Davis, Varina Howell (1826–1906)

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Davis, Varina Howell (1826–1906)

First lady of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Name variations: Mrs. V. Jefferson Davis. Born Varina Anne Banks Howell on May 7, 1826, on Marengo plantation in Louisiana, near Natchez, Mississippi; died in New York City on October 16, 1906; buried at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, next to her husband; second child of William Burr Howell and Margaret Louisa (Kempe) Howell of The Briers plantation in Natchez, Mississippi; attended private boarding school in Philadelphia, around 1836, later tutored by Judge George Winchester; married Jefferson Davis (1808–1889), on February 26, 1845; children: Samuel Emerson (b. 1852); Margaret Howell Davis (b. 1855); Jefferson Davis, Jr. (b. 1857); Joseph Evan Davis (b. 1859); William Howell Davis (b. 1861); Varina Anne Davis, called Winnie Davis (1864–1898).

Married Jefferson Davis and moved to Brierfield plantation (1845); moved to Washington where her husband would eventually serve in the House of Representatives, Senate, and would be appointed secretary of war (1845–61); was first lady of the Confederacy (1861–65); traveled in Canada and Europe (1865–77); collaborated with her husband in writing The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (1878–81); moved to New York (1892). Selected publications: Jefferson Davis: Ex-President of the Confederate States: A Memoir by His Wife (1890).

Born May 7, 1826, into the small, tightlyknit oligarchy of planters clustered around the Mississippi River before the Civil War, Varina Howell Davis was the second child of William and Margaret Howell of Natchez, Mississippi, both of whom were descended from distinguished Southern families. Varina had one older brother William and later three younger siblings, Margaret, Becket, and Jefferson (whom she referred to affectionately as "Jeffy D"). Like many daughters of privileged Southern families, a ten-year-old Varina was sent North for schooling, where she impressed her teachers at an exclusive boarding school in Philadelphia as being "smart and capable." After only two terms, however, she returned to The Briers, her family home near Natchez, where she received the remainder of her education from a private tutor, Judge George Winchester. Winchester, a graduate of Harvard, gave Varina an education that exceeded the level of most women of her day. She studied French, Latin and the English classics, and by the time she was a teenager she read the National Intelligencer regularly. She later credited Winchester with instilling in her a "pure, high standard of right."

Varina met Jefferson Davis through his brother Joseph, who owned a huge plantation some 30 miles south of Vicksburg called "The Hurricane." Jefferson Davis had already distinguished himself as an army officer and owned a plantation nearby called "Brierfield." In 1835, he had married Knox Taylor , the daughter of his commanding officer, Colonel Zachary Taylor, and had left his military career to settle down as a planter. Within three months of their wedding, however, Knox took sick and died. Jefferson fell into a deep depression and for the next eight years seldom left his plantation. In an effort to bring his brother out of self-enforced exile, in 1843 Joseph suggested to Varina's parents that she be allowed to spend time at the Hurricane over the Christmas holiday.

Taylor, Knox (1814–1835)

American; daughter of Zachary Taylor. Name variations: Sallie Knox Taylor; Sarah Knox Taylor; Knox Davis. Born Sarah Knox Taylor in 1814; died on September 15, 1835; daughter of Zachary Taylor (army major, Mexican war hero, and president of the U.S.) and Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor; married Jefferson Davis, on June 17, 1835, in Louisville, Kentucky.

Knox Taylor was born in 1814, the daughter of Zachary Taylor, an army major and future president of the United States, and Margaret Smith Taylor . In 1835, while her family was stationed at Fort Crawford at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, Knox Taylor met one of her father's subordinates, the future Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Because Zachary Taylor did not want his daughter subjected to the family dislocations of the military life, the courtship was carried on at an aunt's home. Jefferson Davis resigned from the army and married Knox on June 17, 1835, in Louisville, Kentucky, with neither family present. Tragically, both Davis and his bride developed malaria during a summer visit to a sister's plantation in southern Mississippi, and Knox died on September 15.

Varina's first impression of her 36-year-old suitor was mixed. She described Jefferson to her mother as "a remarkable kind of man, but of uncertain temper. … the kind of person" who would "rescue one from a mad dog at any risk," but "insist upon a stoical indifference to the fright afterwards." Despite her initial misgivings and the 18-year difference in their ages, Varina and Jefferson soon discovered many common interests. They often slipped away from the family to ride together, and in the evenings they could be seen bent together over some political treatise or classical work while they debated issues and philosophy. Jefferson was quickly impressed by Varina's intelligence and wit, as well as her beauty. By the time Varina returned home in February 1844, Jefferson had proposed. Varina's mother was at first hesitant about the difference in ages, but when Jefferson visited the family in the spring of 1844 Margaret quickly gave her approval.

