Varina Banks Howell Davis (May 7, 1826 – October 16, 1906) was an American author who is best known as the second wife of President Jefferson Davis and the First Lady of the Confederate States of America.
Varina Banks Howell was born at Natchez, Mississippi, the daughter of William Burr Howell and Margaret L. 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. His mother was a relative of Jonathan Edwards and Aaron Burr. As a young woman, Varina attended school in Philadelphia and got to know many of her northern Howells family; she carried on a lifelong correspondence with some, and called herself a "half-breed" for her connections in both regions.
Read a letter written by Varina Davis.
William Burr Howell, who inherited little money, used family connections to become a clerk in the Bank of the United States. After relocating to Mississippi, he married Margaret Kempe, who was born in Prince William County, Virginia. She had gone to Mississippi with her parents, the wealthy Colonel Joseph Kempe (sometimes spelled Kemp), born to Protestants in northern Ireland, and his wife Margaret Graham, also of Prince William County. Her parents, George Graham, a Scots immigrant, and Susanna McAllister of Virginia, had never married.
After the Kempe family moved to Mississippi, Joseph Kempe bought land also in Louisiana. He gave his daughter Margaret a dowry of 60 slaves and 2,000 acres of land for her marriage with William Howell. 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 his wife 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. At one time during her childhood, 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. 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 wealthy maternal relatives to avoid poverty.
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 Huguenot, was a refugee from the French Revolution who 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, then a wealthy widow, helped support the Davises.) After a year, Howell returned to Natchez, where she was privately tutored by Judge George Winchester, a Harvard graduate and family friend. 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 the home of their family friend Joseph Davis to spend the Christmas season at Hurricane, his 5,000 acres (20 km2) cotton plantation. Located at Davis Bend, Mississippi, it was a few miles south of Vicksburg. 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 cotton planter.
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 three months after their wedding in 1835 of malaria. Davis had been reclusive in the ensuing eight years, although beginning to be active in politics. Shortly after their first meeting, 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 were Whigs. In her memoir, 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 planned as a grand affair to be held at Hurricane during Christmas of 1844, 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 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 Howell Davis later called interference from the Davis family in her life with her husband. Joseph Davis proved controlling, not only of his brother but of Howell Davis during her husband's absences. At the same time, Varina's parents were become more financially dependent on the Davises, to her embarrassment and resentment.
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 elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and Howell Davis accompanied him to Washington, D.C., which she loved.
Soon he took a leave from his position to serve as an officer in the Mexican-American War, and Howell Davis returned to Brierfield, where she was supervised by 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. The Mississippi legislature appointed him to fill a Senate seat.
Ultimately the couple reconciled. Howell Davis rejoined her husband in Washington. As the son-in-law (by his late wife) and former junior officer of President Zachary Taylor, Davis became unusually visible for a freshman senator. Varina Davis 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.
After seven childless years, she gave birth to their son Samuel Emory Davis in 1852. Her letters from this period express her happiness and portray Davis as a doting father. Of their six children, only three survived to adulthood. Winnie, the last, survived her father but died before her mother.
The Davises were devastated in June 1854 when their son Samuel died in early childhood. Varina Davis largely withdrew from social life for a time. In 1855, she gave birth to a healthy daughter, Margaret Howell (1855–1909); followed by two sons, Jefferson, Jr. (1857–1878) and Joseph Evan (1859–1864), during her husband's remaining tenure in Washington, D.C.
During the Pierce Administration, Davis was appointed to the post of Secretary of War. He and President 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 US 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 Confederate States of America.
In summer 1861, Varina and her husband moved to Richmond, Virginia, the new capital of the Confederacy. They lived in the Presidential Mansion there during the War (1861–1865). In December 1861 she gave birth to their fifth child, William Howell Davis, named for her father. (Howell was given several low-level appointments in the Confederate bureaucracy, due to his son-in-law's influence).
