Wedding photograph of Jefferson Davis and Varina Howell, 1845 / New York Public Library
By Kimberly J. Largent
Charge the Cannons Publishing
The Early Years
The Briars in Natchez, Mississippi, birthplace of Varina Anne Banks Howell Davis in 1826 / Library of Congress
Varina Anne Banks Howell Davis was born to William Burr Howell and Margaret Louisa Kempe on May 7, 1826 at their home called The Briers, located in Natchez, MI. In order to fully appreciate Varina’s future as first lady of the Confederacy, we must return to the past to the time when her father William was a younger man. Three times commended for extraordinary gallantry in action during the Battle of the Lakes during the War of 1812, William was an adventurous, dashing young man who in 1815, after the war, traveled on a flatboat down the Mississippi River. His destination was the Natchez region. When he arrived to the sparsely populated area, he was met and befriended by Joseph Emory Davis. Joseph, a well-established lawyer, and William soon became inseparable.
In 1823, William met and married Margaret Louisa Kempe at Old Trinity Episcopal Church in Natchez; Joseph served as best man. The newlyweds set up permanent housekeeping in Natchez at The Briers and soon found themselves with their first child, a son whom they named Joseph, after William’s long-time friend. A few years later, Varina was born. Varina grew up happy and carefree at The Briers she would later claim in her memoirs. She never tired of exploring the dry bayous near the river or playing in the lavish forest surrounding her home. Neighbors and family members often called her a ‘tom boy’ for the daring feats she spontaneously performed. Whether she was rolling down a steep canyon or turning somersaults on rough terrain, fear was an emotion she seldom expressed. At a very young age, she developed an interest in reading—especially newspapers. She was an excellent scholar and studied at Madame Greenland’s School in Philadelphia during her teens. She was so bright that Joseph Davis would later confess “she understood the history of the Whig party better than most of the men who belonged to it…”
Upon her 17th birthday, a very graceful Varina was invited to Hurricane Plantation, the home of Joseph Davis. Her mother, feeling that Varina was now ready to enter Natchez society, permitted the lengthy visit. During her journey, a stop was made at Diamond Place, which was the home of Joseph’s eldest daughter and her husband. While there, a handsome and distinguished-looking caller arrived and was introduced to her. His name was Jefferson Davis; he was Joseph’s younger brother. Jefferson’s visit was not a lengthy one and the only real interaction he had with Varina was to curtly inform her that she was expected at Joseph’s residence the following day.
Varina wrote to her mother of that encounter: “Today, Uncle Joe sent by his younger brother (did you know that he had one?) an urgent invitation to me to go at once to The Hurricane. 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 is only two years younger than you are. He impresses me as a remarkable kind of man but of uncertain temper and he 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.”
As for Jefferson, he recalled the first meeting between the two as awkward; however, most social interactions were awkward at this point in his life. He’d spent much of the previous eight years in seclusion at his plantation Brierfield, after the untimely death of his wife Sarah Knox Taylor. Varina indulged herself in gathering as much information on Jefferson as she could without exposing her feelings for him—it was not proper for a woman to acknowledge feelings before the man. And although she recognized the age gap between them, the attraction she felt was stronger. The more he visited, the more she learned about him and the more smitten she became.
