Jefferson Davis’ life will be interpreted and celebrated
when his presidential library opens in Biloxi, Miss.
By Don Redman
When Bertram Hayes-Davis accepted his first invitation to attend the Cherry Blossom Festival in Marshfield, Mo., with other descendents of American presidents, he was initially greeted with skepticism and whispers: “What is he doing here?”
Above: Bertram Hayes-Davis and his wife, Carol, work to share the story of Jefferson Davis’ American legacy, which reaches far beyond his role as president of the Confederacy. Don Redman photo
In Title: Work at the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library at Beauvoir in Biloxi, Miss., progresses for an early 2013 opening. Godwin Group photo
Below: Re-enactors prepare for battle at Brices Cross Roads, which today is a national battlefield site in Mississippi. History books only mention Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy, but he also graduated from West Point, fought in the Mexican–American War, served as the United States secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce, and represented the people of Mississippi in the U.S. Senate. MDA Tourism photo
The descendants of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Cleveland, Ford, and others have attended the springtime festival to interact with other legacies and to share their stories. But Bertram Hayes-Davis’ presidential lineage raised more than a few eyebrows. True, he is indeed a direct descendant of an American president, but probably not many people initially think of him in that way. Bertram Hayes-Davis is a direct descendant of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America.
Undaunted, Hayes-Davis used the occasion to discuss in detail the “other” American president.
“This was an opportunity for me to educate those who attended about the true history of Jefferson Davis,” he said. “As they learned the history and the impact of the man, they rapidly started to accept that not only is Jefferson Davis an important figure, but his contributions to America were significant.”
That’s the message Hayes-Davis continues today as the newly appointed executive director of Beauvoir: The Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library in Biloxi, Miss. It’s a role he was literally born for.
“My first memories (of Beauvoir) are as a young child seven or eight and walking through the basement of the mansion where the Davis museum was kept until the first library was opened,” Hayes-Davis said.
The great-great-grandson of Jefferson Davis, Hayes-Davis has always been aware of his family’s legacy, even while growing up in Colorado. Paintings of Jefferson Davis adorned the walls throughout the house. Hudson Strode, who was writing what would become a three-volume biography of the Confederacy’s president, visited the family each summer during the early 1950s.
The story behind the hyphenated last name stems from the elaborate funeral of Jefferson Davis in 1889 in New Orleans. Davis’ widow, Varina, was cloistered inside a hotel room with her daughter, Margaret Hayes, and her family. Varina reportedly looked out the window and pointed to where Jefferson Davis was lying in state and sighed, “There lies the last Davis. I wish we could do something about that.”
In that room, the idea was proposed and Jefferson Davis’ 6-year-old grandson, Jefferson Addison Hayes, was asked to change his name. They traveled to Jackson, Miss., and by an act of the legislature, they changed his last name to Hayes-Davis.
Telling a story history books missed
The shift from being simply aware of family history to becoming the gatekeeper of the Jefferson Davis legacy began in earnest in 1976 when Hayes-Davis was elected president of the Davis Family Association.
“This position was a gift to me and an honor that the family entrusted to me,” he said. “As the family representative, I believed that I needed to be as knowledgeable as possible. This led me to start the journey that has led me to this position.
“Over the last 30 years, I have had the opportunity to travel the United States speaking at events and representing the Davis family. In every place and at every event, I wanted to learn about the impact of Jefferson Davis on this country. With so little knowledge of his accomplishments, I made the effort to fully understand how these places affected Davis’s role in history. Most history books mention Jefferson Davis in one sentence. The day he was appointed president of the Confederate States of America is the only fact that is mentioned. It is as if his first 52 years of life as an American were forgotten and the last 22 years erased as well. The education of the American public of the impact of this man is my passion and I take it seriously.”
His wife, Carol Hayes-Davis, admitted she was one of those whose knowledge of Jefferson Davis extended to about one sentence. Though Jefferson Davis’ descendants migrated to Colorado in the 1880s, the former president of the Confederacy isn’t the subject of many conversations in Colorado, she said.
She said she was in for a real education when she attended an event at Beauvoir with her husband. When word spread that Bertram Hayes-Davis was in the building, people immediately began queuing to shake his hand and get his autograph. It was like he was a rock star, she said.
Today, Carol is every bit as ardent about Jefferson Davis as is her husband. Together, they are spearheading the effort to open a completely redesigned, architecturally stunning Jefferson Davis Presidential Library on the grounds of Beauvoir.
A place to gather and learn
The first Jefferson Davis Presidential Library was opened in 1998. It contained numerous life-size exhibits that were built around artifacts from Davis’ life. Many of the artifacts had been given to Beauvoir by the family and various collectors. Then in 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and destroyed the museum’s first floor and almost all of the artifacts were ruined. The building was condemned and ordered demolished.
The new Jefferson Davis Library is near completion and is slated to open in early 2013. The building suffered a slight setback when Hurricane Isaac lingered over the Gulf Coast, relentlessly hammering the region with high winds and heavy rains. Fortunately, the building was empty of artifacts and exhibits at the time.
A beautiful blend of styles where antebellum meets contemporary state-of-the-art architecture, the library will feature exhibits and events focused on the life of Jefferson Davis.
“This building is stunning architecturally, and it also has unique galleries and floor plans,” said Hayes-Davis. “We are working to create a virtual environment to document the life of Jefferson Davis and provide a total and complete understanding of this American patriot.
“I understand Davis,” he continued. “His weaknesses and strengths, successes and failures, his gains and his losses, and it is important to share that with the public. We want this library to be a destination for studies, exhibits, and seminars that will explore the many topics and accomplishments of Jefferson Davis.”
From West Point to the Senate, from a U.S. Representative to a war hero and as the Secretary of War, “the story must be told,” he said. “Accomplishments, including the Capitol dome, statue of freedom, the transcontinental railroad, the Smithsonian Institution, the Gadsden Purchase are important historic facts needed to understand Jefferson Davis. Further, the understanding of the Constitution and his punishment after the war must also be told.” The personal trials of losing five of his six children, one during the Civil War in Richmond, are also part of the untold story Hayes-Davis wants to share with the rest of the nation through lectures and exhibits.
“To fully understand the historic perspective of Jefferson Davis is the vision and purpose of the library,” he said. “We plan to educate the public about every facet that affected his life and this property. This includes topics like Southern values, culture, religion, family, the war, slavery, life on the coast, the life of Jefferson Davis. We plan to do this by making this a research center, along with bringing authors, lecture series, debates, discussions, and more.”
For readers interested in learning more about Jefferson Davis before traveling to Beauvoir, Hayes-Davis strongly recommends the DVD set Jefferson Davis: An American President.
But, he adds, “Beauvoir is such a beautiful place that no book can do justice to our site. It has to be experienced, and we welcome everyone to our historic site where we will teach living history, and we look forward to meeting all who visit.”
Don Redman is associate editor of the AAA Southern Traveler magazine.
Nov/Dec 2012 Issue
|BEFORE YOU GO
For more information, visit www.beauvoir.org. The Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau (www.gulfcoast.org) is another source for travel to Biloxi.
To visit Biloxi, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.
Order free information about Mississippi through Free Travel Information Card, found online.