|Born||Varina Banks Howell
May 7, 1826
|Died||October 16, 1906
New York City
|Other names||Varina Howell|
|Occupation||First Lady of the Confederacy Writer|
|Known for||Being Jefferson Davis' wife|
Varina Banks Howell Davis (May 7, 1826 – October 16, 1906) was the second wife of the politician Jefferson Davis, who became president of the Confederate States of America. She served as the First Lady of the new nation at the capital in Richmond, Virginia, although she was ambivalent about the war. Smart and educated, with family in both the North and South, she had unconventional views for her public role, although she supported slavery and states' rights.
Howell Davis became a writer after the American Civil War, completing her husband's memoir. She was recruited by Kate Davis Pulitzer to write articles and eventually a regular column for her husband's newspaper, the New York World of Joseph Pulitzer. In 1891 Howell Davis moved to New York City to live full-time with her daughter Winnie after her husband's death. She acted to reconcile prominent figures of the North and South in the late nineteenth century.
Early life and education
Varina Banks Howell was born at Natchez, Mississippi, the daughter of William Burr Howell and Margaret Louisa Kempe. Her father was from a distinguished family in New Jersey: his father Richard Howell served several terms as Governor of New Jersey and died when William was a boy. William inherited little money and used family connections to become a clerk in the Bank of the United States.
William Howell relocated to Mississippi, the area for development of new cotton plantations. There he met and married Margaret Louisa Kempe (1806–1867), born in Prince William County, Virginia, of a wealthy planter family who moved to Mississippi before 1816. Her parents were Colonel Joseph Kempe (sometimes spelled Kemp), a Scots-Irish immigrant from northern Ireland who became a planter and major landowner, and Margaret Graham, born in Prince William County. Margaret Graham was considered illegitimate, as her parents, George Graham, a Scots immigrant, and Susanna McAllister (1783–1816) of Virginia, never officially married.
After the Kempe family moved to Mississippi, Joseph Kempe also bought land in Louisiana. For his daughter's marriage to Howell, he gave her a dowry of 60 slaves and 2,000 acres (8.1 km2) of land. William Howell worked as a planter, merchant, politician, postmaster, cotton broker, banker, and military commissary manager, but never secured long-term financial success. He lost the majority of Margaret's sizable dowry and inheritance through bad investments and their expensive lifestyle. They suffered intermittent serious financial problems throughout their lives.
Varina was the second Howell child of eleven, seven of whom survived to adulthood. She was described as tall and thin, with an olive complexion attributed to Welsh ancestors. (Later when she was living in Richmond as the unpopular First Lady of the Confederacy, critics described her less charitably as looking like a mulatto or Indian squaw.)
When she was thirteen, her father declared bankruptcy, and the Howell family home, furnishings and slaves were seized by creditors to be sold at public auction. Her mother's Kempe relatives intervened to redeem the family's property. It was one of several sharp changes in fortune that she would encounter in her life. Varina grew to adulthood in a house called The Briars, when Natchez was a thriving city, but she learned that her family was dependent on the wealthy Kempe relatives of her mother's family to avoid poverty.
Varina Howell was sent to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for her education, where she studied at Madame Deborah Grelaud's French School, a prestigious academy for young ladies. Grelaud, a Protestant Huguenot, was a refugee from the French Revolution and had founded her school in the 1790s. One of her classmates was Sarah Anne Ellis, the daughter of extremely wealthy Mississippi planters. (After the Civil War, Sara Ellis Dorsey, at that time a wealthy widow, helped support the Davises financially.)
While at school in Philadelphia, Varina got to know many of her northern Howell relatives; she carried on a lifelong correspondence with some, and called herself a "half-breed" for her connections in both regions. After a year, she returned to Natchez, where she was privately tutored by Judge George Winchester, a Harvard graduate and family friend. She was intelligent and better educated than many of her peers, which led to tensions with Southern expectations for women. In her later years, Varina Howell Davis referred fondly to Madame Grelaud and Judge Winchester; she sacrificed to provide the highest quality of education for her two daughters in their turn.
