Mary Todd Lincoln wasn’t the only First Lady during the American Civil War.
Varina Howell Davis resided with her Rebel President Jefferson Davis in the Confederate White House in Richmond.
Varina was Davis’ second wife. His first wife, Sarah Knox Taylor was the daughter of then future President Zachary Taylor. It was a marriage her father and mother opposed, and she succumbed to malaria three short months after the wedding.
The Taylors never forgave him.
When he met Varina Howell, Davis was a 35 year old socially reclusive widower who was active in politics.
Varina awakened something in the future Confederate President he thought was long dead.
A 17 year old Varina was invited to spend Christmas at Hurricane Plantation, a 5,000 acre plantation of her family friend, Joseph Davis. While there she met her host’s brother, Jefferson.
Her parents and the Davis family were close; they named their oldest child after Joseph, and Varina was happy to spend the holidays with friends at their plantation 20 miles south of Vicksburg.
Joseph planned many entertainments over the Christmas season as a way to show off his newly completed mansion.
Family friend Joe, had several illegitimate daughters, but no legitimate heirs, and he served as his brother’s guardian who was 23 years younger.
Joe gave Jefferson a 1,000 acre plantation which he promptly re-named Brierfield.
The Davis family was one of the wealthiest in Mississippi, and Jefferson was an UP and comer even if he was already 35.
Jefferson was a West Point graduate, former US Army officer, now a planter managing his own plantation.
Shortly after they met, Varina wrote home to mother that, “…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 year younger than you are. “ (Which was true.)
She went on to say, “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 wining 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.”
Historians say that is the most accurate description of the much maligned Confederate.
In keeping with the customs of the time, Davis asked her parents’ permission prior to pursuing a formal courtship.
Times were different.
The Howells could not have been less pleased; age, background, and politics – Davis was a Democrat, and the Howell clan were staunch Whigs.
Varina wrote later that her mother was concerned about Jefferson’s excessive devotion to his relatives, his older brother in particular, and his “near worship” of his late wife.
Eventually, the couple won them over, and they were soon engaged.
They were supposed to be married in a “grand affair” at Hurricane during Christmastime in 1844. But for some undisclosed and lost to history reason, the wedding and the engagement were called off.
January of 1845 brought fever sickness, and Varina was quite ill, near death as the future Confederate leader visited her daily.
The engagement was on again after she recovered, and on February 26, the couple married at her parents’ home. It was a simple affair; a few relatives and friends, but none of the groom’s family.
Davis took her on a honeymoon that included a visit to his mother, a visit to his first wife’s grave, and then a tour of New Orleans.
Shortly thereafter, they moved to his plantation, Brierfield.
It wasn’t long until the house became crowded for the young bride. Davis’ sister, Amanda Bradford, a penniless widow with seven of her children moved in mere months after the nuptials.
Big brother Joe decided that Amanda and her progeny should share the new mansion Varina and Jefferson were building.
All of this was done without the input from the bride.
Varina would tell friends later in life that there was a great deal of interference from her husband’s family. Joe was controlling, often bossing Varina around when Jefferson was away politicking and campaigning.
And to boot, her folks hit hard times and became financially dependent on the future first couple.
There were large swaths of time when Davis was on the road and the couple was apart. He was a politician and campaigns had to be run and won.
Davis was elected to the US House of Representatives and the couple moved to Washington, D.C. which Varina loved. She was brought to life by the social whirl and intelligent people around her. She became known for her unorthodox observations, such a slaves were human beings and everyone was a half-breed of one kind or another, including herself.
Really, it was shocking at the time.
The couple lived in DC for the next 15 years giving Varina a much broader outlook than many of her Southern counterparts.
DC was her favorite place to live; of course, Davis preferred the quiet life of Brierfield.
During this time Mexican War broke out, Davis took leave from Congress and Varina unhappily returned to the plantation.
During the Mexican War with Davis away, Varina was put under the guardianship of her brother in law, whom she began to detest and openly criticize to an unsympathetic Jefferson in her letters to him.
After he returned from the war he headed to DC again, alone this time. Due to difficulties and mutual resentments, which are well documented, Varina stayed home until Davis was appointed to fill a Senate seat.
Ultimately, the couple reconciled and Varina hotfooted it to the nation’s capital.
Davis was a hot ticket in DC. His former father in law was president, affording him connections not available to others.
Mrs. Davis loved the social life, established herself as one of the most popular hostesses; still in her early 20s, she was also the youngest senate wife at the time.
After seven childless years, their son Samuel was born. Her letters portray a happier time and show Davis as a doting father.
There would be five more children over time; Margaret, Jefferson Jr., Joseph, William, and Varina.
Like her Union counterpart, Mary Todd Lincoln, Mrs. Davis was devastated when her first child died before reaching the age of two.
