Christmas at the Confederate White House

The following excerpt from Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour by William C. Davis:

Varina Davis

“Christmas 1864 came clear and pleasant, with a beautiful white frost over the sidewalks and shrubbery of Richmond. Boys stole their fathers’ rifles and shotguns and fired precious rounds into the air to celebrate the day, and the people of the capital evinced a need to be jolly and even intemperate after a season of such woe. The less frolicsome continued to complain about the president even on that day, some declaring that Davis should be deposed and Lee made dictator. ‘Every one felt the cataclysm which impended,’ remembered Varina.

“In the Executive Mansion, the Davises tried to make this, their fourth war Christmas, a day for the children. Varina scraped and improvised to make a mince pie and a little ersatz eggnog for the servants. The children rummaged through their large room on the second floor for eyeless dolls, broken tops, three-legged horses, and other discarded toys to be sent to the orphans of the city for their holidays, while Varina worked with civic women to find candies, a few little delicacies, and even a Christmas tree for the unfortunates.

“The evening before, the family invited neighboring children in to help string apples and popcorn for their tree, while a neighbor molded tiny candles to place in the boughs. Homemade paper cornucopias held sweets sent by a confectioner, and Varina made quite a party for the young people out of rolling and pasting the cones with little love poems written on them. Then the lady cake and gingersnaps were passed around, and they all drank the eggnog. Little Jeff took a sip from his mother’s cup, then said to his father, ‘Now I just know this is Christmas.’

Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy

“The president himself, still unwell, no doubt felt relief when all the guests left and just the family remained. Then they stuffed their stockings, one for each member of the family, as well as the aides. The next morning it was the children who were up first, and early, racing to their stockings. The president and his wife came in due time, confronted by a cheery holiday greeting from the servants who, if they said it before their masters did, were entitled to a gift. When they got their own stockings, Varina discovered that her husband had found for her six cakes of soap, a book of poetry (printed on wallpaper due to scarcity), and other things sent by admirers. Varina gave Jefferson a pair of chamois riding gauntlets sent to her by a Virginia woman, along with little love letters from each of the children.

“After breakfasting they walked to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to hear the Reverend Minnegerode’s sermon, and then back to the Executive Mansion for their afternoon dinner of roast turkey and beef, followed by mince pie, plum pudding, and a life-size hen of spun sugar nesting on blancmange eggs. Their chef had husbanded ingredients for weeks and more to make this one feast. The children and the aides reveled in it and ate until their stomachs tugged at their buttons.

Davis Children

“President Davis, if he ate at all, did so sparingly. His holiday lay in watching little Jeff, Willie, Maggie, and six-month-old Winnie enjoy a day when the war seemed forgotten. Then, their dinner done, the Davises went back to the basement of St. Paul’s, where the tree decorated for the orphans was unveiled. They all sang songs, then gave the ersatz presents to the children of the city. Feeling more joy than he had in months, Davis became so enrapt in the scene that he turned Santa to help pass out the presents but made a confusion of it as he gleefully gave anything that came to hand to any outstretched arm. Varina pulled him away and assigned him the task of untangling two little ones who had wrapped themselves up in a popcorn string. Yet Davis could not restrain himself. Here there were no croakers and carpers, no discordant generals or dissident politicians. Here he was making everyone happy. Unwinding the tots from their string, he crept back to the great tree whenever Varina looked away and stole the apples from its boughs, giving them to the smallest children in the hall. Varina saw him all the same, but she also saw the brief expression of joy that transformed his face, and she could not begrudge him his few moments of contentment and happiness.

Confederate Executive Mansion, Richmond

“That evening they went to a ‘starvation party,’ at a neighbor’s, where the shortages preempted any thought of refreshments. Davis and Varina watched a host of crisply attired young officers and their ladies dance through the dark hours to the songs from a piano in the drawing room. Then it was back down Clay Street to their home. The beautiful day could not last forever. Rain commenced falling, and the sky turned dark and ominous again, matching the returning mood of the city. For Jefferson Davis, as for the Confederacy, Christmas had been only an interlude. When he awoke in the morning—if he slept at all—the war was still there.”[1]

[1] William C. Davis, Jefferson Davis, The Man and His Hour (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991), 577-579.

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