She 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 own father Richard Howell having served several terms as Governor of New Jersey who died when William was a boy; his mother a relative of Jonathan Edwards and Aaron Burr. As a young man William Burr Howell, who had little by way of monetary inheritance from his father’s estate, used family connections to become a clerk in the Bank of the United States, later relocating to Mississippi where he married Margaret Kempe, a daughter of wealthy Irish born planter Colonel Joseph Kempe (sometimes spelled Kemp). Over the course of his life Howell was consecutively a planter, a merchant, a politician, a postmaster, cotton broker, and a banker, but none of his endeavors ever provided him with long-term financial success. He lost the majority of his wife Margaret’s sizable inheritance through bad investments and his large family (he and Margaret had 8 children who survived to adulthood) was suffered intermittent serious financial problems for Howell’s entire life.
The Howells were close friends with Joseph Davis (1784–1870), a lawyer who had moved to Natchez from Kentucky and who was becoming one of the wealthiest men in Mississippi. They named their firstborn Joseph Davis Howell in 1824; Varina, their second child, was born two years later. When Varina was a child the Howell family home, furnishings and slaves were seized by creditors and sold at public auction, redeemed only through intervention of Margaret Howell’s wealthy relatives. Varina grew to adulthood in a very nice house, The Briars, in one of the wealthiest cities in antebellum America, but probably knowing she was living on the charity of wealthy relatives without whom her family would have been nearly indigent tempered her pleasure in her surroundings.
A temporary upswing in family finances allowed Varina to attend Madame Greenland’s School, a prestigious academy for young ladies in Philadelphia. One of her classmates was Sarah Ellis, the daughter of extremely wealthy Mississippi planters and a person who would be of critical importance in Varina’s life after the Civil War. Varina returned to Natchez after one year, probably due to the family’s inability to afford further tuition, and was privately tutored by Judge George Winchester, a Harvard graduate and family friend who occasionally boarded with the Howells (and for whom one of their younger sons was named). Varina spoke very fondly of Madame Greenland’s and of Judge Winchester in her later years and sacrificed greatly to provide the highest quality of education affordable for her own daughters.
In 1843, at age 17, Varina accepted an invitation to spend the Christmas season at Hurricane, Joseph Davis’s 5,000 acre cotton plantation on a five mile bend of the Mississippi River a few miles south of Vicksburg. During her stay she met her host’s much younger brother Jefferson Davis, a West Point graduate, former Army officer and cotton planter.
Jefferson Davis was a 35 year old widower when he and Varina met and had developed a reputation as a recluse since the death of his wife Sarah Knox Taylor in 1835. Davis, then contemplating a career in politics, was also a Democrat, while Varina shared the Whig views of her family. In spite of the differences in their age and politics Varina was almost instantly attracted to the older man, writing her mother shortly after their first meeting 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 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. Margaret Kempe Howell initially disapproved of the relationship due to the many differences in background, age, politics. In her memoirs Varina said that her mother’s greatest concerns were Davis’s excessive devotion to his living relatives, particularly his brother Joseph, who had largely raised him after their father’s death and upon whom he was financially dependent, and to Jefferson’s near worship of the memory of his deceased first wife (concerns that in private correspondence Varina would concede were entirely correct). Nevertheless the Howells ultimately consented to the courtship and the couple became engaged soon after.
From their surviving correspondence it is known that the wedding was initially planned as a very grand affair to be held at Hurricane during Christmas of 1844. For unknown reasons the wedding and the engagement were cancelled shortly before that date. In January 1845 Varina grew sick with a fever and Davis, fearful of her health, came frequently to visit, evidently proposing again during her recovery. Jefferson Davis and Varina Howell’s second engagement was very short and informal, culminating in their marriage on February 26, 1845 at her parents house, an affair attended only by a few relatives and friends of the bride and none of the groom’s family.
After a short honeymoon that included a visit to Jefferson’s aged mother, Jane Davis, and to the grave of his first wife in Louisiana, the newlyweds took up residence at Brierfield, a 1,000 acre plantation that had been given to Jefferson some years before by his brother Joseph and whose Hurricane plantation it adjoined. Varina described their first residence as a very comfortable two-room cottage that was to serve them until a more suitable house for a newlywed and well to do planter could be constructed. The construction of the main house would provide an unexpected source of major contention. Soon after his marriage Jefferson’s widowed and penniless sister, Amanda Davis Bradford, came to live on the property along with her seven youngest children. It was decided by Amanda’s brothers she should share the large single storied galleried house that was being constructed on Brierfield, a decision evidently made without Varina’s consent or liking. This decision was an early episode in a marriage that in Varina’s opinion (and with some evidence) would frequently be marked by interference from Jefferson’s family, most particularly his brother the paterfamilias Joseph Davis, who proved extremely controlling not only of his brother but of Varina during Jefferson’s absences. At the same time the growing financial dependence upon the newlyweds by Varina’s own family created a source of continual embarrassment and resentment.