She withdrew from social life, entering mourning so common of the era.
She would eventually bury all four of her sons.
While Franklin Pierce was President, Davis was appointed Secretary of War and the two couples became close, bonding over of the loss of children.
The Pierces had lost their last child, Benny in a train accident on the way to his father’s inauguration.
While the Mrs. Pierce was grieving and the President was drinking himself to death, the Davises served as official hosts at the White House.
All the while, civil war was looming.
Mary Boykin Chestnut, the famed diarist, claimed that Varina said, “The South will secede if Lincoln is made president. They will make Mr. Davis president on the southern side, and the whole thing is bound to be a failure.”
Again, we all learned in the 8th grade that that is exactly what happened.
During the Davis’ time in Richmond, they lost five year old Joseph when he broke his neck after falling from a balcony in the Presidential mansion.
It was one more thing she had in common with the Union First Lady.
A few weeks after Joe’s death, sister Varina was born. Called Winnie, she was known as the Daughter of the Confederacy.
With the fall of the Confederacy, the Davises fled south, hoping to escape to Europe.
They were captured by federal troops and Davis was imprisoned at Fortress Monroe in Virginia. Varina, for two years, penniless and indigent, was restricted to the state of Georgia. Fearing for her remaining children, she sent them to Canada to live with friends.
She was prohibited from corresponding with Davis, but all the while worked for his release.
The Confederate President was released and was never tried for treason, but had lost his home, most of his wealth, and his US Citizenship.
After his release, friends helped the family to travel in Europe. Davis accepted the presidency of an insurance agency in Memphis. No longer destitute, they tried to return to normal.
The Panic of 1873 brought bankruptcy to his employer and again the family headed for Europe.
While there, Davis received a commission as an agent for an English consortium that purchased cotton.
Davis returned to the US, but Varina stayed in Europe with her sister who was living there.
The couple’s letters from the time indicated the separation was prompted by renewed marital difficulties.
They had lost their fortunes and their sons, depression was a most likely culprit.
Davis, of course became a Southern Folk Hero, and Varina resented the attention from other women, particularly one Virgina Clay, the wife of former senator Clement Clay, who had been imprisoned at Monroe with Davis.
The letters exchanged between Mrs.Clay and Davis indicate that the couple was in love, and in 1871, Davis was seen on a train “with a woman who was not his wife.”
It made the national newspapers which were sent to Varina in Europe, and as historians say, the shit hit the fan.
Living apart most of the time, by 1877 Davis was ill and nearly bankrupt again. He accepted an invitation from Sarah Anne Ellis Dorsey, a widow to visit her plantation Beauvoir in Biloxi.
Dorsey, a former classmate of Varina, was a novelist and historian. She arranged for Davis to use a cottage on the grounds, helped him write his memoir of the Confederacy, and asked Varina to come home.
Disapproving of the relationship, Varina came back, but lived in Memphis once again.
Gradually the couple reconciled, and they were together when they learned that their last surviving son, Jefferson Davis, Jr. had succumbed to yellow fever. That same year, 1878, 20,000 people in the south died from “yellow jack.”
Dorsey helped Varina in her grief, and the two former classmates renewed their friendship.
Dorsey, who had learned she was dying from cancer, was determined to help the former president and his family. She offered to sell him her home, and remade her will to leave the property title free to Davis. This provided the couple the financial security needed in their final years.
Winnie came to Beauvoir, beau in tow, only to have her parents reject her intended due to his “yankee and abolitionist family connections” and his lack of money.
Winnie dropped him at their request, and never married.
Davis died in 1889 and in 1891, Winnie, now the owner of Beauvoir, and her mother moved to New York City, It was a move that infuriated the south.
Considered a confederate carpetbagger when she moved north, Varina completed Jefferson’s memoir, publishing it in 1890. It sold few copies at first.
Kate Davis Pulitzer, a distant cousin of Jefferson and the wife of Joseph Pulitzer, met Varina during a southern tour.
In 1891, Varina became a full time columnist. Both Varina and Winnie pursued publishing careers, with Winnie publishing several novels.
Winnie preceded her mother in death in 1898.
With Winnie gone, Varina was in possession of Beauvoir, which she sold to the Sons of Confederate Veterans in 1902.
In the post war years, after Lincoln, Lee, Davis, and Grant were all gone; Varina Howell Davis became friends with Julia Dent Grant. They met when Davis was praying at Grant’s tomb, which had become a habit.
They remained friends until Varina’s death in 1906 at the age of 80.
She had buried her husband and five of their six children and was survived by her daughter, Margaret and several grandchildren and great grandchildren. She was buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery next to her husband.
And by most accounts, as it was bound to be, it was a failure.