In 1843, at age 17, Howell was invited to spend the Christmas season at Hurricane, the 5,000 acres (20 km2) cotton plantation of Joseph Davis, the family friend for whom Varina's parents had named their oldest child. Located at Davis Bend, Mississippi, Hurricane was a few miles south of Vicksburg and Davis was planning a gala housewarming with many guests and entertainers to inaugurate his lavish new mansion. (Varina described the house in detail in her memoirs.) During her stay, she met her host's much younger brother Jefferson Davis, a West Point graduate and former Army officer, who was then working as a planter managing his own cotton plantation.
Marriage and family
Jefferson Davis was a 35-year-old widower when he and Varina met. His first wife, Sarah Knox Taylor, daughter of the future president Zachary Taylor, had died of malaria three months after their wedding in 1835. Davis had been reclusive in the ensuing eight years, although beginning to be active in politics. Shortly after first meeting him, Howell wrote to her mother:
"I do not know whether this Mr. Jefferson Davis is young or old. He looks both at times; but I believe he is old, for from what I hear he is only two years younger than you are [the rumor was correct]. He impresses me as a remarkable kind of man, but of uncertain temper, and has a way of taking for granted that everybody agrees with him when he expresses an opinion, which offends me; yet he is most agreeable and has a peculiarly sweet voice and a winning manner of asserting himself. The fact is, he is the kind of person I should expect to rescue one from a mad dog at any risk, but to insist upon a stoical indifference to the fright afterward."
In keeping with custom, Davis sought the permission of Varina's parents before beginning a formal courtship. Her parents initially disapproved of him due to the many differences in background, age, and politics. Davis was a Democrat and the Howells, including Varina, were Whigs. In her memoir, Varina Howell later wrote that her mother was concerned about Davis' excessive devotion to his relatives (particularly his older brother Joseph, who had largely raised him and upon whom he was financially dependent) and his near worship of his deceased first wife. The Howells ultimately consented to the courtship, and the couple became engaged soon after.
Initially their wedding was planned as a grand affair to be held at Hurricane during Christmas of 1844, but the wedding and engagement were cancelled shortly beforehand, for unknown reasons. In January 1845, while Howell was ill with a fever, Davis frequently visited her. They became engaged again. When they married on February 26, 1845 at her parents' house, a few relatives and friends of the bride attended, and none of the groom's family.
Their short honeymoon included a visit to Davis' aged mother, Jane Davis, and a visit to the grave of his first wife in Louisiana. The newlyweds took up residence at Brierfield, a 1,000 acres (4.0 km2) plantation given by Joseph to his younger brother some years before. It adjoined Hurricane Plantation. Their first residence was a two-room cottage on the property and they started construction of a main house. It became a source of contention.
Soon after their marriage, Davis' widowed and penniless sister, Amanda Davis Bradford, came to live on the Brierfield property, along with her seven youngest children. Her brothers decided that she should share the large house which the Davises were building, but they had not consulted Varina Davis. It was an example of what she would later call interference from the Davis family in her life with her husband. Her brother-in-law Joseph Davis proved controlling, not only of his brother, but of Varina during her husband's absences. At the same time, her parents became more financially dependent on the Davises, to her embarrassment and resentment. Her youngest brother, born after her own marriage, was named Jefferson Davis Howell in her husband's honor.
The young couple had long periods of separation, first as Jefferson Davis gave campaign speeches and "politicked" (or campaigned) for himself and for other Democratic candidates in the elections of 1846. He was also gone for extended periods during the Mexican War, when Varina was left under the guardianship of Joseph Davis, whom she had come to dislike intensely. Her correspondence with her husband during this time demonstrated her growing discontent, an emotion to which Jefferson was not particularly sympathetic.
Urban life in Washington, DC
Jefferson Davis was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and Howell Davis accompanied him to Washington, D.C., which she loved. She was stimulated by the social life with intelligent people and was known for making "unorthodox observations". Among them were that "slaves were human beings with their frailties" and that "everyone was a 'half breed' of one kind or another." She referred to herself as one because of her strong family connections in both North and South. The Davises lived in Washington, DC for most of the next fifteen years before the American Civil War, which gave Varina Howell Davis a broader outlook than many Southerners. It was her favorite place to live; as an example of their many differences, her husband preferred life on their Mississippi plantation.