Soon after their engagement became official, Jefferson left to attend to political duties as elector-at-large, campaigning for James K. Polk. A disconsolate Varina grew pale and thin. She worried obsessively about his fragile health and was distressed by criticism of his party in the newspapers. By the time Jefferson returned in early 1845, Varina was too weak to stand. Both families suggested that the wedding be postponed, but Varina was determined that Jefferson never leave her again. On February 26, 1845, Varina and Jefferson were married in a simple private ceremony in the Howell home. In many ways, the marriage would prove successful; the tall brunette's impressive personality proved a major asset for her rather formal husband. Her friend in wartime Richmond, Mary Boykin Chesnut , wrote, "She is as witty as he is wise."

But after the wedding, Varina was plagued by the shadow of Knox. Her honeymoon was marred by Jefferson's insistence that they visit his first wife's grave in Louisiana, and by tales related by members of Jefferson's family there of his abiding love for Knox, including the story of how, years after her demise, Jefferson had happened upon one of Knox's slippers in an old trunk and fainted away with grief. Varina's health and spirits were greatly improved when the couple arrived at their destination in New Orleans, where they spent several weeks at the St. Charles Hotel, rubbing shoulders with the city's upper crust.

When the couple returned to Brierfield, they moved into the rough, unpretentious home that Jefferson had built there. Although he would build a more elaborate home for his wife five years later, Varina recalled their original home fondly, with its deep fireplaces and doorways six feet wide, designed to let in the breeze. During these early years, Varina described herself as a "loving but useless wife." She worked hard at beautifying their home and supervising the household servants. Unlike many Southern women of her generation, Varina never questioned the institution of slavery. Joseph and Jefferson Davis were well known throughout the area for what was considered at the time "humane treatment" of their slaves, and overseers at the Hurricane and Brierfield were not allowed to use corporal punishment. The 1860 census indicated that there were 113 slaves at Brierfield belonging to the master. This large number reflected both the success of the plantation and the fact that Davis considered inhuman the practice of selling slaves. Despite it being illegal to allow slaves to handle weapons, Jefferson Davis hunted with slaves. He also shook hands with them against convention, provided a slave hospital, and allowed slave juries to handle most cases of wrong doing. While he thought the institution a positive good, Jefferson did not believe it to be permanent. In a speech on Oregon on July 12, 1848, he talked of emancipation in several generations and said it was an "institution for the preparation of that race for civil liberty and social enjoyment." After the Civil War, Davis is reported to have been upset over the oppressive circumstances of former slaves.

In the fall of 1845, Jefferson was elected to the House of Representatives, and in December the couple moved to a boarding house in Washington. Jefferson worked hard as a legislator and soon earned a reputation as a man on the way up. Varina, always concerned for her husband's health, worried over his habit of working until 2 or 3 am. In the stimulating atmosphere of the capital, she grew up quickly. She frequently attended Congressional debates and learned to hold her own in social affairs.

When the Mexican War broke out in 1846, Jefferson accepted the colonelcy of a Mississippi regiment, and Varina returned to Brierfield. During her husband's absence, her management of the plantation provoked criticism from her brother-in-law Joe, and a distraught Varina fled to her parents' plantation. Jefferson was on leave for two weeks in November and did what he could to calm his young wife.

When the war ended, Davis returned a hero, having received a wound in the foot that put him on crutches for two years. His war exploits bolstered his political career. Two months later, he was appointed to a vacant seat in the Senate. The Davises returned to Washington where they were often entertained by his ex-in-laws, the new president Zachary Taylor and Margaret Smith Taylor . In the Senate, Davis distinguished himself as a staunch defender of States Rights and the institution of slavery. Varina supported him unquestioningly but later wrote: "He was so impervious to the influence of anything but principle in shaping his political course that he underrated the effect of social intercourse in determining the action of public men and never sought to exert it in behalf of his own policy."

Davis resigned his Senate seat in 1851 to run for governor but lost to Henry S. Foote by 999 votes. Varina was relieved to return to Brierfield, confiding to her mother, "You know my heart never went with Jeff in politics or soldiering." She settled down to a more domestic life, and on July 30, 1852, gave birth to a son, Samuel Emerson. Jefferson and Varina's quiet days at Brierfield were brief. In late 1852, the newly elected president, Franklin Pierce, appointed Jefferson secretary of war. Varina at first urged him to decline the offer on the basis of his delicate health but eventually relented, and the family returned to Washington.