Conversations revealed that Jefferson was the candidate brought forward by the people as the Democratic choice to defeat the Whig party in Warren County, MS, which perplexed her. Why would someone as well-bred and cultured as he was concern himself with the welfare of the “common people” and their inherent rights under the Constitution? Her belief was that it was the government’s responsibility to take care of the common people rather than their responsibility to shape the government’s policies. The government would be safe as long as the better class ruled it. Jefferson, oblivious to any attraction Varina felt for him, hadn’t paid any mind to her until the evening she entertained everyone at Hurricane with her reading. When she’d mastered the foreign phrases of the text, it was then something in him was moved. As though his eyes had been opened, seeing her for the first time, he instantly took notice of her beauty and her intelligence. When that evening came to a close, Jefferson, now in a lover’s stupor, commented to his brother of her beauty and fine mind. The ensuing days were filled with shared walks or horseback rides when the two would explore the green groves of moss-draped magnolias, oaks and cottonwoods. Each day he spent in her company, the younger he felt. After eight years of grief, Jefferson was wondering if it was time to let another woman into his heart. And just as the relationship began to blossom, Varina received a disappointing message from her parent calling for her to return home. Even the members of the Hurricane household were disappointed—everyone could clearly see the love that was growing between Jefferson and Varina. On their last day together, there was no talk of public affairs or talk of politics as there had been each time they came together. This time, only the beauty of the sun glimmering through the lace curtains of the music room was discussed…
Marriage and Politics
A young Varina / Natchez National Historical Park
As her parents had requested, Varina Howell returned to The Briers. There, she shared her fondness for Jefferson Davis with her parents who couldn’t have been any more delighted. They’d met Joseph’s younger brother Jefferson several years prior when he was a West Point cadet. Although they’d only met him briefly, he’d made a lasting impression upon them. Varina was no sooner unpacked the day she returned when Jefferson came calling just as the two had secretly planned. During his visit he asked Varina’s father for her hand in marriage. The Howell’s joyfully gave their blessing. Varina, only 18 years old, would become the wife of Jefferson Davis; the man for whom the country was already predicting great things. As the days went by and Varina and her mother busied themselves with planning the wedding, Varina still had difficulty coming to terms with Jefferson’s politics. She was even more troubled when news of her engagement spread through Natchez and people began attacking her future-husband’s political views. Although the inner turmoil raged, outwardly, she staunchly defended his views. When the announcement came that Jefferson would run against the Whigs for a seat in Congress, Varina’s mood and health deteriorated quickly. A heaviness seemed to blanket her spirit, she grew thin and became more anxious each day. It was only when she realized that the extent of Jefferson’s success rested upon her did her determination and commitment renew. Gradually, she put aside her pride and her Whig views to express an interest in his Democratic beliefs.
Although she was successful outwardly, the toll on her body was too great for her and just before the marriage was to take place, Varina became deathly ill. Jefferson immediately put his political engagements on hold to be with her. With him at her side, she slowly regained her strength and her health. On February 26, 1845, Varina Howell and Jefferson Davis married in a small ceremony held at The Briers and open only to close relatives and a handful of friends. Natchez society was puzzled why such elegant affair of distinction was not open to the public while the rest of Mississippi was muttering, “Jefferson Davis married W.B. Howell’s daughter…What are the Whigs going to say about that?”
Through Varina’s personal writings, we can easily interpret that early in their relationship, she and Jefferson shared not only a mutual respect and admiration for each other, but it is clear each was the keeper of the other’s heart. The latter becomes evident during their bridal tour (honeymoon) when Jefferson took Varina to his sister’s home Locust Grove in Louisiana—the very home where his first wife had died. Varina expressed no jealousy or resentment when she’d learned the details his first wife’s death, but instead offered compassion and understanding to Jefferson.