Soon he took a leave from his Congressional position to serve as an officer in the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). Howell Davis returned for a time to Brierfield, where she chafed under the supervision of her brother-in-law Joseph Davis. The surviving correspondence between the Davises from this period expresses their difficulties and mutual resentments. After his return from the war, Varina Davis did not immediately return with her husband to Washington when the Mississippi legislature appointed him to fill a Senate seat.
Ultimately the couple reconciled. Mrs. Davis rejoined her husband in Washington. As the son-in-law (by his late wife) and former junior officer of President Zachary Taylor, her husband had unusual visibility for a freshman senator. Varina enjoyed the vibrant social life of the capital city and quickly established herself as one of the city's most popular (and, in her early 20s, one of the youngest) hostesses and party guests. The later memoir of her contemporary, Virginia Clay-Clopton, described the lively parties of the Southern families with other Congressional delegations, as well as international representatives of the diplomatic corps.
After seven childless years, in 1852 Mrs. Davis gave birth to a son, Samuel. Her letters from this period express her happiness and portray Jefferson Davis as a doting father. The couple had a total of six children:
- Samuel Emory Davis, born July 30, 1852, was named after his paternal grandfather; he died June 30, 1854, of an undiagnosed disease.
- Margaret Howell Davis was born February 25, 1855. She married Joel Addison Hayes, Jr. (1848–1919), and they lived first in Memphis; later they moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado. They had five children; she was the only Davis child to marry and raise a family. She died on July 18, 1909 at the age of 54.
- Jefferson Davis, Jr., was born January 16, 1857. He died of yellow fever at age 21 on October 16, 1878, during an epidemic in the Mississippi River Valley that caused 20,000 deaths.
- Joseph Evan Davis, born on April 18, 1859, died at five years old as the result of an accidental fall on April 30, 1864.
- William Howell Davis was born on December 6, 1861, and was named for Varina's father; he died of diphtheria on October 16, 1872.
- Varina Anne "Winnie" Davis was born on June 27, 1864, two months after Joseph's death. She died on September 18, 1898, at age 34. She never married after her parents had refused to let her marry into a northern, abolitionist family.
The Davises were devastated in 1854 when their first child died before the age of two. Varina Davis largely withdrew from social life for a time. In 1855, she gave birth to a healthy daughter, Margaret (1855–1909); followed by two sons, Jefferson, Jr., (1857–1878) and Joseph (1859–1864), during her husband's remaining tenure in Washington, D.C. The loss of all four of their sons was a source of enormous grief to their parents.
During the Pierce Administration, Davis was appointed to the post of Secretary of War. He and President Franklin Pierce formed a personal friendship that would last for the rest of Pierce's life. Their wives developed a strong respect, as well. The Pierces lost their last surviving child, Benny, shortly before his father's inauguration. They both suffered; Pierce became dependent on alcohol and Jane Appleton Pierce had health problems, including depression. At the request of the Pierces, the Davises, both individually and as a couple, often served as official hosts at White House functions in place of the President and his wife.
Confederate First Lady
Jefferson Davis resigned from the U.S. Senate in 1861 when Mississippi seceded. Varina Davis returned with their children to Brierfield, expecting him to be commissioned as a general in the Confederate army. He was elected as President of the Confederate States of America by the new Confederate Congress. She did not accompany him when he traveled to Montgomery, Alabama (then capital of the new nation) to be inaugurated. A few weeks later, she followed and assumed official duties as the First Lady of the independent nation.
She had continued her independent observations and greeted the war with dread, while supporting slavery and states' rights. She was known to have said that:
"the South did not have the material resources to win the war and white Southerners did not have the qualities necessary to win it; that her husband was unsuited for political life; that maybe women were not the inferior sex; and that perhaps it was a mistake to deny women the suffrage before the war."
In the summer of 1861, Howell Davis and her husband moved to Richmond, Virginia, the new capital of the Confederacy. They lived in the Presidential mansion during the remainder of war (1861–1865). "She tried intermittently to do what was expected of her, but she never convinced people that her heart was in it, and her tenure as First Lady was for the most part a disaster", as they picked up on her ambivalence. White residents of Richmond freely criticized Varina Davis; some described her appearance as "a mulatto or an Indian 'squaw'."
