The Sons of Varina Davis

One of the little-known tragedies of Varina Davis’ life was that she survived all four of her sons.

Samuel Emery Davis (1852-54)

Forty-four year old Jefferson Davis and his twenty-six year old wife Varina had been married for seven years. There had been no hint of a pregnancy, and the couple had resigned themselves to their childless fate.

The birth of Samuel Emery Davis, born in 1852 and named for his paternal grandfather, surprised and elated his parents. Shortly after the infant’s birth, Jefferson Davis was appointed Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, and the Mississippi couple moved to Washington.

wedding picture

Jefferson and Varina Davis would have six children. Four sons would predecease the couple.

President and Mrs. Pierce had tragically lost their eleven-year-old son only weeks before the inauguration. Jane Pierce, a melancholy woman by nature, was in deep, deep mourning, but she found comfort in the companionship of young Mrs. Davis and her new baby. A little more than a year later, little Samuel sickened and died. The Davises were understandably grieved, but Varina was also pregnant again.

Jefferson Davis, Jr. (1857-1878)

Perhaps the birth of Samuel jump-started Varina Davis’ physiology. She would bear five more children. Margaret Howell Davis was born in 1855.

Jefferson Davis Jr., their third child, was a difficult birth. It was winter, and the weather was abysmal. Washington was locked in a blizzard, and Varina’s pains had begun – promising to be long and dangerous. The midwife they had engaged lived several blocks away, and could not get to the Davis’ house. By chance, she was a neighbor of Senator William Seward (who would be Lincoln’s Secretary of State). She begged the use of his horse and carriage for the emergency, and the Senator insisted on personally driving her to the home of the Secretary of War, a man he barely knew.

The midwife arrived in time, and while baby Jeff would survive, Varina developed a puerperal fever, and was seriously ill for weeks.

Jeff grew up to be a sturdy boy, who loved his visibility in the Confederate White House. Playful and rambunctious like most normal little boys, he was decidedly good looking and oozed charm. The household staff called him “General.” But after the Civil War, life was not easy for the boy.

Within weeks after the Confederates surrendered at Appomattox, his father was captured and imprisoned.   Varina sent him, his sister and little brother to Canada, in care of her mother. It was in everyone’s best interest. The children would be loved – and out of harm’s way. Two years would pass before the family reunited, and it would be a life far different from the one they had known. The Davises were wealthy before the War; now their land was gone, their income was gone, and their prospects were tenuous.

Davis kids

(Left to right) Jefferson Davis Jr., Margaret Davis, Varina Anne (Winnie) Davis and William Davis, taken after the end of the Civil War.

Jefferson Davis was nearly sixty and in poor health.  He needed to find employment, so they went to England.  Jeff Jr. continued his schooling, but unlike either of his parents, he was a lazy student, and difficult to motivate. Once back in America, he continued to flounder. For a brief time he went to school in Maryland – and later barely survived a semester at the Virginia Military Academy.  It is said that Jefferson Davis had sadly remarked to his wife, “We do not understand this boy and I fear we never shall.”

Finally, in 1877, twenty-year-old Jeff Jr. went to Memphis, Tennessee as clerk in his brother-in-law’s bank. A year later he died in a yellow fever epidemic.

Joseph Evan Davis (1859-64)

Little Joe is the only Davis son people vaguely remember. He is the “Willie Lincoln” of the Confederacy. Said to have been their brightest and most promising son, he was the one of tragedy.

In May, 1864, he was playing in the upstairs nursery of the Confederate White House. It was a beautiful day, and the floor-to-ceiling windows were wide open. The five-year-old evaded his nursemaid, ran out onto the balcony and plunged three stories to the concrete walk below. The child never regained consciousness and died a few hours later. His grieving father had the balcony torn down the following day.

Joe was buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, where the rest of the family would later be interred.

William Howell Davis (1861-1872)

Billy Davis was a war-baby, born at the end of 1861, shortly after his parents had moved to Richmond as Confederate President and First Lady. From the start, he was sickly.

Months later, as the boom of federal cannons could be heard near Richmond, Jefferson Davis sent his wife and children to North Carolina for safety. The letters between the Davises at that time are filled with concern about their baby’s health, and the Confederate President was prepared for the worst.

Rebel soldiers stationed in North Carolina remember seeing Mrs. Davis, babe in arms, pacing up and down outside the hotel where they were staying, in an effort to lull the fretful baby into some restful sleep.   The family’s hardships following the War proved to be his undoing. His health never returned fully, and William Davis would die at only eleven.

The Marker in St. Paul’s Church

Inscribed on the wall of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia is a large plaque dedicated to the memory of the four sons of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. This was the church where the family prayed while they lived in Richmond.

the elder davis family

An elderly Jefferson and Varina Davis, with their daughter Margaret and their grandchildren.

Decades after the Civil War, Margaret Howell Davis Hayes, the older sister of the Davis boys assumed the responsibility of honoring the brothers she hardly knew. Of the six Davis children, she was the only one who married, had children, and lived a full lifespan. One of her brothers died before she was born. Two died as children. One was a troubled young man.

Their sister would never forget that they were the sons of illustrious parents. She would never forget them, either.


CASHIN, JOAN – First Lady of the Confederacy, 2006, Belknap Press

About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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1 Response to The Sons of Varina Davis

  1. Pingback: Review: Varina by Charles Frazier, Cross-Generational Confederate Romance in Fact and Fiction – Hopewell's Public Library of Life

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