ARTS AND HUMANITIES: Georgia house museum commemorates Confederate vice president
One of the most engrossing scenes in Steven Spielberg’s masterful new film “Lincoln” occurs when the U.S. president finally meets with a Confederate peace delegation on a ship off the coast of Virginia in February of 1865. The so-called Hampton Roads Conference ended in failure largely because the Confederate representatives were still insisting on independence and Lincoln would not accept that possibility.
The leader of the Confederate delegation, played by actor Jackie Earle Haley in the film, was Vice President Alexander Stephens, whose restored residence in Crawfordville, Ga., is only about 60 miles west of Augusta. In touring the property twice over the years, I have heard many tales about its famous resident; it was particularly interesting to see him dramatically depicted in one of the year’s best films.
Known as Liberty Hall, the house was originally owned by Williamson Bird, Stephen’s law teacher and landlord. A.H. Stephens rented a room in the house beginning in 1834. Upon Bird’s death in 1845, Stephens purchased the property, added a rear veranda and library-bedroom wing in 1854, and totally rebuilt the main structure in 1875. It was his primary residence until his death in 1883 while he was serving a term as Georgia’s chief executive.
Alexander Stephens followed the path blazed by many lawyers before him – he went into politics. He served in both the lower and upper houses of the Georgia legislature before winning federal office, ultimately spending 16 years in the United States House of Representatives (1843 to 1859). By all accounts, Stephens became a major figure in Congress, successfully navigating the complicated political landscape of pre-Civil War America, first as a Whig and then as a Democrat. A hallmark of his decision-making appears to have been a fierce sense of independence, and he often opposed majority sentiment, arguing for the preservation of the Union, for example, long after many of his fellow Georgians had become hell-bent on secession.
In 1861, however, his allegiance shifted to the Confederacy, which he served as vice president until 1865 when he was arrested at his Crawfordville home and imprisoned in Boston harbor from April to October of that year. Yet, that unhappy conclusion to his tenure in the executive branch of the Confederate government – a time also marked by his bitter feuding with President Jefferson Davis, whom he often opposed because of the latter’s support of conscription and the suspension of certain basic civil rights – did not derail his political career for long.
After Reconstruction, Alexander Stephens was back in Washington, serving once again in the United States House of Representatives (1873-1882); he resigned to assume Georgia’s highest office that same year.
Like Davis, whose health was never robust, Stephens suffered from a variety of ailments most of his life; according to some accounts, he was 5 feet 9 inches tall but never weighed more than 96 pounds. Of the three members of the Confederate delegation depicted in Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” Jackie Earle Haley, the actor playing Stephens, is the smallest and the only one wrapped in a shawl-like scarf.
As fate would have it, Stephens was also repeatedly the victim of physical trauma. Some of his personal injuries were partially the result of his own outspokenness – he was stabbed by a political opponent during a heated exchange outside an Atlanta hotel in 1848; other shocks to the body were the result of unfortunate accidents – he survived a train wreck in 1853 and spent his last dozen years a cripple after a gate fell on him near his home in 1869.
Today’s visitor to Liberty Hall will find plenty of evidence of Stephens’ chronic frailty. Both the ground floor bedroom, situated in the front of the house so that he could greet guests, and the dining room contain wheelchairs that belonged to him; a night stand in his bedroom is crowned with a large assortment of bottles that once contained patent medicines. The museum building next door to the main residence – it is a facility devoted to Stephens’ life and times, especially the Confederate period – includes a display of items that brought him comfort in his later years: a glass inhaler, ear muffs and wrist bands.
The house itself, which includes most of its original furniture, conforms to the classic four-over-four pattern of much of the domestic architecture of the Old South. Each floor boasts a wide central hallway with two large rooms on each side. The first floor includes two formal parlors, one for the ladies and one for the men, a dining room and Stephens’ bedroom; the kitchen is, of course, in a separate building because of the common fear that a cooking fire might spread to the rest of the house.
The second floor is devoted entirely to bedrooms. Stephens was, it is said, a generous host, and he would often give shelter to travelers on the road. He also taught law, in the tradition of the house’s original owner Williamson Bird, and his students would board with him.
The property also retains many of its original outbuildings including the slave quarters, a two-room building that was, at one time, home to Henry and Eliza Stephens, both house servants. Stephens purchased Eliza when she was just a teenager and also purchased Henry from a neighboring plantation when it became clear that she fancied him for a husband. Their descendants hold periodic reunions in Eliza and Henry’s former residence, which is today furnished with family mementos.
Stephens never married, so the property was inherited by the family of his brother Linton before it passed into the hands of the Daughters of the Confederacy and eventually the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Stephens is buried in a plot in front of the house next to an imposing granite monument erected in his memory in 1893; his beloved poodle Rio is interred in the paddock to the rear of the residence.
On one side of the base of Stephens’ monument, it reads: “Here sleep the remains of one who dared to tell the people they were wrong when he believed so, and who never intentionally deceived a friend or betrayed even an enemy.” For information about the A.H. Stephens State Historic Park, call (706) 456-2221 or visit www.GeorgiaStateParks.org/AHStephens.
Dr. Tom Mack holds the first G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. For more information on area sites associated with the War Between the States, please consult his book “Circling the Savannah” (Charleston, SC: The History Press) available online and at many local stores.