In December 1861 she gave birth to their fifth child, William. (Due to his son-in-law's influence, her father William Howell was given several low-level appointments in the Confederate bureaucracy which helped support him.) The social turbulence of the war years reached the Presidential mansion, as in 1864, several of the Davises' domestic slaves escaped. James Dennison and his wife, Betsey, who served as Varina's maid, used saved back pay of 80 gold dollars to finance their escape. Henry, a butler, left one night after building a fire in the mansion's basement to divert attention.
In spring 1864, their son Joseph was killed in an accident at the executive mansion. A few weeks later, Varina gave birth to their last child, a girl named Varina Anne Davis, who was called Winnie. The girl became known to the public as "the Daughter of the Confederacy;" stories about her and likenesses of her were distributed throughout the Confederacy during the last year of the war. She retained the nickname for the rest of her life.
When the war ended, the Davises fled South seeking to escape to Europe. After their capture by federal troops, he was imprisoned at Fort Monroe in Phoebus, Virginia, for two years. Varina Davis was left indigent and restricted to the state of Georgia, where her husband had been arrested. Fearing for their safety, she sent her older children to Canada under the care of relatives and a family servant. Initially forbidden to have any contact with her husband, Howell Davis worked tirelessly to secure his release. She tried to raise awareness of and sympathy for what she perceived as his unjust incarceration.
After a few months she was allowed to correspond with him. Articles and a book on his confinement helped turn public opinion in his favor. Howell Davis and young Winnie were allowed to join him in his prison cell. The family was eventually given a more comfortable apartment in the officers' quarters of the fort.
Although released on bail and never tried for treason, Jefferson Davis had temporarily lost his home in Mississippi, most of his wealth, and his U.S. citizenship. His U.S. citizenship was posthumously restored in the 20th century. The Davis family traveled constantly in Europe and Canada as he sought work to rebuild his fortunes. He accepted the presidency of an insurance agency headquartered in Memphis. The family began to regain some financial comfort until the Panic of 1873, when the company was one of many that went bankrupt. Their son William Davis died in 1871 of typhoid fever.
While visiting their daughters who were enrolled in boarding schools in Europe, Jefferson Davis received a commission as an agent for an English consortium seeking to purchase cotton from the southern United States. He returned home. Howell Davis remained in England to visit her sister who had recently moved there, and stayed for several months. The surviving correspondence suggests her stay may have been prompted by renewed marital difficulties. Both the Davises suffered from depression due to the loss of their sons and their fortunes. She resented his attentions to other women, particularly Virginia Clay. She was the wife of their friend Clement Clay, a fellow political prisoner at Fort Monroe.
For several years, the Davises lived apart far more than they lived together. Davis was unemployed for most of the years after the war. In 1877 he was nearly bankrupt and ill. Advised to take a home near the sea for his health, he accepted an invitation from Sarah Anne Ellis Dorsey, a widowed heiress, to visit her plantation of Beauvoir on the Mississippi Sound in Biloxi. A classmate of Varina's in Philadelphia, she had become a respected novelist and historian, and had done extensive traveling. She arranged for Davis to use a cottage on the grounds. There she helped him organize and write his memoir of the Confederacy, in part by her active encouragement. She also invited Varina Davis to stay with her.
Howell Davis and her eldest daughter, Margaret Howell Hayes, disapproved of her husband's friendship with Dorsey. After her return to the United States, Howell Davis lived in Memphis with Margaret and her family for a time. Gradually she began a reconciliation with her husband. She was with him at Beauvoir in 1878 when they learned that their last surviving son, Jefferson Davis, Jr., died during a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis. Varina became friends again with Sara Ellis Dorsey during her grieving.
Sarah Dorsey was determined to help support the former president. Before her death from breast cancer in 1879, she made over her will to leave him free title to the home, as well as to much of the remainder of her financial estate. Her Percy relatives were unsuccessful in challenging the will.
Her bequest provided Davis with enough financial security to provide for Varina and Winnie and enjoy some comfort with them in his final years. When Winnie completed her education, she joined her parents at Beauvoir. She had fallen in love when at college, but her parents disapproved of him, her father due to his being from "a prominent Yankee and abolitionist family" and her mother because he had no money and many debts. Ultimately Winnie never married. Dorsey's bequest made Winnie the heir after Jefferson Davis. He died in 1889 and, after Winnie died in 1898, Varina Davis inherited the plantation.