She wrote in her memoirs, “We carried flowers to her grave in the family burying-ground down by the garden before we left.” Even in Varina’s memoirs of her husband, she paid beautiful tribute to the young woman who lay claim to Jefferson’s heart before she did. When the honeymoon was over, the couple settled at Brierfield where Varina wondered and wrote, “Was ever any woman as happy?” She easily adapted to her new life and quickly grew fond of the home, “It was a cool house, comfortably furnished, and we passed many happy days there, enlivened by daily rides in which we indulged in many races when the road was smooth…”
It’s evident that Varina wanted their lives to remain simple and uncomplicated; she kept the house and Jefferson kept the plantation. The plantation slaves grew to respect Varina and spoke of their admiration for her. She visited their sick, lent her compassion when there was a death, celebrated in their marriages and helped during births. She and her husband were not only admired by the slaves, but also by the rich and the poor, as well. Their lives were progressing well, but Varina began to feel the tugs of outside influences that she had no control over: politics. Soon letters began arriving at Brierfield from all over the state calling for Jefferson to enter a political life. He was the only Democrat the Whigs feared and Varina soon found herself heading to Vicksburg with her husband where he was scheduled to deliver a speech. Prior to his turn at the podium, since both were a bit nervous as Varina had never witness him giving a public speech, nor had he given a public speech with Varina in the audience, Jefferson politely asked his wife not to make eye contact with him while he was speaking. She dutiful honored his request. His speech in hand, he began to address the crowd. In a short amount of time, his nervousness subsided and he cast his notes aside to deliver an unrehearsed oration that was clear, concise, informative, and well-delivered. “From that day forth,” she wrote in her memoirs, “no speech was ever written for delivery…He spoke fast, and thoughts crowded each other closely, a certain magnetism of manner and the exceeding beauty and charm of his voice moved the multitude, and there were apparently no inattentive or indifferent listeners. He had one power that I have never seen excelled; while speaking, he took the individuality of the crowd, and seeing doubt or a lack of coincidence with him in their faces, he answered the mental dissonance with arguments address to the case in their minds.”
Varina couldn’t help thinking that maybe this new life wouldn’t be so bad after all and Jefferson, well he was simply pleased to see his wife in such cheerful spirits. Washington DC graciously welcomed the two when Jefferson Davis reported to Congress. They first found lodging in a fashionable hotel where they socialized with the Washington elite, then settled in a remote boarding house on Pennsylvania Avenue. Mary Boykin Chestnut, a Civil War diarist, wrote that it was during this time Varina began developing an intellectualism, wit and repartee that distinguished her through life. But this grand time was interrupted when Jefferson was elected Colonel of the First Mississippi Regiment and sent to defend Texas in the War with Mexico. Varina termed that period of their lives “the dreadfull call,” although “he eagerly and gladly accepted the appointment.” The two departed Washington and made the somber return trip to Brierfield. There, Varina helped her husband pack for a trip that she didn’t know if it would last days, months or years.
Jefferson left their home to join his regiment in New Orleans and Varina wrote it felt “like death to see him go.” Varina returned to her parents home where she spent several weeks consoling them over the departure of her brother Joseph who enlisted in the First Mississippi to serve under Jefferson. Next, she headed off to Hurricane where she stayed with Jefferson’s brother Joseph. In light of her worry over the War with Mexico, her health deteriorated once again. It was during this time she became of mind to hide her health problems from her husband. She didn’t want to convey any information to him that would stand in the way of his accomplishments. But her health deteriorated so quickly she was forced to leave Hurricane and return to her parent’s care at The Briers. Concerned for her life, her family sent word to Jefferson of her condition. He immediately requested and was granted a 60-day leave.
