Varina Howell was born on May 7, 1826, in rural Louisiana where her parents, William B. Howell and Margaret L. Kempe, of Natchez, Mississippi, were visiting relatives. After distinguished service in the American Revolution (1775–1783), her grandfather, Richard Howell, became governor of New Jersey in the 1790s. Her father, who fought in the War of 1812, settled in Natchez and married Kempe, a Virginia native whose father was an Irish immigrant. That Varina, born to a family with roots in both the North and the South, should become the First Lady of the Confederacy is a historical irony. She called herself a “half-breed.”
William Howell was for many years a successful merchant until he went bankrupt late in the 1830s. His daughter nevertheless received a superb education, attending a boarding school in Philadelphia. (The tuition was probably paid for by relatives.) While she was in school, she developed a lifelong fondness for her Northern kinfolk.
When she returned to Natchez, Varina Howell had few marriage prospects. Her father was unable to support his family or provide a dowry, and she was better educated than most women of her generation. By the standards of the mid-nineteenth century, she was not attractive—tall and thin, with the olive complexion of her Welsh ancestors. In 1843, she met Jefferson Davis at a Christmas party and quickly fell in love with him. He was a handsome older man, a wealthy plantation owner, widower, and hero of the Mexican War (1846–1848). He also had beautiful manners. After they married in 1845, she realized that he had conventional attitudes about gender, and he expected his wife to submit to his wishes; she also discovered that he revered the memory of his first spouse, Sarah Knox Taylor, who died the year he married her. (Taylor was the daughter of U.S. president Zachary Taylor, who had disapproved of the couple’s marriage.) As Davis admitted in her old age, her husband had always loved his first wife more than he loved her.
But marriage to Jefferson Davis had a number of compensations for Varina Davis. He became a professional politician, representing Mississippi as a Democrat in the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, serving as secretary of war in the cabinet of U.S. president Franklin Pierce, and serving again in the U.S. Senate. As a result, Davis spent most of the first fifteen years of her marriage in Washington, D.C. She loved Washington. She made friends from all over the country, including such prominent figures as the wife of Montgomery Blair, the Maryland Democrat-turned-Republican who served as postmaster general in the administration of U.S. president Abraham Lincoln. In Washington, Davis was also close enough to regularly visit her extended family in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
In the 1850s and 1860s, Davis gave birth to six surviving children, all of whom she adored. She also enjoyed being rich. Her husband’s fortune paid for a nice home, nice clothing, and a nice carriage. Her political views were nevertheless more moderate than those of her husband. She once remarked that slaves were “human beings with their frailties,” while Jefferson Davis publicly compared slaves to animals. She maintained friendships with people from both political parties, even as he became more aggressively proslavery and more partisan in the 1850s.
Secession and War
Davis was deeply alarmed by the secession crisis of 1860–1861. By the summer of 1860, she knew that her husband was being talked about as a possible head of the seceded states, and she told a friend that the “whole thing is bound to be a failure.” Years later she said that her husband was not suited for political office and did not have the ability to compromise. She was both pro-Union and proslavery, so if she had had the right, she probably would have voted for the pro-Union Southerner John Bell in the presidential election of 1860.
When her husband was appointed Confederate president in 1861, she reluctantly followed him to the South. In June 1861, she confided to her mother that the South did not have the resources to win the war, but she had to do her duty; when it was all over, she said, she would “run with the rest.” In Richmond, her cordial remarks about her Northern friends and relatives made her unpopular, as did the rumor that she corresponded with those friends and relatives—a charge that was, in fact, true. She had relatives in both armies, and she visited the wounded, Northern and Southern, in Richmond hospitals. In 1862, she remarked in a private letter that if the South lost the war, it would be because God willed it.
As First Lady, Davis was responsible for hosting many social events at the Confederate White House. She followed Washington etiquette, holding open receptions for dozens of people as well as small dinner parties, and she dressed in tasteful, conservative clothes. But her tenure was dogged by controversies. Her political loyalties were suspect from the beginning, of course. Her conversation, filled with literary references, baffled some of her peers. Her olive complexion was considered unattractive, and some white Richmonders compared her to a mulatto or an Indian “squaw.” She also had pressing responsibilities running the household. She supervised approximately twenty workers, white and black, enslaved and free, and she hosted many relatives from her husband’s family and her own family. Both of the Davises were crushed by the death of their son Joseph, age five, who broke his neck in a fall from a balcony in 1864.
