In Service and Servitude

Explore the lives and experiences of the enslaved and free workers in the Confederate President's House.

Varina DavisAmerican Civil War Museum

The household of the Confederate President’s House included not only President Jefferson Davis, his wife Varina, and their five young children, but also secretaries and military aides, and a staff of domestic servants that numbered up to fifteen people. Varina Davis was responsible for overseeing the domestic staff.

The Cook (1856-01) by Harper's New Monthly MagazineAmerican Civil War Museum

There were the cook and kitchen maids, footmen to serve at table, valets and ladies maids to serve as personal attendants to the heads of the house, nannies to look after the children, groomsmen to look after the horses and drive the carriage, and gardeners to look after the roses and fruit trees. For most of these people, history has only passing records that give historians small clues to their lives, and very little told in their own words.

Domestic Life in South Carolina (1863) by unknownAmerican Civil War Museum

Customarily, all domestic workers, regardless of race or status, were referred to as “servants,” obscuring the diversity of people who staffed a typical well-to-do household. The servant staff at the President’s House consisted of enslaved people owned by the Davises, enslaved people hired from other owners (known as hiring out), free Black servants, and White servants.

This idealized scene from wartime South Carolina represents the intimate nature of race relations in slaveholding households, but obscures the inequalities and violence that underscored it.

Slave Hire Contract (1865-01-01) by Varina DavisAmerican Civil War Museum

This certificate is the only evidence we have of Fannie’s existence as an enslaved worker in the house. Jefferson Davis paid Thomas Binford $400 for her. Under the terms of the contract, she was to be returned at the end of year with clothes and a blanket. “Hiring out” was a common practice in the antebellum South, regulated by law and custom. The party hiring the enslaved person paid the owner a predetermined amount on a monthly or yearly basis. In essence, the enslaved person was rented out just as a mule or horse could be. The term of hire often ran from January 1 to Christmas. New Year’s Day was known as “heartbreak day” because it marked the end of the holidays and, for those being hired out, separation from their families.

Robert Brown (detail) (1865) by William NotmanAmerican Civil War Museum

Robert Brown was born into slavery around 1822 in Norfolk, Virginia but was sold South, arriving in New Orleans in 1833. He was purchased by Jefferson Davis just before the start of the war to serve as a groomsman, caring for Davis’s horses. Though never a butler, Davis always wanted him around during meals.

Davis children with Joseph Davis and Robert Brown (1865) by William NotmanAmerican Civil War Museum

Robert Brown became very close to the Davis children. After Davis’s capture by U.S.cavalry outside Irwinville, Georgia, on May 10,1865, Brown accompanied the children during their short exile to Canada while Varina Davis stayed behind to do what she could for her husband imprisoned at Fort Monroe.

Robert Brown (1865/1870) by unknownAmerican Civil War Museum

According to Varina Davis, “Every art was used to persuade Robert off, but he was too true and brave a man to abandon women and children so desolate and oppressed as we were.”

Robert Brown (1870/1890)American Civil War Museum

Brown eventually joined the Davises in Memphis after the war and worked for them as a handyman and caretaker of their horses at Beauvoir, their last home on the Gulf coast of Mississippi. Now the Davises paid him for his work.

Jefferson and Varina Davis children (1867) by William NotmanAmerican Civil War Museum

Catherine (surname unknown) was the Irish nanny for the Davis children for an undetermined period of time but was with the family at least as early as the spring of 1862.

Joseph Evan Davis (1861/1864) by Courtesy of The ValentineAmerican Civil War Museum

On April 30, 1864, Joseph Davis, who was five years old, fell from the porch and died within an hour or two. Mary Chesnut, a neighbor, recalled seeing Joseph “lying there, white and beautiful as an angel, covered with flowers; Catherine, his nurse, flat on the floor by his side, was weeping and wailing as only an Irishwoman can.” After the accident, we lose track of Catherine. No historical records have been found to tell us how long she stayed with the Davises or what she did after the war.

Ellen Barnes and Varina Anne Davis (1864) by unknownAmerican Civil War Museum

An enslaved woman hired out by her owner to the Davises, Ellen Barnes came to the President’s House in 1864 to serve as both a maid to Varina Davis and nursemaid for the Davises’ infant child, Varina Anne. At the close of the war, Barnes fled with the family from Richmond, leaving behind her young daughter, Mary Ann. She was with the Davises when they were captured.

Ellen Barnes (1865/1867) by J.H. PopeAmerican Civil War Museum

Ellen did not accompany the Davises into captivity. She joined her husband, Charles, who had escaped bondage a year before, and was later reunited with her daughter. According to a Times reporter, a “fond affection” existed between Mrs. Davis and Ellen, but Ellen had no desire to stay with the Davises. When asked this question by the reporter, she responded, “I never want to go South again as a slave—I would rather be free, much rather.”

