May 7, 1826–October 16, 1906
Confederate First Lady
WORDS TO REMEMBER:
“Would you believe it, he is refined and cultivated and yet he is a Democrat” (on Jefferson Davis).
Varina Howell Davis wasn’t any happier at the prospect of her husband being president than he was. Jeff Davis was no politician, and she had no problem saying so. As for Varina herself, she felt unprepared for the role of a first lady, despite her years of experience in the drawing rooms of Washington; she would have a pretty hard time of it right along with Jefferson. Nevertheless, she was an extraordinary woman: whip smart, sophisticated, prepossessing, and loyal to her husband and his increasingly awful situation. The Confederates had only one first lady, and they could’ve done a lot worse than their Queen Varina.
By upbringing and temperament, she was better prepared than most to become a public woman. Varina grew up at the Briers, her parents’ plantation in Natchez, Mississippi. Naturally bright, she devoured the excellent education given her by a tutor from New England and became quite a wellschooled, well-read young lady. Newspapers in particular drew her interest, and it became common at the Briers to joke that young Varina knew more about the politics of the day than anyone else in the family.
When a hotheaded prison guard aimed his musket at Jefferson Davis (ignorant to the fact that he was challenging the president of the CSA), the level-headed Varina defused the situation by stepping in front of the gun.
And those politics were staunchly Whig, the party of choice for most of the area’s landed aristocracy. One prominent exception was Joseph Davis, a close friend of Varina’s father, and a Democrat. It is a testament to the closeness of the two households that Joseph was often referred to as “uncle” by Varina and her siblings. Joseph’s younger brother Jefferson, however, was in self-imposed seclusion at his own estate, and remained something of a mystery. Varina was a grown-up, dark-haired beauty by the time she first set eyes on him; he had come to extend an invitation to his brother’s house, and Varina’s curiosity was piqued by the stern, older widower with the strange eyes and mellifluous voice. Curiosity in time grew into preoccupation, then courtship, and the two were married in February 1845.
The newspapers made a stir over the fact that Jeff Davis, a prominent Democrat on the verge of embarking upon a dedicated political career, had taken a Whig for a wife. And to be sure, the two did have their fair share of heated political arguments. But Varina’s growing devotion to Jefferson led her to understand her role as ally in the struggles he faced. Her opinions would remain her own, but her politics, broadly defined, became more like her husband’s. Washington beckoned.
If Jefferson’s struggles were political, hers were quite a bit more personal. Almost from the beginning of their marriage, Varina found herself locked in a struggle for prominence in Davis’s life with his older brother. Jefferson owed everything to Joseph: his land, his security, and his political prospects. He had grown up in the crook of Joseph’s sheltering arm and had become accustomed to his assured, domineering presence. Varina, as tough and proud as she was literate and incisive, bristled at her brother-in-law’s intrusions. The result was a not-so-subtle wresting match for Jefferson’s soul, and it wasn’t always pretty. Despite her intellectual maturity, Varina wasn’t above acting out. During Jefferson’s service in the Mexican War, her pining for his company literally laid her out physically, challenging him to forgo military honor (always a tricky thing) to visit her as she convalesced. He acquired a sixty-day leave and made the trip, and she made a shaky recovery with him by her side. The sickness seemed born of stress from conflict with her brother-in-law, an issue that continued to fester. For his part, Joseph expressed his resentment at Varina by never giving his brother full ownership of Brierfield, the estate he had given Jefferson. The issue caused legal trouble years later.
These confrontations seemed to harden Varina for the life that was ideally suited to her. As a senator’s wife, she blossomed in Washington, settling into capital society with an ease born of grace and confidence. At social occasions she compensated for her husband’s officious rigidity with smiling wisecracks and bookish repartee. She became renowned as a natural organizer of events and an asset to Jefferson that went beyond gregariousness—Davis the politician depended on her insight and wisdom. They were a team.
Such a relationship could be as much a liability as an asset, as Varina and her husband discovered eventually. In the wake of secession and the choice to make Jefferson Davis president of an infant republic, the Confederacy got a seasoned drawing-room campaigner as first lady. She seemed a bit overwhelmed during the early days, when the new government was struggling toward self-realization in Montgomery, Alabama. After all, she was the first of her kind, just as much as her husband, and her earnest desire not to screw it up lay plainly in her forced expressions of confidence. But not long after relocating the capital to Richmond, Mrs. Davis came into her own, manifesting in greater relief all the qualities that had defined her and her link to Jefferson. To a society that prided itself on the quality of its cultured womanhood, Varina’s educated polish was plain to see. She shined in public. Even her husband’s critics were taken by her; indeed, Varina was much better at feigning goodwill than the president was and did him many a service by smoothing over rifts in the government. She shared his ambition, but none of his excruciating sensitivity—in fact, she may have been a better politician than he was.
