Storm Deals Historic Blow to Jeff Davis Estate

Historical marker notes that Beauvoir has been around since the 1800s.

Historical marker can't quite hide the damage to the former home of Jefferson Davis. Evie Stone, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Evie Stone, NPR

Beauvoir, the Biloxi, Miss., home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, took quite a pounding from Hurricane Katrina. But the society that runs the estate is vowing to rebuild.

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SHEILAH KAST, host:

Hurricane Katrina destroyed and damaged countless historic sites on the Gulf Coast and inland along the storm's path. The estate called Beauvoir, in Biloxi, Mississippi, is among the casualties. Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, lived at Beauvoir in the last years of his life. It was later a home for Confederate veterans and widows. NPR's Jim Zarroli visited the estate, and he sent us this audio postcard after a tour of the damage there.

Mr. JACK ELLIOTT (Historical Archaeologist, Mississippi Department of Archives and History): My name is Jack Elliott, historical archaeologist with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Beauvoir was originally built as a summer cottage in the early 1850s by a planter in central Mississippi. After the war it was acquired by Mrs. Sarah Dorsey who was from Natchez. She gave it the name Beauvoir, which means `beautiful view' in French. She was a big admirer of Jefferson Davis. In her will she left the property to Jefferson Davis. Davis at the time was--had become sort of an exotic figure. He was--literally had no country. His citizenship had been taken away from him, but he had this aura of being the president of a country that no longer existed. And so, it--every since Davis came here in the late 1870s, it acquired this sort of legendary aura about it of being a `shrine of the lost cause' so to speak. And so, it's remained to--even till today.

And all of the leaves on these beautiful oak trees are dead. This was green, you know, a couple of weeks ago. You know, big live oak trees, and now it's just all dead. All the support structures are gone. The old hospital has collapsed and this wrap-around gallery has just been stripped off, leaving the framing exposed to the house. Where the lathing is still intact, the plaster is gone. The windows have been knocked out. Extensive portions of the attic are now exposed and now covered by plastic. It looks so stark now compared to--it once had kind of--just a parklike ambience around here, a pleasant place.

Oftentimes, staying here in the evening, I'd stay in this cottage here that's now gone. You can see the steps over here. I'd be here by myself and I'd have a bourbon toddy in my hands and I'd come up on the porch and sit up there in a rocking chair and it was just absolutely moving, you know. It was so quiet out here. You're near the traffic and the city, but yet you're set back from it.

Over here in the--this hospital, this also had a museum in it, and this is all buried under all that brick rubble. And one of the reasons I'm down here is to be involved in trying to get at that stuff and to save what we can. Beneath all of that rubble there is a world of historical artifacts buried. All sorts of things that soldiers would have used in every day life: canteens, mess kits, playing cards, also all sorts of prints, old maps, flags, documents. I would imagine the paper items are going to be hard to salvage. Some of the more durable things made of metal and ceramic may be very well crushed or broken, but might--you might be able to put them back together. It just remains to be seen.

You've still got the beautiful view, but you don't have the porch to sit out there and watch it all.

KAST: Our audio postcard from Beauvoir was produced by NPR's Jim Zarroli and Evie Stone. You can see pictures of the devastation at our Web site, npr.org.

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