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Virginia Clay-Clopton, circa 1860s
Nash County, North Carolina
|Died||1915 (aged 89–90)|
|Resting place||Maple Hill Cemetery|
|Spouse(s)||Clement Claiborne Clay|
|Parent(s)||Peyton Randolph Tunstall
Virginia Clay-Clopton (1825–1915) was a political hostess and activist in Alabama and Washington, DC. She was also known as Virginia Tunstall, Virginia Clay, and Mrs. Clement Claiborne Clay. She took on different responsibilities after the Civil War. As the wife of US Senator Clement Claiborne Clay from Alabama, she was part of a group of young southerners who boarded together in the capital in particular hotels. In the immediate postwar period, she worked to gain her husband's freedom from imprisonment at Fort Monroe, where Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy, was also held.
In the late 19th century, Clay-Copton (who remarried after her first husband died) became an activist in the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group established after the Civil War that was instrumental in shaping public discussions about the war and role of the South. She worked to raise funds for Confederate cemeteries and memorials. She also worked for women's suffrage. Clay-Copton was one of a number of Southern women to publish her memoir at the turn of the 20th century; these women's accounts became part of the public discourse about the war. The United Daughters of the Confederacy specifically recommended her book as one of three for serious discussion by the membership. Such works helped shape memories of the antebellum years and the Lost Cause.
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 after 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.
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. In 1837 he was made Chief Justice. More than a decade later, in 1849 he was elected by an overwhelming margin as the governor of the state, and served for two terms.
After four years, Virginia's aunt was suffering failing health. Virginia went to live with her maternal uncle, Alfred Battle, and his family on their plantation outside Tuscaloosa. Virginia was tutored but also had much time to play with her cousins and have the run of the property. 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. At about fifteen, she was sent to the Female Academy in Nashville, Tennessee to finish her education at a private girls' school. As the capital, Tuscaloosa was a city of 6,000, and attracted people from all over the state, generating lively social events.
Marriage and family
Tunstall married Clement Claiborne Clay (1816-1882), an attorney and young legislator, whom she had met at her uncle Henry Collier's home. They were quickly engaged after her return from the Female Academy and married a month later in 1843; she was 18 years old and he was 27. She moved with him to Huntsville, Alabama, where his family was based. In 1849 her uncle Henry Collier was elected governor of Alabama.
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, Virginia Clay met other Congressmen and their wives, as well as 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. The hotel was an extension of their social life.
American Civil War
With growing tensions over sectional differences, in 1861, Alabama seceded from the Union and the Clays returned to the state. Clement Claiborne Clay represented his state in the Confederate legislature, and the couple moved to the capital of Richmond, Virginia.
Clement Clay and his wife Virginia were among Southerners imprisoned at Fort Monroe after the war; they were suspected of being involved in the assassination plot against President Abraham Lincoln. Also held at that prison was Jefferson Davis, their friend and former president of the Confederacy. They became even closer friends during this time. Varina Howell Davis used to visit her husband, bringing their youngest daughter. The Clays were released in 1866, but Davis was not let go until 1867. The families had some continued contact after the Clays returned to Huntsville, Alabama.
About this time, Jefferson Davis is believed to have fallen in love with Virginia Clay, carrying on a passionate correspondence with her for three years. In 1871 he was reported by newspapers across the country as having been seen on a train with an unidentified woman, and the incident gained him unwanted attention.
Virginia Clay's husband Clement died in 1882. In 1887, she 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, when membership reached into the hundreds of thousands. UDC activities and intervention into textbook content strongly shaped memory and public opinion about the Civil War.
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.
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 of her husband. The UDC encouraged women to write their own stories. Such memoirs became part of the public discourse about the war, so that women's roles and sacrifices were acknowledged. 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.
- 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
- "Henry Watkins Collier", Alabama Archives and History, accessed 19 May 2012
- "Varina Howell Davis (1826–1906)", Encyclopedia of Virginia, 2 Jun 2014, accessed 29 June 2015
- Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008, pp. 237-247
- David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001
- 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
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Virginia Clay-Clopton.|
- Virginia Clay-Copton, 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
- Nueremberger, Ruth Ketring. The Clays of Alabama: A Planter-Lawyer-Politician Family, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1958
- Virginia Clay Clopton at Find a Grave