In 1864, the Davises lost several of their domestic slaves, who escaped. James Dennison and his wife, Betsey, who worked as Varina’s maid, used saved back pay of 80 gold dollars to finance their escape, and Henry, a butler, left one night after building a fire in the mansion’s basement to divert attention.
In spring 1864, their son Joseph Davis was killed in an accident at the Presidential Mansion. A few weeks later, on June 27, 1864, Varina gave birth to their last child, a girl named Varina Anne Davis, and called Winnie. The girl became known as "the Daughter of the Confederacy;" stories about her and likenesses of her were distributed throughout the Confederacy. 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, 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 Davis 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, she 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. Howell Davis and 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.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. Two years before, their son William Davis died of typhoid fever in 1871.
While visiting their daughters who were enrolled in boarding schools in Europe, Jefferson Davis received 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, staying 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, the wife of their friend Clement Clay. He and Davis had been fellow prisoners at Fort Monroe.
For several years, the Davises lived apart far more than they lived together. In 1877 Jefferson Davis was unemployed, nearly bankrupt, and ill. Advised to take a home near the sea for his health, he accepted an invitation to visit Sarah Anne Ellis Dorsey, a widowed heiress who owned a plantation 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. Dorsey invited both the Davises to join her at her plantation, which she had named Beauvoir. She arranged for Davis to use a cottage on the grounds and helped him organize and write his memoir of the Confederacy.
Howell Davis and their eldest daughter disapproved of her husband's friendship with Dorsey. After her return to the United States, Howell Davis lived in the Memphis with their married eldest daughter. Gradually she began a reconciliation with her husband, and was with him at Beauvoir in 1878 when their last surviving son, Jefferson Davis, Jr., died during a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis. She became friends again with Sara Ellis Dorsey during her grieving process.
Sarah Dorsey determined to help support Jefferson Davis. Before her death from breast cancer in 1879, she made over her will to leave Jefferson Davis free title to the home, as well as to much of the remainder of her estate. Her Percy relatives were unsuccessful in challenging the will. Her bequest provided the Davises with enough financial security to enjoy some comfort in the final years of their marriage. They were joined at Beauvoir by their daughter Winnie upon completion of her education, as they had refused to her her marry into "a prominent Yankee and abolitionist family." Dorsey's bequest made Winnie the next in line after Jefferson Davis, who died in 1889. After Winnie died in 1898, Varina Davis inherited the plantation.
Jefferson Davis died in 1889. Varina completed his autobiography, publishing it as Jefferson Davis, A Memoir (1890). 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, had met Varina during a visit to the south and had solicited short articles from her for her husband's newspaper. In 1891 Varina Davis accepted the Pulitzers' offer to become a full-time columnist and moved to New York City with Winnie. They both pursued literary careers and lived in a series of residential hotels (their longest residency being at the Hotel Gerard at 123 W. 44th Street). Winnie Davis published several novels.
In October 1902 after Winnie's death and inheriting Beauvoir, Varina Davis sold the plantation to the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans for $10,000. She stipulated it was to be used as a Confederate veterans' home and later as a memorial to Jefferson Davis.
Varina Howell Davis was one of numerous influential southerners who moved to the North, prompting the term "Confederate carpetbaggers." Among them were the couple Roger Atkinson Pryor and Sara Agnes Rice Pryor. 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 Tuskegee Institute. In her old age, she "declared in print that the right side had won the Civil War."
She was saddened by the death of her daughter Winnie in 1898. Howell Davis continued to write for the newspaper and enjoyed a daily ride 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 in New York, on October 16, 1906. She was survived by her daughter Margaret, 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 he donated his profile portrait of her daughter, Winnie Davis, painted in 1897-'98, 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's diamond and emerald wedding ring, one of the few valuable possessions she managed to retain, which was held by the Museum at Beauvoir, was lost in the hurricane. It was discovered on the grounds a few months later and returned to the museum.