The young marriage was further strained by long periods of separation, first as Davis gave campaign speeches and campaigned for himself and for other Democratic candidates in the elections of 1846. The couple enjoyed a brief window of happiness when Jefferson was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and Varina accompanied him to Washington, D.C., a city she immediately loved, but very soon he took a leave from his position to serve as an officer in the Mexican-American War, with Varina returning to Brierfield and again under the supervision of her brother-in-law Joseph Davis. The surviving correspondence between the Davises from this period leaves no doubt as to the severe difficulties and mutual resentments the couple was experiencing at the time, and upon Jefferson’s return from the war Varina did not immediately return with her husband to Washington when he was appointed to fill a Senate seat, a period of separation that seems as likely to have been for personal reasons as well as any practical considerations.
Ultimately the couple reconciled, largely due to Varina’s apologies for her “inconsiderations” in a surviving letter to her husband. Varina rejoined her husband in Washington, where due in part to his status as the former son-in-law and former junior officer of the then current President Zachary Taylor, Jefferson Davis became unusually visible for a freshman senator. Varina, who had felt extremely isolated and controlled on the Davis plantation, loved the vibrant social life of the capital city and soon established herself as one of the city’s most popular hostesses and party guests, constantly attending and hosting parties whenever Congress was in session. A marital rapprochement was furthered by the birth after seven childless years of a son, Samuel Emory Davis, in 1852. Her letters from this period reflect her happiness and portray Davis as an exceptionally doting father.
During the Pierce Administration, Jefferson was appointed to the post of Secretary of War. Davis and President Pierce formed a personal friendship that would last for the rest of Pierce’s life and was mirrored in a relationship of strong mutual respect between their wives. The death of the Pierce’s youngest and last surviving child, Benjy, shortly before his father’s inauguration had proven emotionally devastating to both parents, accelerating President Pierce’s dependence on alcohol and worsening First Lady Jane Appleton Pierce’s health problems and recurring bouts of depression and frequently making neither able to satisfactorily fulfill their social duties as President and First Lady; 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 Mrs. Pierce.
The Davises were themselves devastated when their son Samuel died in early childhood in June 1854. Jefferson’s work at the War Department allowed him some outlet from grief, but Varina largely withdrew from social life for a time. Some happiness returned when Varina gave birth to a healthy daughter, Margaret Howell (1855-1909), followed by two more sons – Jefferson, Jr. (1857–1878) and Joseph Evan (1859–1864) during Jefferson’s remaining tenure in Washington D.C..
Varina’s private letters reflect an astute and realistic understanding of the practicalities of southern secession; she understood and to some extent sympathized with secession but believed that should the United States fight the withdrawal a war with them would be almost impossible to win, due ironically in no small part to her husband’s strengthening of the United States armed forces during his tenure as Secretary of War. Upon her husband’s resignation from the Senate at the time of Mississippi’s secession, Varina returned to the family plantation at Brierfield where she anticipated he would be commissioned a general in the Confederate army. She expressed dismay when he was instead named President of the Confederate States of America and did not accompany him when he traveled to Montgomery, Alabama to be inaugurated. She followed a few weeks later and immediately 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, and 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, who held several low level appointments in the Confederate bureaucracy courtesy of his son-in-law. While first lady, she rescued a young slave boy named Jim Limber from a beating, and took him in to live at the White House of the Confederacy.
In spring 1864, their son Joseph was killed in an accident at the Confederate executive mansion in Richmond, Virginia. A few weeks later, on June 27, 1864, Varina gave birth to their last child, a girl named after herself – Varina Anne Davis – but called Winnie. An adorable child at a time when the war was almost lost and levity was needed, Winnie Davis became known as “the Daughter of the Confederacy” and tales and likenesses of her were distributed throughout the Confederacy. She would retain the nickname for the rest of her life.
When the war ended with the defeat of the CSA, she and her husband fled South hoping to escape to Europe, but they were captured and he was imprisoned at Fort Monroe in Phoebus, Virginia, for two years. Varina was left indigent and with her freedom of movement 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 her husband’s release and 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, and after public sympathy turned towards to Davis following publication of several articles and a book on his confinement she and their infant daughter were allowed to join him in his prison cell, eventually being moved to a more comfortable apartment in the officer’s quarters of the fort.
Although he was eventually released on bail, and never tried for treason, Jefferson Davis temporarily lost his home in Mississippi (Brierfield), most of his wealth, and his U.S. citizenship. The Davis family traveled constantly in Europe and Canada as Davis sought employment that would rebuild his fortunes. He accepted the presidency of an insurance agency headquartered in Memphis and the family resumed a life of some financial comfort until 1873 when the company went bankrupt due to market fluctuation and debt load. The family was also saddened by the death of their son William from typhoid in 1871.