The happiness of the next four years was marred by the death of Samuel, just short of his second birthday. The loss of their first son was eased somewhat by the birth of a daughter, Margaret Howell Davis , on February 25, 1855. Jefferson was a great success in his cabinet position, and Varina earned a reputation as a poised and vivacious host. The birth of another son, Jefferson Jr., on January 16, 1857, impaired Varina's health for several months, but a brief vacation on the Gulf Coast did much to improve her spirits.

When the Davis family returned to Washington in late 1857, their contingent was expanded still further by the addition of Varina's two youngest siblings, Maggie and Jeffy D. Jefferson generously accepted them as part of the Davis household and put them in school at his own expense. Although Varina continued to appear in capital society, she found herself devoting more of her time to the care of her growing family. The acrimonious debates over the Kansas question in 1858 took their toll on Jefferson's health; he developed glaucoma and lost all vision in his left eye. On April 18, 1859, Varina gave birth to another son. She proposed naming him William, after her father, but Jefferson insisted on christening him Joseph Evan, after his brother Joe. Varina was angered by his insistence on naming the child after someone whom she considered unkind, but she soon forgave him.

By the time Congress reassembled in December 1859, the debates over slavery had become intense. Jefferson continued to argue for the extreme Southern position as the Southern states moved inexorably toward secession. In his valedictory speech to the Senate on January 21, 1861, he concluded, "May God have us in his holy keeping, and grant that before it is too late peaceful councils may prevail."

Three weeks after the Davises returned to Brierfield, a telegram arrived informing Jefferson that he had been elected president of the newly formed Confederate States of America. Varina later recalled that Jefferson's face reflected "profound grief" at the news and that he "neither desired nor expected" the office, but that his deep sense of responsibility would not allow him to shirk his duty. Jefferson left Brierfield the next day, and soon afterward Varina and the family took up residence at the Confederate capital in Montgomery, Alabama. The Davis family received a warm reception, but Jefferson soon found himself beaten down under the pressures of his new position and the outbreak of war in April 1861. He was not only plagued by chronic insomnia but by hordes of office-seekers.

Montgomery's distance from the battlefront prompted the Confederate government to move the capital to Richmond, Virginia, in May. At first, Varina expressed relief at leaving behind the heat and congestion of Montgomery, but she soon found the ladies of Virginia's old aristocracy to be cool and distant. The failure of the Confederate troops to quickly win the war brought heavy criticism upon Jefferson by late 1861, which Varina could never abide. Quarrels over military commissions alienated the Davises from many of their former friends, who soon began calling Varina "a coarse western woman" or "Queen Varina." Varina was also "utterly upset," according to Mary Chesnut, at "the carping and fault-finding to which the President is subjected."

On December 16, 1861, another son, William Howell, was born, and on February 22, 1862, Jefferson was inaugurated as president under the new permanent Confederate constitution. These temporary lifts to their spirits were dampened by news of military reverses in early 1862. Varina did what she could to salvage Jefferson's reputation, but the heavy burden of government administration severely curtailed the number of entertainments she could give, and she blamed this for Jefferson's declining influence in Confederate government.

When Federal troops pushed close to Richmond, Jefferson sent Varina and the children to Raleigh, North Carolina, an action that earned Varina a flood of criticism in the press. By early 1863, they received word that Brierfield had been pillaged and the Hurricane burned to the ground by Union soldiers. Varina's spirits were buoyed by her friendship with Mary Chesnut, who had moved to Richmond, and by knitting and distributing money and clothing to the Confederate troops in the hospitals.

Varina's father, who had settled in Montgomery after fleeing Mississippi, fell ill and died in March 1863. Soon after she returned from his funeral, a bread riot broke out in Richmond on April 2, which was quelled only after Jefferson threatened to have the mob shot by the military. As food became ever scarcer, Varina received mounting criticism for sponsoring social engagements while much of Richmond starved. Jefferson's health continued to decline, and throughout the spring he was bedridden with fever and bronchitis.

The summer of 1863 brought further disaster. Robert E. Lee was defeated at Gettysburg and Vicksburg fell to Union troops. Later that year, Jefferson traveled South to try to smooth relations between his battle-weary officers. Upon his return, Varina began sponsoring weekly public receptions at the Southern White House in an attempt to improve public relations. They were discontinued in January 1864, after a fire was set during one of the receptions.

