1997.

Today: Katrina destroyed all but Beauvoir House and presidential library. The house is restored; library will be replaced.

Tomorrow: Library Cottage and Hayes Davis Cottage replicas are under construction; wooden cistern to be rebuilt; Presidential Library to be rebuilt in about 2010 to consolidate gift shop, museum, research center; rose garden restored; all out buildings at the time of Davis to be replicated, including kitchen, stable, maids quarters, carpenter shop, carriage house and barns.

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