And eventually everybody knew it. Though Jefferson had always shined as a legislator, his ability as an executive was anyone’s guess. In time, that question was answered and not very flatteringly. Varina, on the other hand, had a facility with people that made her useful and dangerous. The women of Richmond felt it keenly and were acutely divided on their opinion of her. But the men were mostly won by her nature, which could shift from motherly to seductive to literary to sanguinary in a heartbeat. She was an intellectual with a mean streak, a ready tongue, and an ability to manipulate. But whatever she did, it was always with the president’s welfare in mind, for she loved him unconditionally.
In such an environment, fed by wartime drama and tension, arose the court of Queen Varina. Presiding over it along with the matriarch herself was Mary Chesnut, the great diarist and a close friend. They and their circle created a mild perversion of Southern refinement: an environment of keenly intellectual snappishness, whose polite melees made and dashed Rebel fortunes, presenting an effete twist on the destructive epic unfolding around them. The first lady’s direct impact on Jefferson Davis’s decisions was always subtle; but everybody seemed to know that she spared no effort in the attempt to influence. In fact, the president was deaf to the advice of everybody. But the knowledge that a woman had even mild sway over decisions—especially military ones—caused no shortage of agita. The fact was that, whatever remarkable processes fueled Varina’s mind, her primary impulse was always loyalty: she despised those who didn’t adore Davis.
That she was so eloquent and crafty made her a subject of hostile scrutiny. Varina was much shrewder in her judgments of those who surrounded her husband than he was, but just as careless in leaking her opinions. The generals under her husband’s command came to understand how she felt about them: Joseph Johnston was despised, Beauregard was useless, Lee was worthy of respect, etc. This stuff sowed the sensation of intrigue where none was welcome. And maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference, but for the fact that Varina was open-minded in her associations. Her enduring friendship with Margaret Sumner McLean, a Union sympathizer and daughter of a Northern officer, for instance, did nothing to warm her to people who were looking for ammunition against her and her husband. Varina openly maintained her Northern associations, damn the consequences. Other, perhaps more inevitable, factors made things worse. Though her wardrobe was famously plain, she continued to set a relatively decent table when everyone else in town was scrounging for the simplest of amenities. She got appointments for friends and family that they didn’t always merit. And she did not restrain herself from sarcasm—Varina’s merciless sneers to friends and foes alike were often the subject of Richmond gossip.
In the final year of the war, as hope of victory faded, Varina became the realist of the relationship—Jefferson couldn’t imagine absolute defeat, but his wife wasn’t nearly as stubborn and began to see the writing on the wall. As the Confederacy fell apart around them, she was burdened with standing by Jefferson in a cause whose hopelessness was apparent to everyone except him.
She probably would’ve welcomed a swifter end. Instead, when the fall of Richmond seemed imminent, the president sent her packing after giving her a lesson in loading and shooting a pistol he insisted on giving her. She headed south as he and his cabinet, in a separate party, did the same. The two exchanged frantic letters on the run in an attempt to meet up as the final moments of the war played out. When they finally reunited in Georgia, it was just in time to get nabbed by Federal cavalry.
In addition to all the extreme physical discomforts and moments of terror, the trip had been a humiliating one. Queen Varina had been able to shield herself from opponents while ensconced in her Richmond home. But now, as a refugee on the run, she was sometimes confronted with hostility by those whose feelings of propriety had fallen with the cause. Mocked openly by many who encountered her on the road, she was taken in by stalwarts who risked life and limb by doing so. Caring for her family had become her sole purpose in life.
Final surrender ended one kind of suffering and began another. Living in postwar Savannah, Varina read newspaper stories about Jefferson’s imprisonment at Fortress Monroe and seethed. Upon hearing that he’d been shackled, she fell into hysterics, barely controlled by a liberal regimen of opiates. She sent her children to exile in Canada and began one of the most important efforts of her life: a letter campaign to ease her beloved husband’s suffering. Though the couple was granted the right to correspond by letter (all of Jefferson’s were screened by the attorney general), it wasn’t until the spring of 1866 that she was given permission to visit him in Fortress Monroe, and then only because he appeared to be dying. She soon secured his release from a government that had long since stopped caring about Davis’s capacity for mischief, saving him from a grisly wasting death that no doubt awaited him in his incarceration.
