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Billy Steele, left, receives an Alabama flag that flew over the home of Jefferson Davis as thanks for donating to the home’s restoration. Helping display the flag are Steele’s best friend Heath McDonald, center, and Tom Strain.
Daily photo by Holly Hollman
Billy Steele, left, receives an Alabama flag that flew over the home of Jefferson Davis as thanks for donating to the home’s restoration. Helping display the flag are Steele’s best friend Heath McDonald, center, and Tom Strain.

Effort to refurbish rebel leader’s home yields swap of flags, 1 from Iraq

By Holly Hollman
hhollman@decaturdaily.com · 340-2445

COXEY — During flooding from Hurricane Katrina, an antique desk was sucked out of the retirement home of the Confederacy’s president and plunged into the Gulf of Mexico.

Barnacles attached to this piece of furniture, where former Confederate President Jefferson Davis wrote “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government.”

Three weeks after the hurricane, workers found Davis’ former Biloxi, Miss., home in shambles. Then a worker spotted the desk floating in the ocean.

“It couldn’t be saved,” said Tom Strain, member of the Capt. Thomas H. Hobbs Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Athens.

The desk is a loss, but historical groups are raising money to save the home and grounds. It will cost $4.1 million to repair and reconstruct the home, named Beauvoir House.

The Hobbs Camp is raising money through local fundraisers, and that effort nabbed the attention of a Lawrence County man serving in Iraq.

Billy Steele of Speake serves in the Alabama National Guard and came home July 4. He’ll return in August for his third tour. He serves as a contractor for the State Department as an ambassador on protective detail.

While in Iraq, Steele read a Daily article about the camp’s fundraiser and e-mailed Hobbs member Jimmy Hill, saying he wanted to make a donation.

Hill couldn’t find the story in the newspaper, and said he thought he was dealing with a nut. Turns out Steele read it online before Hill because of the time difference.

On Sunday, at Strain’s Elk River home, Steele’s family met with camp members. The camp presented Steele with an Alabama flag that flew above Beauvoir on June 5 as a thank you to the Alabama SCV groups raising money for restoration. Davis’ great great-grandson Bertham Hayes-Davis signed the flag.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Steele said. “I wasn’t expecting this. The flag will go somewhere that everybody can see it when they walk in my house.”

Donated flag

In return, Steele donated an American flag to the camp, a flag that flew over the American embassy in Baghdad on Memorial Day.

The camp plans to donate that flag to the Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives in Athens.

Wanting to preserve history is what led to this flag swap. Steele said he saw Beauvoir over the New Year’s Eve holiday. It looked like a neglected place, he said.

“Debris was scattered around the grounds,” Steele said. “I remembered how my brother-in-law talked about how much history he learned during a visit to the home before the hurricane. I wanted to do something to save it.”

The Steele family, which includes his wife Sarah and daughters Samantha and Savannah, donated $600.

“Every amount helps,” Strain said. “We’re hoping Billy’s gift, and the fact that he was serving his country during war when he heard about this and decided to give, will inspire others to donate.”

Workers will raise the home four feet to help prevent flooding. The restoration also includes a fire and waterproof vault for valuable items and generators.

“One Confederate uniform that has never been found was worth $75,000,” Strain said. “That is lost history.”

Battling to save Beauvoir

To donate to the restoration of Beauvoir, the retirement home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, send checks to Sons of Confederate Veterans, P.O. Box 185, Tanner, AL 35671.

The home, built between 1848 and 1851, survived the Civil War but sustained heavy damage during Hurricane Katrina.

It is one of the few remaining historical sites on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and is listed on the National Historic Register, as a National Historic Landmark, a Mississippi Archaeological Landmark and the National Trust for Historic Places Most Endangered Sites.

Holly Hollman

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