Tea service (1850/1865) by unknownAmerican Civil War Museum

Mary O’Melia was born in 1822 near Limerick, Ireland. She and her husband emigrated to the United States around 1850. Accounts vary, but on the eve of the Civil War, Mary was a widow living in either Baltimore or New York when she was invited by friends to come to Richmond. When the war broke out, Mary was unable to get home to her children. Varina Davis offered her a job as housekeeper, which she accepted. She stayed behind to look after the house when the Davises fled the capital in 1865. The day after Jefferson Davis left, she was there to see Abraham Lincoln visit the house on April 4, 1865.

Mary O’Melia took the tea service with her when she left the Executive Mansion shortly after Lincoln’s visit.

William Jackson (1865) by UnknownAmerican Civil War Museum

The Davises hired William Jackson from a man named George Jones for $20 a month to serve as the family’s coachman. After about eight months service, Jackson seized his freedom, leaving behind a wife and three children, and escaped to Union lines just outside Fredericksburg where he related to authorities the low morale of the citizens in the Confederate capital. Jackson was interviewed by the press, spent time touring the North making speeches about his experiences as an enslaved person, and then sailed for England to tour there.

Pass (1863-11-10) by Jefferson DavisAmerican Civil War Museum

Henry Mosely was an enslaved man hired out to serve as the Davis’s butler and had been working in the house for a few months before deciding to emancipate himself.

Enslaved workers were required to carry a pass if out on their own. This pass is one of only two historical references to Henry.

Enslaved people who seized their freedom were generally treated with derision by the southern press. “Henry, the butler,” stated the Richmond Examiner, “will turn up in the North, the after-runner of Jeff Davis’ coachman [William Jackson], and like him, will form the chief attraction of Puritan lecture-rooms, and furnish the press ‘highly interesting and intelligent statements’ affecting the kitchen arrangements of the Presidential mansion…”

James H. Jones (1915) by unknownAmerican Civil War Museum

James H. Jones was free born in Raleigh, North Carolina, around 1831. When Varina Davis was in Raleigh, in May 1862, she hired Jones as a coachman paying him $28 a month, a good salary at the time. Jones chose to come to Richmond and continue working for the Davises.

James H. Jones (detail) (1915) by unknownAmerican Civil War Museum

In a 1901 newspaper interview, Jones discussed his role in the Confederate President’s House:

“I was what you might call an all-around man. I drove Mrs. Davis and the ladies of the family whenever they went out. But this by no means was my only business. The regular Butler was Robert Brown…but on the occasions of dinner parties or entertainments I assisted in waiting on the guests. …I was made to feel by Mr. Davis that he placed entire confidence in me. When he had letters or papers of a particular nature to send to members of the cabinet, or to the war office, he very frequently sent them by me.”

Dressing room (2020) by Robert HancockAmerican Civil War Museum

James Pemberton and Betsey

James Pemberton and Betsey were an enslaved couple owned by the Davises. Marriages between enslaved people were not legally recognized. James (commonly referred to as Jim) was described as a manservant; a gentleman’s personal attendant. Betsey served as Varina’s maid and nursemaid for William, who was born in the house in 1861. On January 8, 1864, Jim and Betsey escaped their servitude. According to Varina, “[Betsey] followed her husband off….she made a good fire in the nursery and came to warn me that the baby would be alone, as she was going out for a while. We never saw her afterward.”

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James Pemberton and Betsey

About a month after James and Betsey's departure, this article appeared in the Anglo African, a New York based paper with an office in Norfolk, Virginia.  It sheds light on the motivation for the couple's departure. Click here to view image.

Ellen Barnes (1865/1867) by J.H. PopeAmerican Civil War Museum

We tend to overlook the role of the domestic staff within a household; overshadowed as they are by the more famous (and better documented) owners.
Domestic service for all was difficult and for some the work could be grueling, but it was even worse for those workers who were enslaved. Free workers could negotiate their wages or take a job elsewhere. Enslaved workers did not have those options.
It may seem odd today, but at the time, some owners were genuinely surprised when their enslaved workers sought their freedom. Ellen Barnes, Varina’s maid, probably said it best when she stated to the press at the end of the war: “Mrs. Davis was good to me, but I don’t want to be her slave, for all that.”

Workers of the House (2021-04-20) by Rachel HarperAmerican Civil War Museum

List of the Workers

Research into the house staff continues and we may find new information about existing people or new names to add to the list. (*Mary Richards is also known as Mary Bowser–Reportedly placed in the house by Elizabeth Van Lew as a spy. Richards claimed to have gone to the President's House "seeking for washing and while the drawers and cabinets and scrutinized the papers.")

Credits: Story

In Service and Servitude, an exhibit by the American Civil War Museum developed by a team led by Robert Hancock.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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