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Virginia Treasures: Enslaved and Free Servants in the Confederate President’s House

In August 1861, Jefferson Davis and his wife Varina and their four children moved into a house in downtown Richmond that would be known as the Confederate White House. It was the Confederacy’s second executive mansion, preceded by a house in Mobile, Ala., where the Southern states had their first capital.

The house was built for a wealthy banker, John Brockenbrough, who later sold it to Lewis Crenshaw, a wealthy merchant. Crenshaw sold the home with all the furnishings to the city of Richmond as a home for the Confederate president. Davis lived there until early April 1865 and he and Varina had two more children while there.

Today, the historic building is open for tours. Historian Kelly Hancock, who oversees the American Civil War Museum on Clay Street in Richmond, is known for bringing to light unknown and little-known stories from the past. During a recent tour, Hancock focused on the lives of the enslaved and free servants of the Confederate White House. Hancock shared this information by speaking about who was responsible for each area of the executive mansion.

Davis and his wife brought three enslaved servants when they moved in and later rented other enslaved servants from local businessmen. Irish immigrants also were hired to help the family manage their home. One German immigrant, Edward Eggeling, a florist, was hired as the groundskeeper. It has been estimated that there were 12 to 15 servants working at the house.

The butler was one of the most important workers in the home. He was the first person one might meet at the front entrance of the mansion. The butler was responsible for the dining room and parlor areas on the first floor. The role of the butler included caring for the china, silver, and glassware; supervising the footmen and table servants; preparing for large dinner parties; purchasing and decanting liquors and wines; as well as oversight of the other servants.

As the chief household servant, the butler had great responsibilities in the executive mansion. In 1827, a book called the “House Servant’s Directory” was written by Robert Roberts, a former butler. The book became a handbook for butlers. It included extensive information about being a successful butler. It started out telling butlers they need to have integrity, a neat and clean appearance, and gave details on how to clean everything from the kitchenware to shining shoes. It also gave remedies for getting out stains from clothing and furniture. And it offered common sense advice like telling the butler to wake up early and plan the day so things will go smoothly.

Henry Mosely, an enslaved servant whom Jefferson Davis rented from Robert Port, became the butler in 1863. He was described as a mixed-race, well-mannered man. However, on Jan. 19, 1864, a fire occurred in the basement, which gave Mosely the opportunity to escape. Nothing else was heard of him until 2020 when Jonathan White, a professor from Christopher Newport University, found an article in an Anglo-African newspaper that said Mosely made a successful escape. He went to England and advocated for the emancipation of slaves. Mosely was the third enslaved person to escape the Confederate White House. The first man to escape was William

Jackson, who was born in Hanover County, near Richmond. Harpers Weekly interviewed Jackson in the spring of 1862. It was common for newspapers to interview former slaves to gain information about their lives under slavery, as well as the people they served. The second man to escape was James Pemberton who will be discussed later.

Mosely was replaced by a man known only as Spencer. The only information recorded of Spencer was done by Burton Harrison. Harrison was Jefferson Davis’ secretary and did not like Spencer. Harrison described him as inefficient, unsightly, unclean, a “Black Caliban” with manners of a “cornfield darky.” Harrison said he tried everything to get rid of Spencer, but nothing worked. At least not until the pressure from the Union Army caused Davis to flee farther South. When they reached Danville, Harrison assigned Spencer to ride in a boxcar full of explosives knowing Spencer was afraid to do so. So, Spencer fled, and Harrison finally got rid of him.

The kitchen was entrusted to the Sarah Walker, the Confederate White House’s head cook, who supervised the kitchen staff. The second floor was home for the enslaved servants and was always separate from the White House.

The other important roles included the footmen, table servants, and parlor maids. These were people who assisted the butler. The footmen ran beside the carriage to ensure it would not overturn. They also ran ahead of the carriage to arrange for lodging. There were two enslaved men who were a footman and a table servant: the first being James Pemberton, a footman. Pemberton was Jefferson Davis’s manservant but didn’t like being enslaved. He successfully escaped about 11 days before Mosely and went east to Union Gen. Benjamin Butler. Butler was so impressed with Pemberton, he sent him to Washington, D.C. to be interviewed by Edwin Stanton, the secretary of war.