Jefferson’s return hastened Varina’s recovery and she spent hours listening intently to his tales of the War with Mexico. She could easily see his determination and couldn’t help but respect his sense of duty. With renewed appreciation, confidence, and heroic measure, she saw her husband off to war a second time. But back in the saddle, Jefferson’s luck had run out when he’d rejoined his troops and suffered a wound to his foot. When Varina learned of his injury, the thought of possibly losing her husband was more than she could bear. She tried to hold on to the realization that her husband did not solely belong to her during this time; he belonged to his regiment, to the people. Yet the realization displeased her in a way she could not explain. When the War with Mexico ended, and Jefferson and his First Mississippi regiment returned, hundreds of people showed up to greet them. It was then Joseph Davis, noting her disposition, pulled her aside and whispered, “You and I come first even if we must now come last—let them have him now—our time will come.” Varina watched Jefferson slowly make his way toward her. He was on crutches, thin, and paled. As the hero’s welcome escalated, and roses were thrown toward him and the other men of the regiment, and flags and banners billowed in the breeze, Varina vowed that she had willingly and patriotically given Jefferson to his country and now they would return to Brierfield and he would be hers and hers alone. The Whig and the Democrat would return to their simply life…
The Presidential Years
First Lady of the Confederate States / Library of Congress
Dressed in a black broadcloth suit with a stiff white shirt and black satin waistcoat, Jefferson Davis addressed the United States Senate for the last time in January 1861: “I rise, Mr. President, for the purpose of announcing to the Senate that I have satisfactory evidence that the State of Mississippi, by a solemn ordinance of her people in convention assembled, has declared her separation from the United State. Under these circumstances, of course, my functions terminate here…” Varina, situated in the audience, could hear the unshed tears in her husband’s voice as he continued. “I am sure I feel no hostility toward you, Senators from the North. I am sure there is not one of you, whatever sharp discussion there may have been between us, to whom I cannot now say, in the presences of my God, I wish you well. I go hence unencumbered by the remembrance of any injury received, and having discharged the duty of making the only reparation in my power for any injury offered…it only remains for me to bid you a final adieu.” Some say he wept after delivering this speech—regardless, he received an ovation and thunderous applause when he was done. The Davis family that now included six-year-old Margaret, four-year-old Jefferson, and two-year-old Joseph (another child Samuel Emory was born in 1852, but died of illness at age two) made the return trip to The Briers. They were no sooner settled in that the call came for Jefferson to report to Montgomery, Alabama and accept the nomination for President of the Provisional Government of the Confederates States of America.
At only 35 years of age, Varina Howell Davis was to become the First Lady of the Confederacy. Once situated in Montgomery, Varina was quickly consumed by heavy responsibilities. Still, she remained sensitive to the needs of her children and her husband. She never overlooked the cumbersome weight on her husband’s shoulders, nor did she stray too far from him lest he needed her to discuss the state of the Confederacy, which he did frequently. In later years, he was heavily criticized for allowing Varina to engage in the political conversations, and in some instances even help make important decisions. The Confederacy named Richmond its new seat of government in May 1861 and the Davises were once again uprooted. Once settled in their new quarters, Varina, who was expecting their fourth child, renewed a former friendship from her Washington days with noted diarist Mary Chestnut. The two became inseparable and Mary wrote candidly in her diary of her daily interactions with Varina. Mary’s observations of Varina included the First Lady’s disregard for her wardrobe, unlike her Northern counterpart Mary Todd Lincoln. Varina felt as long as the material was good, the laces real, and the cut reasonably in the mode, it was good enough for her. Mary also made notations that Varina was skilled in managing her time.
The First Lady easily directed the servants, took care of her children, visited the hospitals, made herself available if her husband needed to talk, and successfully stood up against the social barrage of disapproval when it came. As Jefferson began to feel the immense pressures of his position, an interesting shift took place between the Davises. Whereas in the beginning of their marriage it was Varina whose health deteriorated at the onset of emotional discomfort, during the presidential years it was Jefferson who was frequently ill and coined a sickly president. He became thin, pale and haggard-looking as each year passed. Frequently, he cancelled meetings with officials due to undisclosed illnesses. The press went so far as to report at times that he was near death. During his illnesses, Varina took charge of canceling and rescheduling appointments and served as a liaison between him and his cabinet members until he was well enough to resume his post. In turn, his dedication to her never wavered. She was foremost in his thoughts and was often privy to sensitive conversations that included military matters as well as the performance of his generals. After Varina gave birth to son William Howell Davis, the press took delight in describing her as portly and middle-aged, a comment that she wisely chose to ignore since there may have been a bit of truth to it. And although she learned to harden herself to the opinions of the press, she never hardened herself to the press’ condemnation of her husband.
