The Provisional Confederate Congress promptly authorized an army, navy and various vital departments for the new nation. On Feb. 21, it agreed to lease an executive mansion for its first and only president — Jefferson Davis.
The first White House of the Confederacy had been built between 1832 and 1835 by William Sayre, an ancestor of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda Sayre.
It was a “suitable gentleman’s residence” and conveniently located within walking distance of government offices and the Exchange Hotel, where the Davis family lived while the home was being readied for them.
“They rented it for $5,000 a year, fully furnished and staffed,” said Anne Tidmore, regent of The White House Association.
The Davises moved into the White House in mid-April. The president’s wife entertained there almost every evening throughout the spring and summer.
Then, in May, the Confederate Congress voted to move the capital to Richmond, where it would remain for the duration of the war.
The “Jeff Davis” house changed hands several times in the following decades.
“The area became commercial and the house fell into disrepair. It was a boarding house and was actually in danger of being torn down,” Tidmore said.
As a new century began, 27 women interested in saving the building founded The White House Association of Alabama. It was patterned after the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, which had been formed in 1853 to save George Washington’s home.
The group received their charter by an act of the Legislature in February 1901. A year later, Davis’ widow signed over ownership of some of the family’s bedroom furniture and belongings to The White House Association.
Tidmore said it took 20 years to raise enough money to buy the house and a lot near the Capitol, 10 blocks from the home’s original location.
The former White House was moved section by section, reassembled and restored. It was given to the people of Alabama by the Association on June 3, 1921 — Davis’ 113th birthday.
“It looks as much like it would have when the Davises lived in it as we could possibly have it today,” Tidmore said.
Last year, the first White House of the Confederacy received 16,870 visitors. Approximately 9,500 were from Alabama. More than 6,500 came from other states and roughly 800 were from foreign countries.
They saw not only the house where Jefferson lived but also relics such as the Davis family Bible, letters handwritten by Davis and a portion of the Confederate bunting that was draped over his casket while it lay in state in Montgomery in May 1893.
Several special events are planned at the first Confederate White House this year in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
A Sesquicentennial Fundraiser Reception will be held in May to benefit the relics of the house.
Celebrations are also hosted at the house each Jan. 19 and June 3 on the birthdays of Robert E. Lee and Davis, respectively.
Tidmore said The White House Association is dedicated to educating the public about what was arguably the most traumatic time in American history.
“We don’t celebrate the war at all but we commemorate it because we learn from experiences like that,” Tidmore said.