Jefferson and Varina were devastated by the death of their five-year-old son Joe on April 30, 1864. He had slipped while climbing a bannister on a White House balcony and fallen 30 feet to the brick pavement below. Two months later, on June 27, 1864, Varina gave birth to daughter Varina Anne, called "Winnie." As the only spark of happiness during an otherwise black time, Winnie Davis was a blessing. For decades after the war, she was fondly referred to by Southerners as "the daughter of the Confederacy."

The fall of Atlanta in September was a further blow to Jefferson's prestige. "I am so tired [of] hoping, fearing and being disappointed," Varina wrote Mary Chesnut, "that I have made up my mind not to be disconsolate even though thieves break through and steal. … People do not snub me any longer, for it was only while the lion was dying that he was kicked, dead, he was beneath contempt."

As the condition of the Confederate forces continued to deteriorate, Jefferson sent his wife and children south, telling Varina, "If I live you can come to me when the struggle is ended, but I do not expect to survive the destruction of constitutional liberty." He gave her a small pistol and showed her how to fire it and then sent his family by train through South Carolina and into Georgia. Fleeing the capital, he was reunited with his family early in May. On May 10, the family was captured by Union forces at Irwinsville, Georgia. Jefferson was charged with conspiring in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and imprisoned at Fort Monroe. Varina and the children were kept under guard at the Savannah hotel for about two months, after which they were allowed to move to Mill View, a plantation outside Augusta.

But Varina Davis received word that her husband's poor health was being made worse by manacles and constant guards. Although the chains were removed a few weeks later, Jefferson was still not allowed to leave his damp, vermininfested cell, and a light was shone continually in his eyes. Fearing for her husband's life and afraid that he would go blind under such treatment, Varina immediately wrote letters to all the congressmen and senators who had known Davis before the war, begging them to intercede with President Andrew Johnson on his behalf. In May 1866, when she was finally allowed to visit him, she was appalled at his "shrunken form and glassy eyes" and quickly released an account of his condition to the press. She traveled to Washington to plead for his release, but Johnson insisted that his hands were tied by a recalcitrant Congress.

When no evidence linking Davis to Lincoln's assassination emerged, Federal authorities indicted him on charges of treason to the U.S. government. Varina tirelessly traveled the country to drum up support for her husband's parole. Responding to her campaign, a writ of habeas corpus was entered in May 1867 and $100,000 bail met by New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley and abolitionist Gerrit Smith. After two years of incarceration, Jefferson Davis was released and never called to trial; the general amnesty signed by President Johnson on December 25, 1868, nullified the charges against him.

Jefferson's release did not end the difficulties faced by his family. Like many Southern planters, they had lost almost everything. Still weak and plagued by ill health from his imprisonment, he determined to go to England to seek gainful employment. In 1868, the family moved overseas, and Varina enrolled the children in school in England and France. Jefferson attempted to set up a business as a cotton broker in Liverpool. The family was welcomed warmly by other Confederate expatriots, like Judah P. Benjamin and John Slidell, but Jefferson was never able to get his business off the ground.

In late 1869, Jefferson returned to the United States and moved to Memphis, Tennessee, to take a position as president of the Carolina Insurance Company. Not relishing the prospect of living in Memphis, Varina stayed in Europe near her children for another year before finally reuniting the family in 1871. But the move to Memphis did not solve their financial woes; the Carolina Insurance Company went bankrupt in 1873. To add to their misfortune, their ten-yearold son Billy died of diphtheria in 1872, and Varina's beloved younger brother, Jeffy D, was drowned in the Pacific when his ship collided with another in 1875.

Soon after the wedding of her daughter Margaret to J. Addison Hayes, a Memphis banker, in January 1876, Varina, Jefferson, and their daughter Winnie, now 13, returned to England, where Jefferson hoped to establish a trading company. When he was unable to secure investors, he was forced to abandon the project. The constant strain of financial worries and frequent upheavals took their toll. Varina developed heart problems and was forced to convalesce at her sister's home in Liverpool while Jefferson returned to America.

Upon his return, Jefferson decided to compile and publish a history of the Confederacy. A wealthy widow, Sarah Dorsey , who owned a plantation called Beauvoir, just outside Biloxi, Mississippi, offered Jefferson a house on her estate and her assistance as secretary if he would undertake the project. After his failures in the business world, Jefferson believed he had few options. Varina, dejected after months of illness, quickly grew jealous of Dorsey, and her suspicions were raised by tidbits of gossip released by the press. In late 1877, she sent Jefferson an angry letter expressing her disapproval of the arrangement:

I am grateful for the kindness to you and my children, but do not desire to be under any more obligation to her. When people here ask me what part of your book she is writing, and such things, I feel aggravated nearly to death.