The table servant, Robert Brown, was born in Norfolk, Va. in 1822. He was sold to Jefferson Davis in New Orleans to be a caretaker of Davis’s horses before the war. He later became very close to the Davis family and was known as a protector of the family. After Davis was captured and imprisoned at Fort Monroe, Robert Brown chose to stay with the family. He accompanied Varina to Savannah, Ga. Later, he took the children to Montreal, Canada to Varina’s mother. He later went to Europe but came back to work for Jefferson Davis in Memphis. He also stayed with the family after they moved to the gulf coast in Mississippi. The last time Robert Brown appears in an article was in 1893 after Jefferson Davis’ death. He was sought out by various newspapers to get his perspective of Davis. It is believed that he spent his last days in Mobile, Ala.

An Irish refugee, Mary O’Melia, was the housekeeper for the Confederate White House. She and her husband Mathias settled in New York. He was a sea captain and died at sea. She happened to be visiting friends in Richmond when the war broke out. She was overwhelmed and sought advice from Bishop John McGill of St Peters Catholic Church. He advised her to go to the Davis family and seek a job. She did so and was offered a job as housekeeper in the executive mansion. She was responsible for keeping the parlor cleaned. The parlor was the primary entertainment space in the mansion. It required cleaning windows and carpets, dusting and airing the room out. She accepted the job and was left in charge after Davis left to escape the Union’s invasion. After the war, Mary operated a boarding house in Baltimore, Md.

Next to the parlor was a small library used as a place to educate the Davis children. Augusta Daniels, an Irish immigrant, was tasked with educating the children. The upstairs area included Jefferson Davis’s office, Burt Harrison’s office and their living quarters.

Jefferson Davis’ manservant was known simply as Jim, who was married to Betsey. Betsey took care of Varina Davis as her personal maid. When suspicion circulated that there was a spy in the Confederate White House, Varina made it clear that it couldn’t be Betsey. She said Betsey was ignorant and uneducated, but a loyal servant. However, Betsey resented how Varina treated Mrs. Pemberton and escaped with her husband Jim. Ellen Barnes McGinnis replaced Betsey as the maid to Varina Davis and the nursemaid to Winnie, Varina’s youngest child. After Davis was captured, Ellen joined her husband, Charles, who had fled the year before. After the death of Charles, Ellen married Frederick McGinnis, a former slave of Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard.

Catherine, an Irish woman, was the nursemaid to the children. On April 30, 1864, Joseph Davis, who was 5 years old, fell 15 feet off the upstairs porch and died. It was not believed that she was blamed for Joseph’s death.

James Jones, a manservant and valet to Jefferson Davis, was originally hired as a coachman by Varina Davis. He replaced Jim Pemberton. Jones was a free man, said to be of mixed African and Native American heritage. He loved the Davises and was with them when Davis was captured and sent to prison at Fort Monroe. At the request of Jefferson Davis, Jones took Varina and children to Raleigh, N.C. to a safe place. Jones later settled in Raleigh and became a politician with the Republican Party and a very successful businessman. Some of his accomplishments include: delegate to the N.C. Freedman’s Convention; deputy sheriff of Wake County; alderman for 18 years; overseer of the Raleigh Street Railway; founder of the first African American Military and clerk in the U.S. Senate’s Stationery Room. In 1895, he drove Jefferson Davis’s hearse from Raleigh to Richmond for his re-interment. Jones’ sons were also educated, one being a lawyer and the other a physician. Jones died in 1921 at age 90.

There has always been speculation about spies living in the Confederate White House. One such rumor was about a woman named Mary Elizabeth Bowser who was owned by Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy abolitionist. Van Lew sent Bowser north to be educated. Bowser was very intelligent and believed to be part of the Richmond Underground. She also worked for Jefferson Davis. She was such a cleaver spy that some called her Ellen Bond. She read many secret documents from Davis’ office while working as a domestic worker in the Confederate White House. There is record of a woman named Mary Richards, who gave speeches after the war stating she performed secret missions for the Union. It is believed that Bowser and Richards were the same person. The U.S. government honored Mary Elizabeth Bowser in 1995 for her work during the Civil War with an induction into the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame in Fort Huachuca, Ariz. The award was accepted by her great-granddaughter.

While some of the servants were extremely loyal to the Davis family, choosing to stay enslaved, most of the enslaved preferred having their freedom, according to Hancock.

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