Varina cared for him until his death in 1889, though the two often lived apart. At the funeral she stood like a quavering symbol of dreams long past, drawing a flood of tears from soldered gray warriors who had tried in vain to put the past behind them. In a strange sort of way she was now free. She had been railed by her detractors during the war for her Northern connections; now she would set tongues to wagging yet again by moving to New York City.
The reasons for the move were straightforward enough. Her doctors recommended a cooler climate in which to live, far from the malarial heat of Mississippi. And Varina’s finances were dismal in the wake of Jefferson’s death; by relocating to the publishing capital of North America, she could foster her daughter Winnie’s literary aspirations and perhaps earn a living herself. There, like an eccentric museum piece, she held court once again, the wizened and regal symbol of a dead cause that everyone wanted to remember as noble and romantic. She wrote articles, made appearances at all the right occasions, and became an unlikely fixture in the city’s publishing elite. It was the return of Queen Varina—in the most ironic of venues.
She had changed her name to Mrs. V. Jefferson Davis, galvanizing the association with history that gave her a place and an income. Her twilight years were never free of financial worry, but they were at least worthy of the witty belle from Natchez who had become a living curiosity. In October 1906, as she lay on her deathbed, Varina rasped to her attending daughter, “My darling child, I am going to die this time but I’ll try to be brave about it. Don’t you wear black. It is bad for your health and will depress your husband.” New York City mourned her passing, but Dixie got her back in the end. Given a military funeral, she was buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery. A local paper called her “one of the last living mementoes of the Confederate Government, one of the last of all to die.”
BAPTISM OF FIRE
Varina was only eight years old when she was put rather dramatically in harm’s way, giving her a taste of the tumultuous future that awaited her. When the house in which her family was staying caught fire, little Varina found herself without much help—the adults were off on a social occasion, and the young servant placed in charge took off for help as soon as she saw the flames. Varina, showing remarkable composure for a tyke, gathered up her siblings—one of whom was just an infant—and herded them out of harm’s way. The structure burned to the ground, but not a single life was lost, thanks to the little eight-year-old who’d found her grace under pressure.
Jefferson Davis had been deeply in love with Sarah Knox Taylor, his first wife who died under tragic circumstances, and Varina knew it. Davis’s first love seemed to be his most passionate. Whatever the truth, Varina was kind to Knoxie in her memoirs and with regard to the children, who were taught to remember their father’s first spouse fondly.
That said, Varina was put through what can justly be called an unfair trial almost as soon as she became Mrs. Jefferson Davis. On their honeymoon, the newlyweds made a stop at the home of Jefferson’s sister—the very place where Sarah Taylor had died. Varina accompanied her new husband to his first wife’s gravesite to lay flowers upon it. Though some speculation remains as to Varina’s true feelings on the subject, it seems that she had given in to Jefferson’s impulse to venerate one wife on his honeymoon with the other—not exactly a serenade by moonlight, to say the least.
As first lady of the Confederate States, Varina Davis had a habit of making remarks and gaffes that many thought offensive. It’s as if she simply didn’t feel the same social restraints as others. One of the most celebrated examples of her impropriety involved the wife of Bradley Johnson, a Marylander who had taken the trouble to raise and organize a regiment of soldiers from his native state for the Confederacy. While dining with the Davises one night, Mrs. Johnson recounted the nasty pitfalls involved in procuring the proper clothing for such a unit. According to her, the seamstresses enlisted to create the soldiers’ garments had made a disastrous miscalculation that required the procurement of more material to do the whole process over again: the men’s underwear had been stupidly, totally botched. As they listened to Mrs. Johnson’s tale of sartorial woe, the diners dutifully responded with expressions of grief—all except the first lady, who shamelessly laughed her head off.
Varina did her best, day after day, to buttress her husband’s waning support. But on one occasion she did much more than just save his reputation—she saved his life. In November 1863, when returning to Richmond one night after a visit to Drewry’s Bluff, President Davis and his wife were challenged by a guard in front of Libby Prison. When Davis responded that he was Jefferson Davis, the tense young man called him a liar. Incensed, the president raised his cane in a threatening motion, and the guard responded by leveling his musket. It seems entirely possible that the executive branch of the Rebel government could’ve been beheaded there and then, but for the alacrity of the first lady. She literally interposed herself between the cane and the rifle and assured the sharp-eyed sentinel that her companion was indeed the president, bringing the conflict to a peaceful conclusion.