Symbols, Past and Present
By John Coski, Museum Historian
What did an African-American spy for the Union working in Jefferson Davis’s Confederate executive mansion, a young African-American boy who lived in the mansion in 1864-1865, and the youngest daughter of Jefferson and Varina Davis, who was born in the mansion in 1864, have in common? The obvious answer to this no-brainer is that all three had an intimate connection with the building known today as the “White House of the Confederacy”.
A more challenging question is: what do the three have in common today? Among other things, all have been subjects of modern novels that fill in with fiction details of their lives, especially their emotional lives, which we may never know. More generally, all three have become over the last 150 years symbols of larger causes or unwitting servants of latter-day agendas.
The fact and fiction of Mary Elizabeth (Richards) Bowser, “Jim Limber,” aka James Henry Brooks, and Varina Anne “Winnie” Davis will be the subject of the Museum’s August 4 House 200 program. The panel discussion will explore how people associated with the White House of the Confederacy continue to influence Civil War memory.
Only in recent years have reliable details about the best known spy in the Confederate White House, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, emerged. The paucity of details did not prevent her induction into U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in 1995 or the production of a 1987 television drama, “A Special Friendship.” A young African-American woman, Mary Richards, formerly enslaved by the Van Lew family of Richmond, spoke of her wartime service immediately after the war, confirming earlier undocumented claims and offering a heroic character who risked her own freedom in the cause of freedom for others.
In striking contrast are the claims made about a mixed-race child whom the Confederate First Family knew as “Jim Limber,” suggesting at least implicitly that race relations in the Confederate South were more benign than usually portrayed. Known to have been a playmate of the Davis sons, was Jim Limber “adopted,” literally or figuratively, as is claimed in occasional articles discovering his story or in the 2007 children’s book, Jim Limber Davis: A Black Orphan in the Confederate White House? What is the meaning – and the purpose – of a statue depicting Jefferson Davis with his natural son, Joseph Davis, and his “adopted” son, Jim Limber that the Sons of Confederate Veterans offered to the American Civil War Center in 2008?
More recently, Jim Limber has become a major character in Charles Frazier’s new bestselling novel, Varina. Frazier imagined a full, textured life for “Jimmie” Limber, who grew up to become the Albany, New York, school teacher, James Blake, and who learns about his own past in a series of discussions with Varina Davis.
As symbols of the complex role that race has played in American life, Mary Elizabeth Bowser and Jim Limber are celebrities of – and for – our times.
Winnie Davis’ celebrity, on the other hand, occurred in her own lifetime and in the decades immediately after her death in 1898 at age 34. When she is remembered today, it is usually – and unfairly – as a one-dimensional figure (the “Daughter of the Confederacy”) associated with the Cause that her father led. A recent biography, a 2008 novel, and the Museum’s own 1998 exhibit have helped reveal the sensitive, accomplished, and thoroughly modern young woman who was very ambivalent about the Confederacy even as she tried to escape its long shadow.
The panelists for the House 200 program have written extensively on the subject. Dr. Lois Leveen is author of the 2012 novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser (William Morrow, 2012) and of an analytical article about Bowsers’ life and legend. Dr. John M. Coski, the American Civil War Museum’s Historian, and author of a 2008 article documenting what we do and do not know about Jim Limber. A former supervisor of the White House of the Confederacy interpretive staff, Ruth Ann Coski is the author of the 2001 book, White House of the Confederacy: A Pictorial Tour. In 1998, she researched and wrote “Lost Daughter of the Lost Cause: Varina Anne Davis,” a major exhibit about Winnie Davis’ life and legend on the centennial of her death.
The program will explore we know and don’t know about the people themselves, and what can we can learn about ourselves from studying the symbolic roles they play.
Make plans to join us on Saturday, August 4th for the program. Quill Theatre will be performing excepts from their new original production about Elizabeth Van Lew and Mary Bowser starting at 1:30. Make your reservations today!