The last years of The First Lady of the Confederacy were spent as a New York Yankee.
Varina Davis: A Northern Lineage
Although Varina Howell Davis (1826-1906) was born and raised in Natchez, Mississippi, she had prominent Northerners on her family tree. Her father’s people, the Howells, were Pennsylvanians. Her grandfather, Richard Howell, had been a Captain in the Revolutionary War. Then he went on to serve four terms as Governor of New Jersey.
Varina spent a year at a boarding school in Philadelphia when she was around eight. She formed a strong bond with her Northern kin and would stay in affectionate touch with some of them for the rest of her life.
Varina Davis: Her Northern Friends
Varina was only eighteen when she married Jefferson Davis, a widower twice her age. For most of the first fifteen years of their marriage, she lived, at least part time, in Washington, DC. Davis was a well-regarded Senator, and served a four-year term as Secretary of War (and close friend) under President Franklin Pierce – a New Hampshire man. By the end of the 1850s, Davis had become the “voice of the South.”
Varina was a social woman by nature. Having come to Washington as an eighteen-year-old bride, she developed into a well-respected political wife and hostess. She was better educated and politically astute than most women of her era, and mingled with the cream of the law-making world from the start.
While many of her friends were the wives of Southern congressmen and senators, her closest companions were the wives of some Northern political leaders. They enjoyed her company immensely, and she was considered one of the best conversationalists in the capital city.
Because of these Northern “connections,” (both family and friends) many of the standard bearers of the “Lost Cause,” had suspicions that Mrs. Davis was not as sympathetic to the Confederacy as she was expected to be. Then too, the outspoken Mrs. D. was a formidable woman. She had enemies.
The Poor (Literally) Widow Davis
The Post-Civil War years had not been kind to Jefferson Davis. His health had been poor for years; his finances were precarious. He had been a wealthy man before 1861; after Appomattox, he was a man who had lost nearly everything except his dignity.
Their plantation in Mississippi had been ravaged during the war, and they lacked the funds to rebuild it. The Confederate ex-President held a series of modest positions after the War, but he was past sixty, the companies failed, and there was precious little to support his family. In his later years, he had written a massive book about the Confederacy, but it was ponderous and not financially successful.
Despite his chronically poor health, Jefferson Davis lived to be eighty-one. Varina, at sixty-two, was left with little income. A skilled writer herself, she tried her own hand at a biography of her husband. It was not a success either.
Varina Davis: The Pulitzer Connection
Varina Davis had lived on and off in England during the 1870s-80s, and had become acquainted with young Joseph Pulitzer, who had married one of Jefferson Davis’ nieces. The Pulitzers were enchanted by the ex-Confederate First Lady, and considered her delightful company. They kept up an active correspondence for several years.
When Jefferson Davis had died in 1889, Joseph Pulitzer was well on his way to becoming one of the foremost newspaper publishers in the country. Knowing that Varina’s income was precarious, he offered her a job – in New York City.
Mrs. Davis had never been a popular First Lady. The South wanted the quintessential Southern belle as their female role model and social leader. Varina was not in that mold. She was too intelligent, too outspoken, and far too large (she was 5’10” tall) to fit their image. While she was never accused of disloyalty (as was Mary Lincoln), she was suspected of weaker enthusiasm than they demanded. If she decided to move North, it would literally break all her Southern ties. She would never be forgiven.
But Varina needed the money, and Pulitzer’s offer of $1200 a year for an article every now and again, was more than generous. Living in a city was also very appealing to the woman who had spent most of her adult life in urban areas.
Varina In New York City
As the South turned away from Varina, New York City welcomed her with open arms. Her conversational skills and seemingly endless supply of good stories were greeted warmly by the cultured set in the Big “Nineteenth Century” Apple. She made dozens of new friends who were delighted to attend her “salons.” She became a regular at concerts and theatricals and exhibits. And from time to time, her articles were printed in Pulitzer’s New York World.
One of Varina’s new friends during her golden years was a woman her own age, with a comparable (if not better) claim to pedigree. Julia Grant, former First Lady and widow of the nearly iconic Union General, was also a New York resident, and lived only a few blocks away. The two most prominent women of the Civil War sincerely liked each other. They were seen publicly on carriage rides, nodding pleasantly to onlookers, or lunching together. Perhaps they helped close the gap between the North and South.
By the time Varina Davis died, her reputation as the one and only First Lady of the Confederacy enjoyed a brief flurry of semi-popularity. Aging Confederate veterans marched prominently in her funeral procession. The streets of Richmond were lined with bystanders as she was laid to rest beside her husband at Hollywood Cemetery.
Then she was promptly forgotten.
- 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