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.
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
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.
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
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 Ulysses S. Grant, 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 Booker T. Washington 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."
May 26, 1826 - Varina Howell is born in rural Louisiana.
February 26, 1845 - Jefferson Davis, after winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives, marries Varina Howell.
February 9, 1861 - Jefferson Davis is elected provisional president of the newly formed Confederate States of America by a convention in Montgomery, Alabama.
February 18, 1861 - Jefferson Davis is inaugurated as the provisional president of the Confederacy in Montgomery, Alabama, declaring that the "South is determined to maintain her position, and make all who oppose her smell Southern powder and feel Southern steel."
May 26–29, 1861 - The Confederate capital relocates from Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond.
June 1861 - Varina Davis, wife of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, tells her mother the Confederacy does not have the resources to win the Civil War.
July 6, 1862 - Varina Davis tells her husband, Confederate president Jefferson Davis, that if the Union wins the Civil War, then it will have been God's will.
April 30, 1864 - Five-year-old Joseph E. Davis, son of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, is mortally injured in a fall from the balcony of the Confederate White House in Richmond.
April 2–3, 1865 - Confederate president Jefferson Davis evacuates Richmond ahead of Union forces and travels to Danville.
May 22, 1865–May 13, 1867 - Former Confederate president Jefferson Davis is incarcerated at Fort Monroe, Virginia, following the Civil War. Part of his bail is posted by the abolitionist Horace Greeley.
July 11, 1871 - Former Confederate president Jefferson Davis has an encounter on a train with a woman other than his wife.
December 6, 1889 - Jefferson Davis dies in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Autumn 1890 - Varina Davis and daughter Varina Anne Davis move from Mississippi to New York.
June 23–24, 1893 - Varina Davis meets Julia Dent Grant, widow of Union general and U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant, at Cranston's Hotel on the Hudson River.
September 18, 1898 - Varina Anne Davis, daughter of former Confederate president Jefferson Davis, dies at Narragansett Pier, Rhode Island.
April 21, 1901 - In an article in the New York World, former Confederate first lady Varina Davis declares that it was God's will that the North won the Civil War.
October 16, 1906 - Former Confederate first lady Varina Davis dies at her apartment overlooking Central Park in New York City.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Encyclopedia Virginia staff Varina Howell Davis (1826–1906). (2014, June 2). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Davis_Varina_1826-1906.
- MLA Citation:
Encyclopedia Virginia staff. "Varina Howell Davis (1826–1906)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 2 Jun. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: April 21, 2009 | Last modified: June 2, 2014
Contributed by Encyclopedia Virginia staff.