Davis, Varina Howell

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

DAVIS, VARINA HOWELL

(b. May 7, 1826; d. October 16, 1905) First Lady of the Confederate States of America.

Varina Ann Howell, later Varina Ann Howell Davis, was born at the Briars, near Natchez, Mississippi, on May 7, 1826. Her parents, William Howell and Margaret Kempe, occupied a respectable place among Mississippi's slave-owning class. Varina Howell was educated at Madame D. Grelaud's Female Seminary in Philadelphia and also had a private tutor. By the age of seventeen she outwardly fit the model of a perfect Southern lady: vivacious and well mannered, she could play the piano and read French and Latin. But throughout her life Varina Howell Davis was somewhat at odds with the ideal of southern womanhood and resented a social order that expected women to comply with men.

At a Christmas gathering in 1843, she met the equally well-connected Jefferson Davis, a West Point Academy graduate and plantation owner. The future president of the Confederate States was seventeen years older than Howell and, like her, well-positioned in Mississippi's antebellum society. By the time they met, Davis had shaken off the melancholy that followed his first wife's death and seemed willing to give marriage a second try. Following a two-year courtship, they married on February 26, 1845.

The Davis family settled in Mississippi near the home of Davis's older brother and father figure, Joseph Davis. As the family elder, Joseph Davis ruled his property and family autocratically—a style that did not sit well with Varina Davis, and this led to tense relationships in the Davis household. In 1846, Jefferson Davis obtained a commission to fight in the Mexican-American War and in 1847 returned home a war hero. By the early 1850s, the family had moved to Washington, D.C., where Jefferson Davis served first as secretary of war under Franklin Pierce and then as senator from Mississippi. Varina Davis enjoyed life in the nation's capital and in 1852 bore the first of the couple's six children.

In 1861, when the nation split over the issue of slavery and Mississippi seceded, Jefferson Davis renounced his senate seat and the Davis family returned to Brier-field, their Mississippi plantation. Shortly thereafter, the newly formed Confederate States of America elected Jefferson Davis as their first president. The family moved first to Montgomery, Alabama, the Confederacy's first seat of government, and then to Richmond, Virginia, the permanent capital. Initially, life in Richmond pleased Varina Davis. She became reacquainted with old friends from Washington, D.C., and enjoyed the prominence and adulation that came with her new role. But as the war progressed and living conditions worsened in the Confederacy, public support for Jefferson Davis tumbled, and public disapproval was not confined to the president. Rumors and innuendo directed at Varina Davis flourished. Her detractors accused her of exercising undue influence over her husband and of poorly managing the Confederate White House. Even her loyalty to the cause was questioned. But despite the public's condemnation, political turmoil, and the accidental death of one of their children, Varina Davis continued to support the Confederate armies on the field. She provided succor to soldiers in the hospitals and maintained the dignity of her position.

Following the collapse of the Confederacy in April 1865 and a harrowing escape attempt, Union troops caught up with Jefferson Davis and his family in Irwinville,

Georgia, arresting Jefferson Davis and sending Varina Davis and the children to Savannah, which she was forbidden to leave. Her time in Georgia was unhappy. The family was subjected to the taunts and abuses of Unionists. She eventually sent her children to Canada and worked tirelessly to gain her husband's release from prison.

The end of the war found the Davises nearly bankrupt. Upon his release from prison, the former Confederate president tried to establish himself as a businessman but had little success. With the assistance of friends, the Davises purchased Beauvoir, the Mississippi estate to which they eventually retired. After her husband's death in 1889, Varina Davis stayed at Beauvoir for a few years but ultimately bequeathed the home to confederate veterans. She moved to New York City, where she worked as a writer until her death in 1905. A company of artillery from Governor's Island, New York, escorted her funeral procession through the streets of city, and the New York Camp of the United Confederate Veterans joined the procession. In Richmond, thousands lined the streets that led to Saint Paul's Church. Even though she occupied a privileged position as first lady of the Confederacy, Varina Howell Davis's life reveals how the Civil War caused Southern women to confront personal challenges and tragedies that changed their lives forever.

bibliography

Cashin, Joan E. "Varina Howell Davis (1826–1905)." In Portraits of American Women, Vol. 1: From Settlement to the Civil War, edited by G. J. Barker-Benfield and Catherine Clinton. New York: St. Martin's, 1991.

Ross, Ishbel. The First Lady of the South. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1973.

Jose O. Diaz

See also:Confederate States of America; Davis, Jefferson; Women on the Homefront.