Virginia Clay-Clopton

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Virginia Clay-Clopton
Virginia Clay-Clopton CDV, c1860s.jpg
Virginia Clay-Clopton, circa 1860s
Born 1825
Nash County, North Carolina
Died 1915
Resting place
Maple Hill Cemetery
Nationality American
Spouse(s) Clement Claiborne Clay
Parents Peyton Randolph Tunstall
Anne Arrington

Virginia Clay-Clopton (1825–1915) was an American memoirist and political hostess in Alabama and Washington, DC. She was also known as Virginia Tunstall, Virginia Clay, and Mrs. Clement Claiborne Clay. She was one of a number of Southern women whose memoirs published at the turn of the 20th century became part of the public discourse about the war; her book was recommended by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to its membership.

Early life[edit]

Born Virginia Tunstall in Nash County, North Carolina to Anne Arrington and Dr. Peyton Randolph Tunstall, she was reared by several of her mother's numerous half-siblings. Her mother died when Virginia was three years old. Her father left her to her mother's family and moved to Alabama. The girl lived first with the Drakes in North Carolina.[1]

At the age of six, Virginia was taken to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where she lived with her maternal aunt and her husband Henry W. Collier, later appointed to the State Supreme Court.[1] In 1837 he was made Chief Justice; in 1849 he was elected by an overwhelming margin as the governor of the state, and served for two terms.[2]

After four years, her aunt's health was failing, so Virginia went to live with her maternal uncle, Alfred Battle, and his family. Their plantation was outside Tuscaloosa. Virginia was tutored but also had much time to play with her cousins and have the run of the property.[1] During this period, she became close to her father's brother, Thomas B. Tunstall, Secretary of State for Alabama, who took her under his wing, introducing her to literature, poetry and music.

With her uncle Thomas, she visited her father in Mobile, where the two Tunstall men took Virginia to the theatre and other events.[1] At about fifteen, she was sent to the Female Academy in Nashville, Tennessee to finish her education at a private girls' school. Tuscaloosa, then a city of 6,000, as the capital attracted people from all over the state and generated lively social events.[1]

Marriage and family[edit]

Tunstall married Clement Claiborne Clay (1816-1882), an attorney and young legislator, whom she had met at her uncle Collier's. They were quickly engaged after her return from the Female Academy and married a month later in 1843.[1] She moved with him to Huntsville, Alabama, where his family was based.

When her husband was elected by the legislature as a U.S. Senator in 1853, Virginia Clay moved with him to Washington, DC. On the train they met numerous other people from the state who were going to be part of Congress and the administration, forming friendships that lasted. In the capital, they were part of the political social life of the elite. That first winter Clay gave birth to her only child, who died soon after. Within a year, she was fully participating in the many events of the city.

In rounds of dinners, she met other Congressmen, members of the diplomatic corps and President Franklin Pierce's administration. During these years in Washington, she and her husband and numerous other Southerners lived at Brown's Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. For a couple of winters they shifted to the Ebbitt Hotel, but returned to Brown's, where many of their friends stayed during Congressional sessions. It was an extension of their social life.[1]

American Civil War[edit]

With growing tensions over sectional differences, in 1861, Alabama seceded from the Union and the Clays returned to Alabama. Clement Claiborne Clay represented his state in the Confederate legislature, and the couple moved to the capital of Richmond, Virginia.

In 1887, Virginia Clay married Judge David Clopton, and became known as Mrs. Clay-Clopton. He died in 1892. During these years Virginia Clay-Clopton became active in the women's suffrage movement and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, founded in 1894. Beginning with women's groups arranging for burial and commemoration of the Confederate dead, the chapters grew rapidly into the twentieth century and membership reached into the hundreds of thousands.[3] UDC activities and intervention into textbook content strongly shaped memory and public opinion about the Civil War.[4]

In 1904 Clay-Clopton published a memoir entitled, A Belle in the Fifties, covering her life from girlhood through her confinement at Fort Monroe. It was one of three memoirs recommended by the UDC to its membership for serious study, together with those of Sara Agnes Rice Pryor and Louise Wigfall Wright.[5]

In the postwar years, some of the earliest books by Southern women had been histories or biographies of historical figures, such as that by Varina Davis; the UDC encouraged women to write their own stories. Such memoirs became part of the public discourse about the war. Their accounts of antebellum society became part of an idealized past. At the turn of the century, a dozen memoirs by Southern women were published.[5]

Clay-Clopton is buried in Maple Hill Cemetery in Maple Hill Cemetery near her first husband.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g A Belle of the Fifties: Memoirs of Mrs. Clay, of Alabama, Covering Social and Political Life in Washington and the South, 1853-66, New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1905, c1904, full online text available at Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina
  2. ^ "Henry Watkins Collier", Alabama Archives and History, accessed 19 May 2012
  3. ^ Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008, pp. 237-247
  4. ^ David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001
  5. ^ a b Sarah E. Gardner, Blood And Irony: Southern White Women's Narratives of the Civil War, 1861-1937, University of North Carolina Press, 2006, pp. 128-130

Further reading[edit]