After her husband died, Varina completed his autobiography, publishing it in 1890 as Jefferson Davis, A Memoir. At first the book sold few copies, dashing her hopes of earning some income.
Kate Davis Pulitzer, a distant cousin of Jefferson Davis and the wife of Joseph Pulitzer, a major newspaper publisher, had met Varina Davis during a visit to the South. She solicited short articles from her for her husband's newspaper, the New York World. In 1891 Varina Davis accepted the Pulitzers' offer to become a full-time columnist and moved to New York City with her daughter Winnie, where they enjoyed its busy life. White Southerners attacked her for this move to the North, as she continued to be a public figure of the Confederacy whom they claimed for their own. While Davis and her daughter each pursued literary careers, they lived in a series of residential hotels (their longest residency being at the Hotel Gerard at 123 W. 44th Street). Varina Davis wrote many articles for the newspaper, and Winnie Davis published several novels.
In October 1902, Varina Davis sold Beauvoir to the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans for $10,000. She stipulated the facility was to be used as a Confederate veterans' home and later as a memorial to Jefferson Davis. (The SCV built barracks on the site, and housed thousands of veterans and their families. After being used for years as a veterans' home, since 1953 the house has served as a museum to Davis. Beauvoir has been designated a National Historic Landmark. The main house has been restored and a museum built there.)
Varina Howell Davis was one of numerous influential southerners who moved to the North for work after the war, who were nicknamed "Confederate carpetbaggers." Among them were the couple Roger Atkinson Pryor and Sara Agnes Rice Pryor, who became active in Democratic political and social circles in New York City. After working as an attorney, Roger Pryor was appointed as a judge. Sara Pryor became a writer, known for her histories, memoirs and novels published in the early 1900s.
In the postwar years of reconciliation, Davis became friends with Julia Dent Grant, the widow of former general and president Ulysses S. Grant, who had been among the most hated men in the South. She attended a reception where she met Booker T. Washington, head of the Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college. In her old age, she published some of her observations and "declared in print that the right side had won the Civil War."
Although saddened by the death of her daughter Winnie in 1898, Howell Davis continued to write for the World and enjoyed a daily ride in a carriage through Central Park. She was active socially until poor health forced her retirement from work and any sort of public life in her final years. Varina Howell Davis died at age 80 of double pneumonia in her room at the Hotel Majestic on October 16, 1906. She was survived by her daughter Margaret Davis Hayes, and by several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Legacy and honors
Varina Howell Davis received a funeral procession through the streets of New York City. Her coffin was taken by train to Richmond, where she was interred with full honors performed by Confederate veterans at Hollywood Cemetery. She is adjacent to the tombs of her husband and their daughter Winnie.
A portrait of Mrs. Davis, titled the Widow of the Confederacy (1895), was painted by the Swiss-born American artist Adolfo Müller-Ury (1862–1947). It is held at the museum at Beauvoir. In 1918 Müller-Ury donated his profile portrait of her daughter, Winnie Davis, painted in 1897–1898, to the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia.
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina caused extensive wind and water damage to Beauvoir, which houses the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library. The home has been restored and reopened on June 3, 2008. The Presidential Library and Museum and other outbuildings are in the process of being rebuilt. Varina Howell Davis' diamond and emerald wedding ring, one of the few valuable possessions she managed to retain, was held by the Museum at Beauvoir and lost during the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. It was discovered on the grounds a few months later and returned to the museum.
- "Marriage of William B. Howell to Margaret L. Kempe, 17 July 1823, Adams County, Mississippi", Ancestry.com. Mississippi Marriages to 1825 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 1997.
- Cashin 2006, p. 15.
- Note: According to the 1810 census for Prince William County, George Graham owned 24 slaves, more than many of his neighbors. He had one child under 16 still at home, and was living with a woman over 25. Many of his neighbors had Scottish surnames. Federal Census: Year: 1810; Census Place: Prince William, Virginia; Roll: 70; Page: 278; Image: 0181430; Family History Library Film: 00528.
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- Strode, Hudson (1955). Jefferson Davis, Volume I: American Patriot. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company.
- Strode, Hudson (1964). Jefferson Davis, Volume III: Tragic Hero. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company.
- Wyatt-Brown, Bertram (1994). The House of Percy: Honor, Melancholy and Imagination in a Southern Family, New York: Oxford University Press.
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