Varina Anne Davis was a tragic story from the start.
Winnie Davis’ First Years
“Little Pie Cake” as she was called for the first year of her life, entered the world in June, 1864, the second daughter and sixth child born to Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his wife. Her birth was only six weeks after a freakish accident: her five-year-old brother fell to his death from a third story balcony at their home in Richmond. Then too, the Confederate States of America was beginning its demise.
Months later and nursing, the still-unnamed baby made the long and harrowing flight south, as the Confederate capital at Richmond was crumbling. By the time she was finally named, (Varina Anne for her mother), and forever nicknamed “Winnie”, her older siblings had been sent to Canada, care of her maternal grandmother, and her father was sent to Fortress Monroe, where he was chained and imprisoned.
Jefferson Davis, was in his late fifties, well old enough to be her grandfather. He had always been frail in health, and now he was blind in one eye. The strain of the past four years aged him far past his years. Varina-the-mother, nearly forty and formidable, now embarked on her own campaign: to unchain the non-violent ex-Confederate President, and allow him more humane treatment. She managed to succeed to a point that she and baby Winnie were permitted to join Jeff in his casement prison at Fortress Monroe in Virginia. They stayed there for nearly two years.
Eventually freed, Davis was in dire straits. The lands of the once-wealthy planter had been ravaged beyond repair. His former occupations as soldier and statesmen were forever closed to him, and at sixty, Davis was a man without a country – and a man without an income. He was also a man with four children under fifteen.
For the next dozen years, the Davis family traipsed back and forth across the ocean, never really belonging anywhere. At an age and health condition when most men think of retirement, home would be wherever Jeff could get a job. When she was twelve, Winnie was placed in school in Germany; by the time she returned when she was around sixteen, her parents were living at Beauvoir, a pleasant shore-house in Biloxi, Mississippi that had been owned by a family friend . Her sister Margaret, older by ten years, had married; and her two older brothers had died young of natural causes. It would be just Winnie and her parents. She would become her father’s constant companion.
The South “Discovers” Winnie
By the mid-1880s, a white-haired and elderly Jefferson Davis had become the symbol of the South’s “Lost Cause,” and was enjoying an Indian summer of popularity that he had never quite managed as CSA president. He was invited everywhere! His pretty daughter usually accompanied him. It was at one of these appearances that Winnie Davis was introduced to the crowds as “The Daughter of the Confederacy” – a soubriquet that stuck. She became an instant icon: she was their daughter. They loved her. She was immediately adopted by the thousands of Southerners who saw in her the “Melanie” they longed for.
It would be a very mixed blessing for her.
The Romance of Winnie Davis
Prior to the Civil War, the Davises had many northern friends, and now some old friends in Rochester, NY invited Winnie to visit, and her tragedy began to unfold.
Young attorney Alfred (Fred) Wilkinson was a child during the early 1860s, but was born a Yankee, and even worse, had prominent abolitionists in his family tree. Nevertheless he and Winnie fell deeply and sincerely in love, and they wanted to marry. It would spell doom for the star-crossed lovers. This would not be acceptable with her parents – let alone the entire South.
The emotional stress took a physical toll. In her depression, Winnie fell ill, and finally confessed her heartache. As expected, the Davises were not pleased. But they also loved their daughter dearly, and wanted her to be happy.
The Davises eventually consented to meet Fred, and, as expected, realized that he was not an ogre, and had he been born in the South, they would have welcomed the young man cordially. Davis finally was persuaded to give his consent to an engagement, perhaps believing that his own prestige might soften the public reaction, which would be loath to accept their Daughter married to a damnyankee. But before an engagement could be announced, Davis died.
So everything was postponed indefinitely; the strain of it wreaking havoc on poor Winnie’s health. She had never inherited her father’s iron will or her mother’s intimidating personality. Close to a complete breakdown, she returned to Europe, and began writing – an occupation for which she had a genuine flair. She would write and publish several Victorian age romance novels.
But her own romance was faltering. Fred always claimed it was Mrs. Davis who destroyed whatever slim chances the couple had for happiness. Mrs. Davis said it was about money. Maybe. She finally relented, but it was too late. Winnie’s spirit was broken. Their engagement was broken. She could not buck the public furor. Fred could not buck the indomitable Varina Davis.
A Sad Little Ending
Winnie returned home to live with her mother – in the North! She continued to write, but became more and more dependent on Varina. Poor Winnie died at only thirty-three. They said it was gastric malaria. Maybe it was also the Victorian broken heart.
Fred slipped into the church at her funeral, and sat alone in the back. He never married.
- Cashin, Joan E. – First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis’s Civil War, Bellknap Press, 2006
- Rowland, Eron – Varina Howell: Wife of Jefferson Davis: Volume II (reprinted) Pelican Pub Co Inc., 2002
- Ross, Ishbel – First Lady of the South: The Life of Mrs. Jefferson Davis, Greenwood Press, 1958