Still, the press could never disapprove of Varina when it came to her handling of family and social matters. She had a keen sense of parenting that allowed her to summon humor or discipline where her children were concerned. She was also considerate of other people’s children—remembering their birthdays, anniversaries, and characteristics. She had radiant social qualities, including quick responses when entertaining, kindness of heart, and genuine interests in others. She was able to pleasantly converse with the brilliant or the relatively simple-minded person. In the role of First Lady, she visited the hospitals frequently, delivered supplies, wrote letters for the wounded men, and aided the women who were in authority positions within the hospitals. If anyone could get them the supplies they needed, it was Varina. Her dark side, which presented itself on rare occasions, included the ability to spew wounding sarcasm at a moment’s notice and she had a candor that was considered destructive at times. 1863 through 1864 was a mournful year for Varina. She first faced the death of her father, followed by the death of Stonewall Jackson—which deeply touched her as her thoughts turned to his unfortunate wife and infant daughter Julia. But the deepest blow that year was the loss of the Davis’s son Joseph. Varina wrote of the death in her memoirs, “I left my children quite well, playing in my room, and had just uncovered my basket in [Jefferson’s] office when a servant came in for me. The most beautiful and brightest of my children, Joseph Emory, had in play climbed over the connecting angle of the banister and fallen to the brick pavement below. He died a few minutes after we reached his side. This child was Mr Davis’s hope and greatest joy in life.”
It was during this time Varina’s wardrobe became severe; she chose only black or white and refrained from wearing colors. On 6/27/1864, Varina Anne (Winnie) was born to the Davises and the child-bearing years had now taken a toll on Varina’s body. At only 37 years of age, she began to suffer heart ailments. Yet she overlooked her own health to continue to take care of her children and her husband. At times she amazed herself at the strength of her body and character. But what never amazed her was the love, devotion and dedication that continued to flow between her and her husband. Like most lovers, the two had pet names for each other: she called him ‘Banny’ and he called her ‘Winnie.’
As the war raged on in 1864, Varina was more accepting of the Confederacy’s defeat than her husband who simply refused to yield. She began selling off her valuables such as silk, lace, gloves, books, china, and silver. She also began to prepare her family for flight. When Jefferson was finally ready to acknowledge a possible defeat, she wrote, “Darkness seemed now to close swiftly over the Confederacy, and about a week before the evacuation of Richmond, Mr Davis came to me and gently, but decidedly, announced the necessity for our departure. He said for the future his headquarters must be in the field, and that our presence would only embarrass and grieve, instead of comforting him. Very averse to flight, and unwilling at all times to leave him, I argued the question with him and pleaded to be permitted to remain, until he said: ‘I have confidence in your capacity to take care of our babies, and understand your desire to assist and comfort me, but you can do this in but one way, and that is by going yourself and taking our children to a place of safety.’ He was very much affected and said, ‘If I live you can come to me when the struggle is ended, but I do not expect to survive the destruction of constitutional liberty.’”
The Davises in mid-1880s / Library of Congress
The last week of March 1865, against her wishes, Varina and her children left by train and headed for Charlotte, NC. Once there, she rented a house and waited daily for word from her husband. Richmond quickly fell and when Abraham Lincoln made his way into that city, he visited the Confederate Executive Mansion and sat at the desk of Jefferson Davis. After hearing of Lee’s surrender of his army, a worried Varina once again boarded a train with her children and headed for protection deeper into the South. Feeling vulnerable to capture on a train, she changed their method of transportation to wagons.
For weeks, Jefferson tried to catch up to his wife, sometimes entering a town just hours after she’d departed. Finally, outside a town called Midgeville, Jefferson was able to overtake the wagon train and Winnie and Banny were reunited. Jefferson continued to travel with the wagons as much as possible. At times he would ride independently of them and send word back with the location of where they would encounter enemy troops. On May 9, 1865 Jefferson dared to spend the evening with his wife and the following morning was roused from his sleep with news of raiders in the area. After a closer inspection, he noted that it was Union cavalry on their way—not raiders.
There are several accounts of what happened next, but for the purpose of this article, Varina’s personal account will attest to the events that followed. “Knowing [Jefferson] would be recognized, I pled with him to let me throw over him a large waterproof which had often served him in sickness during the summer season for a dressing gown, and which I hoped might so cover his person that in the grey of the morning he would not be recognized. As he strode off, I threw over his head a little black shawl which was round my own shoulders, seeing that he could to find his hat and after he started sent my colored woman after him with a bucket of water, hoping that he would pass unobserved.” Unfortunately, the press wasn’t convinced of Varina’s account and relentlessly exploited Jefferson’s attempt to escape with cartoons of him dressed in petticoats. Jefferson was hauled off to Fortress Monroe and imprisoned in one of its casemates.
