Born Sarah Anne Ellis on February 17, 1879 to Thomas George Percy Ellis and Mary Malvina Routh in Natchez, Mississippi, Sarah Dorsey (her married name) became a cosmopolitan southern lady, well known as a novelist and historian, and also as the “companion” — mistress, I surmise — of Jefferson Davis, to whom she proved a great boon in his post Civil War life. Her father, Thomas, a successful planter, was a member of the famed Percy line, the southern family which has produced so many notables, including William Alexander Percy I, Senator LeRoy Percy, authors William Alexander Percy II and Walker Percy, and historian William Armstrong Percy, III.
Sarah was the niece of Catherine Anne Warfield and Eleanor Percy Lee, the “Two Sisters of the West” who while young published two volumes of poetry together. Catherine Anne Warfield went on to publish a number of novels, which achieved significant popular acclaim, including The Household of Bouverie, a gothic fiction in two volumes and bestseller in 1860.
Sarah Anne’s father died when she was nine, and her mother soon remarried to Charles Gustavus Dahlgren. Her stepfather, who saw great potential in Sarah, provided her with a first-rate education, engaging as her tutor Eliza Ann DuPuy, the same woman who had inspired and trained her aunts Catherine and Eleanor. Later he sent her to Madame Deborah Grelaud’s French School in Philadelphia. She excelled in music, painting, dancing, and languages, quickly gaining fluency in Italian, Spanish and German, as well as French.
During her stay in Philadelphia, Sarah Anne became very close with her teacher Anne Charlotte Lynch (later to become Anne Botta), who opened the first and most famous salon in Manhattan of the 19th century and also wrote the Handbook of Universal Literature (1860), which remained in print for fifty years. At her salon the circle of intellectuals included Horace Greeley, William Cullen Bryant, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. She frequently welcomed visitors such as Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens and Charles Kingsley. (Wyatt-Brown, p.125)
In 1852, Sarah Anne Ellis married Samuel Worthington Dorsey, a member of a prominent Maryland family. His father Thomas Dorsey, a failed lawyer, had accumulated large plantations in the Tensas Parish region, which Samuel inherited. Between the Dahlgren-Routh-Ellis plantations on Sarah’s side and Samuel’s family’s plantations, the rich newlyweds settled first in Maryland.
Dorsey published her first work in 1863-4 in the Southern Literary Messenger, which serialized her novel Agnes Graham, a sentimental tale about a young woman who falls in love with her cousin, whom she plans to marry until she learns about the common blood line. The success of the serials prompted her aunt Catherine’s publisher to republish it in one complete volume.
In 1866 she published a biography of the wartime Louisiana governor Henry Watkins Allen. She first met him while wandering through the valley of the River Rhine with her husband in 1859. “As a leader of wartime relief for the poor, an advocate of emancipation for slaves as reward for Confederate service, and other bold if not always welcomed innovations, Allen much deserved her praise.” (Wyatt-Brown, p.134) The highly regarded work is considered to be an important contribution to the Lost Cause legend of southern memory.
Other fictional works of hers include Lucia Dare (1867), Athalie (1872), and Panola (1877).
In 1873 the Dorseys moved to Beauvoir, the latterly famous mansion damaged in Hurricane Katrina, situated near Mississippi City, now Biloxi, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Beauvoir is now (2012) undergoing restoration. The name was given by Sarah Dorsey herself. Soon after her husband died in 1875, she invited the former President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, to visit her on the plantation in December 1876. Davis was married to Varina Howell, who had been a classmate of Dorsey’s at Madame Grelaud’s French school.
Davis, impoverished after his imprisonment and living with his wife and numerous progeny in Memphis, soon moved into Beauvoir permanently, and here he composed his memoirs, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Some claim Dorsey ghosted it, but the style is too tedious to have been hers. However, she was instrumental in his success, organizing his day, motivating him to work, taking dictation, transcribing notes, editing and offering advice. Rumors quickly began to fly that the two were having an illicit affair, so much so that Varina Davis became greatly enraged and refused for a long time to even set foot on Dorsey’s property, though eventually she too moved into one of the guest cottages at Beauvoir.
Recognizing her failing health, Dorsey rewrote her will in 1878, from which she cut out all her family, bequeathing all her capital and, more importantly, Beauvoir to Jefferson Davis. She died on July 4, 1879. The Percy family sued, but failed to break the will, and after Jefferson Davis’ death, Beauvoir became a home for Confederate veterans, many of whom are buried in the cemetery behind the house. After the last one died, it became a museum. If Sarah Dorsey epitomized the Lost Cause, her cousin William Alexander Percy, the gay poet and autobiographer, in Lanterns on the Levee (Knopf, 1941) also vindicated southern honor in the postbellum south.