When Varina recovered enough to travel home, she returned to Memphis but refused to join Jefferson at Beauvoir. When he pleaded with her to change her mind, she retorted:

Do not, please do not let Mrs. Dorsey come to see me. I cannot see her and do not desire ever to do so again, beside[s] I do not wish to be uncivil and embarrass you and would certainly be so against my will. Let us agree to disagree about her and I will bear my separation from you as I have the last six months.

Finally relenting, Varina moved to Beauvoir in the summer of 1878, but soon after she was stricken with a "brain fever" upon receiving word that their last son, Jefferson Jr., had died of yellow fever on October 16, 1878.

The following year, Dorsey died of cancer, and Jefferson purchased Beauvoir from her estate for $5,500. Jefferson and Varina poured all of their energies into completing the history, which was finally published in 1881 as The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Varina penned a note to Winnie, then attending school in Germany, "Well, dear love, the book is done and coming out—'whoop la.'"

To celebrate the book's completion, the couple traveled to Europe for a two-month vacation in Paris. When they returned, they brought 16-year-old Winnie with them. Winnie quickly became her father's chief assistant, taking over from Varina much of the secretarial responsibilities and, in 1885, joining her father on a speaking tour through Alabama and Georgia. Father and daughter received tremendous support from their audiences, which were made up mostly of old Confederate soldiers.

Dorsey, Sarah Anne (1829–1879)

American prose writer. Born in Natchez, Mississippi, on February 16, 1829; died in New Orleans, Louisiana, on July 4, 1879; owned a plantation called Beauvoir, just outside Biloxi, Mississippi.

A linguist and student of Sanskrit, Dorsey's literary work began with the (Episcopal) Churchman. Her writings include: Lucia Dare (1867); Panola: A Tale of Louisiana (1877); Atalie and Agnes Graham. She was amanuensis to Jefferson Davis in the preparation of his Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government.

Varina's close friend Mary Chesnut died in 1886. In 1889, 81-year-old Jefferson Davis developed bronchitis and malaria while en route between Beauvoir and Brierfield. Varina met him in New Orleans, where for three weeks he struggled against growing weakness. Finally on December 6, he died and was buried in Metairie Cemetery, and in 1893 his remains were moved to Richmond. Varina determined to publish a memoir of her husband, as a last attempt to clear his reputation. She worked steadily until at last in 1890 she completed a 1,638-page book entitled Jefferson Davis, Ex-President of the Confederate States: A Memoir by His Wife. Much of the publication was copied from Jefferson's earlier publication. Though strongly biased in his favor, it contained some interesting material never recorded elsewhere.

In the following years, Varina and Winnie scrambled to stay financially afloat. The book never sold enough to bring in any real income, and Beauvoir and Brierfield were both deeply encumbered by debt. A failed romance with Alfred Wilkinson, a Syracuse lawyer, along with the death of her father, had a detrimental effect on Winnie's health. Margaret, now living in Colorado Springs, Colorado, occasionally sent financial assistance to her mother and sister. Never completely comfortable at Beauvoir, Varina determined in 1892 to move to New York City, where she hoped to use her connections with Joseph Pulitzer's family to launch herself and Winnie into a writing career. Varina contributed articles to the Sunday World while Winnie worked on novels. But Winnie's health continued to deteriorate, and on September 18, 1898, she died at 33 from malarial gastritis.

After Winnie's death, Varina concentrated on her one remaining child, Margaret, and on her grandchildren. In 1902, Varina sold Beauvoir to the United Confederate Veterans for $10,000. In October of 1906, she caught pneumonia and on October 16 breathed her last with the words, "Oh Lord in thee have I trusted, let me not be confounded."


Ross, Ishbel. First Lady of the South: The Life of Mrs. Jefferson Davis. NY: Harper, 1958.

Van der Heuvel, Gerry. Crowns of Thorns and Glory: Mary Todd Lincoln and Varina Howell Davis: The Two First Ladies of the Civil War. NY: E.P. Dutton, 1988.

Wiley, Bell Irvin. Confederate Women. NY: Greenwood Press, 1975.

Woodward, C. Vann and Elisabeth Muhlenfeld. The Private Mary Chesnut: The Unpublished Civil War Diaries. NY: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Peter Harrison Branum , Ph.D. Philosophy, Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama

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Davis, Varina Howell (1826–1906)

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