Varina and her children were taken to a Savannah hotel and had a guard posted at their hotel door. She was forbid to leave the area or communicate by letter with her husband, officials, or friends. Although residents of that town welcomed her and provided her with necessities, Varina faced the darkest period of her life without her Banny. She could accept her own ‘house arrest’ and impoverished lifestyle, but she could not bear the imprisonment of her husband. After much thought, Varina made a heart-wrenching decision to send her children, except Winnie, north to Montreal Canada to ensure their safety. Varina spent four months petitioning key figures to allow her husband and her to communicate. Finally, on 9/4/1865, her efforts were rewarded when she finally received a letter from Jefferson. The two were now permitted to communicate; however, they must deal only with family matters, and all letters written by Jefferson were to be submitted to the Attorney General before being sent on to Varina.
From that day on, Varina carried that letter, and all subsequent letters, in the bosom of her dress just as she had done during their courtship days. In spring of 1866, Varina was granted permission to visit her children in Montreal. While there, she received a distressing message that Jefferson was near death. She quickly penned a letter to President Johnson begging for permission to see her dying husband. He acquiesced and in May 1866, Varina and Jefferson were reunited at Fortress Monroe. She was mortified by his sickly condition; he was thin, his eyes glassy, “his cheekbones stood out like those of a skeleton.” So livid over his living conditions—that included a horse bucket for water and a bed infested with lice—she once again went on a letter-writing campaign and this time, enlisted the aid of many of the Davises’ prominent friends from before and during the war.
Soon, Jefferson was released from captivity, having never been brought to trial. Additionally, he refused to request a pardon or the restoration of his citizenship. He was a man with no country. Following his release, the couple lived apart for long intervals, with Varina spending time in Europe and Memphis. After several unsuccessful business ventures, Jefferson retired to Beauvoir, his home near Biloxi, Mississippi and began writing his two-volume memoir The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, which Varina later helped edit.
After three years, the book was complete and although it did not do well in sales, Jefferson brushed the fact aside and offered that he had not undertaken writing it for profit, but instead for the purpose of “setting the righteous motives of the South before the world.” In 1889, Jefferson became deathly ill with what doctors diagnosed as acute bronchitis, complicated by malaria. He lingered near death for days; Varina never left his side. She held his hand and comforted him. A few times he seemed to revive and Varina thought all would be well. When she attempted to give him his medicine for the last time, he simply uttered, “Pray, excuse me,” and turned away from her. He died so quietly that those around him were uncertain exactly when the passing took place.
As news of his death circulated, Varina was inundated with cards and letters from all over the world. She grieved in silence and made a move to New York where she began writing her memoirs of her husband. There, she enjoyed opera, theater, concerts, and the excitement of urban life. Varina’s life came to an end at 10:30 pm on October 16, 1906 after a bout of pneumonia. But before passing, she whispered to her attending daughter, “My darling child, I am going to die this time but I’ll try to be brave about it. Don’t you wear black. It is bad for your health and will depress your husband.” The Whig and the Democrat were finally reunited. On October 19, Varina had a military funeral in Richmond and was laid to rest beside her husband. Her inscription reads: “Beloved and faithful wife of Jefferson Davis and devoted mother of his children. Her children raise up and call her blessed; her husband also and he praiseth her. She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yes she reachest forth her hands to the needy. Give her of the fruit of her hands and let her own works praise her in the gates.”
In October 1978, Congress and President Jimmy Carter posthumously restored Jefferson’s American citizenship.
Source: Ross, Ishbel, First Lady of the South: The Life of Mrs. Jefferson Davis, 1973 Greenwood Publishing Group.