While visiting their daughters who were enrolled in boarding schools in Europe, Jefferson received commission as an agent for an English consortium seeking to purchase cotton from the southern United States and returned home. Varina Davis remained in England to visit her sister who had recently moved there but remained several months rather than the few days expected. The surviving correspondence indicates that the separation may have derived from renewed marital difficulties more than her closeness to her sister. Both Davises suffered from depression due to the loss of their sons and their fortunes and Varina, possibly with reason, had grown very resentful of Jefferson’s attentions towards other women, particularly Virginia Clay, the wife of Clement Clay, their friend and Jefferson’s fellow inmate during his incarceration at Fort Monroe. For several years the couple lived apart far more than they lived together.
In 1877 Jefferson Davis was bereft of any prospects of employment, nearly bankrupt and suffering from a variety of illnesses, and separated from Varina. Advised to take a home near the sea for his health but lacking funds to do so he accepted an invitation to visit Sarah Dorsey, a widowed heiress who owned a home with a view of the Mississippi Sound in Biloxi. Mrs. Dorsey was the former Sarah Ellis who had been Varina’s classmate at Madame Green’s school and who since had become a published and respected novelist and a world traveler. Sarah prevailed upon her to join them at her home, an estate she had purchased after the war and rechristened Beauvoir, but Varina’s letters to Jefferson during this time make very clear that she found his relationship with the widow inappropriate. She did return to the United States, living in the Memphis home of their married oldest daughter, and a very gradual reconciliation with her husband began. She was with him at Beauvoir when their last surviving son, Jefferson Davis, Jr., died during a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis in 1878, and ultimately became friends with Mrs. Dorsey during her grieving process.
Sarah Dorsey agreed to sell the Davises Beauvoir in 1878. When she died the following year she left them free title to the home as well as much of the remainder of her estate, a bequest that left them less than wealthy but with enough financial security to enjoy some comfort in the final years of their marriage and without which they would have been nearly destitute. They were joined by their daughter Winnie upon completion of her education and remained at Beauvoir for the remaining years of Jefferson Davis’s life.
Jefferson Davis died in 1889. Varina completed an autobiographical writing he had begun and published it as Jefferson Davis, A Memoir (ISBN 1-877853-06-2) in 1890. However, the book sold few copies due to problems with the publisher. 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. With little income, poor health, the inability to properly care for Beauvoir, and long tired of the heat and humidity of Mississippi, she accepted the Pulitzers offer to become a full time columnist and moved to New York City in 1891 where she and her daughter Winnie pursued literary careers. They took rooms at a series of residential hotels, their longest residency being at the Hotel Gerard at 123 W. 44th Street. In October 1902, having previously refused much larger offers from real estate developers, Varina Davis sold Beauvoir to the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans for $10,000 to be used as a Confederate veterans’ home.
In later years Varina Howell Davis offended many of the Lost Cause, who saw her as the heir to her husband’s mantle as icon of the Confederacy, by her move to New York City and by her associations. She became friends with Julia Dent Grant, the widow of former general and president Ulysses S. Grant who was among the most hated men in the south. She also attended a reception where she met Booker T. Washington, head of Tuskegee Institute; socializing with a black man as if he were an equal was socially unacceptable for most white Americans of the time, particularly in the South.
The greatest tragedy of her later years was the death of her daughter Winnie in 1898. Nevertheless she continued to write for the newspaper and to appear 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 only one of her six children and by several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The former “First Lady of the Confederacy” received a funeral procession through the streets of New York City, where her coffin was placed upon a train and soon after interred with full honors performed by Confederate veterans at Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia, adjacent to the tomb of her famous husband and her daughter Winnie.
There is a portrait of Mrs. Davis (known as the “Widow of the Confederacy”) by the Swiss-born American artist Adolfo Müller-Ury (1862–1947) painted in 1895 at the museum at Beauvoir, and a profile portrait by Müller-Ury of her daughter, Winnie Davis, painted in 1897-’98, which the artist donated in 1918 to the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia.
On August 29, 2005, Beauvoir, which housed the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library, was nearly destroyed when it took the full brunt of wind and water damage from Hurricane Katrina. However, the Home has been restored and reopened on Jun 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 through the many lean years after the war and housed in the Museum at Beauvoir at the time of Katrina, was among the items presumed lost in the Hurricane. Amazingly it was discovered on the grounds a few months later and returned to safekeeping.
Caroline Clemmons’ current release HOME, SWEET TEXAS HOME is available from The Wild Rose Press. The buy link for her books with that publisher is www.thewildrosepress.com/caroline-clemmons-m-638.html Her backlist of books can be found on Amazon Kindle on sale for 99 cents. A new mystery, ALMOST HOME, may also be found there for $2.99 Thanks for stopping by today.