As Union troops approached the capital, the Davises fled Richmond in the spring of 1865, but they were captured in Georgia in May. The postwar years were bleak, marked by financial struggle, more family deaths, and various newspaper scandals. Jefferson Davis served two years in prison atbefore the federal government released him on bail; he never took the oath of allegiance to the United States. His Mississippi plantation had been confiscated, so he tried to find a new job. The Davises moved to England, where the former president started a commission house, but the business collapsed, so the Davises returned to United States. In Memphis, Tennessee, he worked for an insurance company, which went bankrupt. The widow Sarah Dorsey then invited him to live at her estate, Beauvoir, in rural Mississippi, and late in the 1870s, she bequeathed the property to Jefferson Davis. Two of the Davis sons died, one from diphtheria and the other from yellow fever. Furthermore, Jefferson Davis fell in love with Virginia Clay, wife of a former Confederate official. He wrote passionate letters to her for three years, and in 1871 after he was discovered on a train with an unidentified woman (possibly Clay), the story appeared in newspapers all over the United States. The legal system made divorce very difficult, however, and divorce had such a stigma that neither one of the Davises discussed it in writing.
After 1865, the Davises were still famous, celebrities in the modern sense, and their letters, articles of clothing, and knickknacks became souvenirs in museums all over the country. Through the 1870s and 1880s, Jefferson Davis was asked to make public appearances at soldiers’ reunions, monument dedications, and state fairs. When his youngest daughter, Varina Anne Davis, called “Winnie,” reached her twenties, she began making public appearances with her father, earning the nickname “Daughter of the Confederacy.” While they lived at Beauvoir, the Davises had little privacy. Dozens of people arrived every year to meet Jefferson Davis—veterans, newspaper reporters, curious strangers—and some of them wanted to talk to Varina Davis, too. She was a gracious hostess, but she admitted to a friend that she tired of the throng of visitors. Moreover, she felt that Beauvoir was Sarah Dorsey’s house, and she had always preferred urban life to country living. After Jefferson Davis died of pneumonia in 1889, Davis and her daughter Winnie Davis moved to New York City.
A New Yorker
The widow Davis lived in Gotham for the rest of her life. She supported herself by writing articles for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, while Winnie Davis published several moderately successful novels. Mother and daughter led a middle-class lifestyle, residing in apartment-hotels in Manhattan, receiving Northern relatives, and making new friends from all sections and all social backgrounds. When conservative white southerners criticized her behavior, she explained to the press that she felt uncomfortable at Beauvoir, and because her husband had left her little property, she was forced to work for a living. She did not mention another key reason: she enjoyed living in the great metropolis. Since New York was full of famous people, she usually could go about her day unnoticed by strangers. The city of Richmond offered her a house free of charge, but she politely refused. When Winnie Davis died of a fever in 1898, a devastating personal loss, she received sympathy messages from citizens all over the country. She also received more calls to return to the South but again declined.
In New York, she became an open advocate of regional reconciliation. She met Julia Dent Grant, the widow of Union general and U.S. president, by accident in 1893 at a resort on the Hudson River, and the two women became friends. They had a good deal in common and genuinely liked each other. Their friendship was celebrated in much of the national press, although it was ignored by the most conservative white southerners. Davis attended reunions of veterans from both armies, and she was a member of both the Daughters of the American Revolution and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. In 1901, she met the African American leader in New York, and they had a brief, civil conversation. The same year, she proclaimed in an article in the New York World that God “in His wisdom” had allowed the North to prevail and the United States to survive, stating in public what she said in private in 1862.
She enjoyed her old age in the big city, hosting visitors, writing letters, reading books, going to the theater, and taking a daily ride in her carriage through Central Park. In October 1906, she contracted pneumonia and died, on October 16, in her apartment overlooking Central Park. She was eighty years old. Varina Howell Davis was buried in Richmond, her tombstone reading, “At Peace.”