In 1861, Mrs. Jefferson Davis was hailed as the First Lady of the Confederacy. Today she is virtually unknown.
Varina Howell Davis: The Early Years
Even though Varina (pronounced Va-REE-na) Howell (1826-1906) was born and raised in Natchez, Mississippi, her Howell lineage had strong Northern roots. Her grandfather, a Revolutionary War officer, had served four terms as Governor of New Jersey.
Her education was mostly via private tutoring, but her teacher, a retired Massachusetts judge, taught her well. He recognized that the young girl had a bright, questioning and independent mind, and he encouraged her to think for herself.
At seventeen, she met Jefferson Davis, a widower eighteen years her senior. The following year they were married. Davis had just been elected to Congress. From the start, Varina traveled in exalted political circles, and became a true helpmeet to her husband. At first she merely handled clerical tasks, such as franking his “postage free” envelopes by signing his name. Not long afterwards, she began serving as his amanuensis – taking dictation from him. It would be a task she continued until Davis died.
Varina Davis: The Unpopular Confederate First Lady
Mary Lincoln was totally unknown when she became First Lady, but Varina Davis was very well know, both North and South. She had been highly placed on the national-social scene for fifteen years, and had numerous friends above the Mason-Dixon line. In the South, Jefferson Davis was its preeminent Senator and spokesman. He had served for four years as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. Then he was elected Senator from Mississippi. With so many years of high-level entertaining as both Cabinet and Senate wife, Varina was perfectly equipped to assume social leadership in Richmond.
But… Mary Lincoln was disliked and criticized in Washington; her Richmond counterpart was just as unpopular.
First and foremost, Varina Davis was a large woman. Her admirers say 5’8”; her detractors say 5’10”. Either way, she was tall, and the slim beauty of eighteen, was now a thirty-five year old matron with three children. Two more children would be born during the war years. If the South was looking for the epitome of delicate womanhood, the formidable Mrs. Davis was not it.
Her physical appearance was further compounded by the fact that she was outspoken, with a caustic, biting wit. As her husband’s long-time confidante, she was completely familiar with the political issues, and just as savvy as the men who surrounded the Confederate President. If she had an opinion, she had access to the top, and never hesitated to speak her mind. This, of course, did not endear her to many. Women said she put on airs. Men claimed that she was domineering, and decried “petticoat government.”
And if Mary Lincoln was suspected of Southern sympathy if not downright disloyalty because of her Southern upbringing and kin, Varina Davis was also accused of divided political affections. She knew and kept in touch with many of her Northern cousins – and even worse, her closest friend Minna Blair was the wife of Lincoln’s Postmaster General and member of his cabinet.
The Many Hats of Varina Davis
Varina Davis wore many hats in the Richmond White House of the Confederacy. She entertained continually – even when shortages curtailed refreshments and the expected accoutrements of gracious Southern hospitality. She nursed her husband on a routine basis – his health was always poor. She sat up with him half the night reading to him, to coax the insomniac Davis into sleep. Her hands were never idle. She knitted and sewed for the soldiers, just like every other wife and mother in the South. But first and foremost, Varina was mother to a growing family. Jefferson Davis entrusted his capable and more than competent wife to care for their children, relieving him of worry about their welfare – especially since the Civil War was never far from Richmond.
Varina Davis and Mary Lincoln also shared a tragic experience. The Lincolns lost a young son during those War years. So did the Davises. Five-year-old Joe Davis fell from a balcony on the third floor of the Confederate White House, and died immediately. There was barely time for a proper funeral. Varina was eight months pregnant with her last child. She did not have the luxury of mourning. Her grief – and the grief of Jefferson Davis – was private.
Varina Davis: The Ex-Confederate First Lady
When the Civil War ended, Jefferson Davis was captured, chained and incarcerated in Fortress Monroe, near Norfolk, Virginia. He was nearly sixty, blind in one eye, and frail. It would be Varina who lobbied hard for improving his treatment (he was no threat to anyone) – and eventual release. Having arranged for her children’s safety in Canada, she and her infant daughter spent nearly two years sharing his fortress prison.
Once released, with concerns about supporting their family, the Davises drifted back and forth for years between Canada, Europe and various points south. They eventually ended up back in Biloxi, Mississippi in a shore house named Belvoir, along the Gulf of Mexico that had been owned by a family friend.
Despite his abysmal health, Jefferson Davis lived to be eighty-one, and Varina, eighteen years his junior, would have nearly eighteen years of widowhood. She wrote Jefferson Davis’s biography, which in truth was just as much her own biography. Its sales were disappointing. The Davis fortune had been long gone and her income modest at best. At loose ends, she accepted an offer from Joseph Pulitzer to write occasional columns for his newspaper. She had always been a lively writer with an engaging style, and needing money, she accepted the offer and moved to New York City. There she would meet and become friends with Julia Grant, the widow of Union General Ulysses S. Grant.
The South never forgave her.
· CASHIN, JOAN – First Lady of the Confederacy, 2006, Belknap Press
· ROSS, ISHBEL – First Lady of the South, 1958, Harper & Bros.
WILEY, BELL IRVIN – Confederate Women, 1975, Greenwood Press