Two Civil war icons, one North, one South, finally met in old age, and became friends.
Varina Davis: The Confederate Queen
Varina Davis (1826-1905) first appeared on a national stage when she was eighteen and recently married to Congressional widower Jefferson Davis, nearly twice her age.
The tall (around 5’10”) dark beauty mingled at the highest levels of US government. From the start, she became her husband’s secretary and amanuensis, taking dictation for his letters and notes and speeches. It was a career that lasted for the rest of his life.
By the time Jefferson Davis was elected Confederate President in 1861, they both had enjoyed close friendships with many of their northern counterparts. A Mississippian by birth, Varina had close relatives in the North, and those deep personal ties would work to her disadvantage as the Confederate First Lady.
Like Mary Lincoln, the Union First Lady, many of her “countrymen” suspected her allegiance. They also disapproved of her political savvy and influence on her husband.
Bottom line: she was not popular. Nor was her husband.
Varina Davis: Post-Civil War
By 1865, the once wealthy Davises had lost a huge amount of their property and fortune. Davis also lost his freedom and spent two years incarcerated in Fortress Monroe.
Once released, the Davis family were wanderers. Their once-prosperous plantation in Mississippi had been devastated past repair. Davis’ main concern was providing for his still-young family. Being past sixty, in poor health and political status, this presented difficulties.
Jefferson Davis died in 1889, at 81. His reputation, at least in the South, had begun to mend. Hers, however, had not. Only two children of the six she had borne remained. Her once-willowy figure had grown bulky. Her suspected Northern allegiances still rankled ex-Confederates. And her finances were precarious.
An opportunity arose when an admiring Joseph Pulitzer offered her a position writing for his newspaper in New York. Interestingly enough, while much of the South was still cool, the North found Mrs. Davis interesting and delightful.
Julia Grant: The Early Years
Julia Grant (1826-1901) and Varina Davis were the same age. Born to a middle-class St. Louis planing family, she met West Point graduate Ulysses S. Grant when she was barely eighteen. He was twenty-one. It would be four years, punctuated by the Mexican War, before they married.
His up and down career during the 1850s was mostly down, despite their four children and obvious marital congeniality. By 1861, ex-Captain USG was at the bottom of his fortunes, working at a job he hated: a clerk in a tannery owned by his father.
Despite his plodding routine, surrounded by Julia and the children, he was happy. And they were happy.
Julia: The Civil War Years and After
By her own admission, Julia Grant spent the four years of the Civil War as either “Penelope” waiting for her Ulysses, or as a nomad, with children in tow. The ex-Captain rose quickly in a Union Army sorely in need of competent, experienced professional officers.
Once again it was up-and-down for Grant, but this time, the downs were glitches and the ups were giant leaps forward. Grant wanted his wife nearby, and Julia joined him whenever he summoned. And despite her Southern-ish, slave-holding family ties, her allegiances were never suspect.
By the end of the War, General Grant was the general, the hero, the man of the hour, with fortunes assured.
By 1868, USG was a shoo-in for the Presidency. While the Davises wandered, Julia spent her happiest eight years as mistress of the White House. Never a beauty nor witty in conversation, she was always a pleasant, sociable person who made friends easily.
After the Presidency, the Grants spent two years traveling the globe, feasted and feted by Kings, Queens, Emperors and even the Mikado of Japan.
A yo-yo life seemed to follow the Grants perpetually. The highest of all fortunes soared briefly, and then, once again plummeted.
When Grant was 62, a business venture failed ignominiously, bankrupting him. With months, a diagnosis of terminal throat cancer followed. To provide for Julia and his family, to repay his creditors and to rescue his good name, he raced the clock, writing his war memorials. A week after the final edits, he died.
Grant’s Memoirs were a huge success, making Julia a very rich widow. She traveled as she pleased, and surround herself with a close-knit family and many friends. And like Varina Davis, she had become a city girl, with a town house in New York.
In 1893 there was a celebration at West Point, an institution dear to both Davis (class of 1828) and Grant (class of 1843). Both in their late sixties, the Widow Grant and the Widow Davis attended the ceremonies.
It turned out they were both staying at the Cranston-on-Hudson Hotel, and it was Julia who learned of the coincidence first. “Oh, I have always wanted to meet her,” she is said to have remarked.
She inquired of Mrs. Davis’ room number, and knocked at the door. It was a pleasant surprise for Varina, who invited her in, and a friendship began.
The two iconic women of the Civil War discovered they lived within blocks of each other in New York City, and we’re both social and active, having left partisan politics behind decades earlier.
Varina Davis had been hosting a small salon for some time. Always intellectually inclined, she patronized the galleries, theatres and lecture halls. Julia, as always, had dozens of friends. Now she would have one more.
They were seen periodically driving in an open carriage en route to lunch or a drive through the park, chatting away, as if they had known each other for years.
When Grant’s Tomb was dedicated in 1897, Julia Grant sent a personal invitation to Varina Davis to attend the ceremonies. It has been suggested that in its own way, their friendship helped knit the North and South back together.
Ross, Ishbel – The General’s Wife – Dodd, Mead, 1959
Ross, Ishbel – First Lady of the South: The Life of Mrs. Jefferson Davis, Greenwood Press, 1958