The Forgotten First Lady: Varina Howell

First Ladies of the United States are obliged to serve in a unique, often confining role which finds them performing duties that they likely did not expect to fulfill when they married their husbands. Marriage to a president puts the First Lady in the spotlight whether she wants to be there or not. Sometimes, the women who served as First Lady were able to create an identity separate from her role as the President’s wife, a feat which is easier to accomplish in the twenty-first century than it was in the earlier years of the country’s history. And yet, there’s an American woman who can be viewed as a trailblazer in a bygone era when most women docilely trod along their husbands’ paths and did not venture out on their own.

The story of this nineteenth-century First Lady has almost been forgotten but in the context of her times, she lived a remarkable life, one filled with exhilaration, tragedy, and in the end, astonishing independence. Her presidential husband was a difficult man and the marriage endured its share of tension and strain, a situation not improved by his post-presidential infidelity and her refusal to submit to her subordinate place in a marriage. She was First Lady during a time when the nation was beset by conflict and she was the subject of criticism for her background, her social habits, and her loyalties. There are a number of First Ladies who whose marriages and whose tenure as First Lady would meet these descriptions, but there was only one First Lady of the Confederate States of America, and there was only one Varina Anne Banks Howell Davis.

Varina Davis

Born in Louisiana, Varina Howell was a Southern girl with a New Jersey grandfather and a Philadelphia education, a geographical identity that led her to describe herself as a half-breed. When she was seventeen years old, Varina Howell was invited to spend the Christmas holidays at the home of a family friend whose brother, Jefferson Davis, a thirty-five-year-old widower, was visiting. Despite the age difference, there was an attraction between Varina and the handsome plantation owner, even though Varina wrote to her mother that Davis was the sort of man “I should expect to rescue one from a mad dog at any risk, but to insist upon a stoical indifference to the fright afterward.”

Jefferson Davis

The couple became engaged despite her family’s doubts; Jefferson Davis was so much older than their daughter; he was a Democrat and the Howells were Whigs; Varina was inexperienced and Davis, a widower, was devoted to the memory of his first wife, Sarah Taylor, who had died of malaria three months after the marriage. Sarah had been the daughter of then-General and future President Zachary Taylor, who had disapproved of the match. Despite these misgivings, in February, 1845, they were married.

Wedding photo of Jefferson Davis and Varina Davis.

Their early married years were childless, but after Davis moved to Washington D.C. as an up-and-coming politician, Varina became part of the social scene, sometimes playing hostess in the Pierce White House for First Lady Jane Pierce. The nation’s capital was a lively place and the clever, well-educated Varina flourished among the political movers and shakers. She was pro-states’ rights and pro-slavery but, unlike her husband, she was adept at befriending Washingtonians who were both abolitionists and supporters of slavery. However, time was running out for such a flexible philosophy. Her husband was staunchly opposed to the abolitionist views and as the two sides became more and more hostile to one another, Davis was viewed as the potential leader of the slave-owning South. The word secession was being voiced. Varina, who did not depend upon her husband to form her political opinions, told a friend that if the South seceded, “They will make Mr. Davis President of the Southern side. And the whole thing is bound to be a failure.”

The 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln to the office of president launched the secession that Varina dreaded and the Davis family left Washington for Richmond, Virginia, capital of the Confederate States of America. But just as First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln was viewed with suspicion in the Washington D.C. White House because she had Kentucky relatives fighting on the Confederate side, Varina Howell Davis, with her close ties to her Northern relatives and her habit of visiting both Union and Rebel soldiers when she visited the hospitals, was an unpopular First Lady. Malicious critics commented upon her olive complexion and speculated that the blood of another race was at work.

Mary Todd Lincoln and Varina Howell Davis shared another misfortune, both mothers losing young sons during their tenure as First Ladies. Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln’s son Willie died at age 11, probably of typhoid, in 1862; Varina and Jefferson Davis lost their five-year-old son Joseph in 1864 when he fell from a balcony and broke his neck.

Varina had expected the South to lose the war and in the spring of 1865, the First Family fled the Confederate capital as the Union Army neared. Davis was arrested and sent to prison. With no resources and the Davis plantation confiscated, Varina sent her older children to Canada to live in the care of family members. She was forbidden to contact her husband, but nonetheless, she promoted his cause and what she regarded as the injustice of his imprisonment, working to win his release from the federal government. After a few months, she and her daughter were permitted to join Davis in his prison cell and later they were given more comfortable lodgings. Ironically, one of the Northerners who used his influence to help Davis during his time as a prisoner at Fort Monroe was General Ulysses S. Grant, the victorious commander of the Union Army during the Civil War.

Impressed by Varina’s loyalty to her husband, the Southerners who had scorned and derided her changed their views. She was the faithful wife standing by her husband and for those who had supported the vanquished Confederate cause, such integrity was admired. Jefferson Davis had not been popular during his presidency, but as a victim of federal oppression, he was, like his wife, regarded more sympathetically.

Jefferson Davis never took the oath of allegiance to the United States and spent two years in prison. His wife’s efforts on his behalf were finally successful in 1867, and they went to England where Davis tried unsuccessfully to earn a living. Davis returned to the United State to re-establish himself. But Varina was not with him, and news of his romantic involvement with Virginia Clay, the wife of a Confederate senator, spread when he was seen on a train with a woman who was not his wife. Varina learned of the episode while she was still in England and remained apart from her husband for a time before returning to the United States. The couple that had once lived in Richmond’s Presidential Mansion now lived in poverty until Sarah Dorsey, a historian and novelist who was also Varina’s former classmate, invited the Davises to live on her estate as her guests. Dorsey helped Davis write his memoirs of the Confederacy but after Davis died in 1889, Varina finished the book.

The Confederate widow’s life took a dramatic turn in 1891 when New York World publisher Joseph Pulitzer, whose wife Kate happened to be a distant cousin of Jefferson Davis, invited Varina to become a full-time columnist for her husband’s newspaper.

Varina Davis moved to New York and would live there in the bustling city for the rest of her life. The urban setting was much more to Davis’ liking than the rural plantation life that her husband had cherished. As the South continued to grieve for its loss in the war, the widowed First Lady of the Confederacy had moved on, no longer confined by the regional boundaries that separated Northerners and Southerners and, as she would write in a later column, content that the right side had won the war.

In 1893, while at Cranston’s Hotel, a resort on the Hudson River, Varina Davis met Julia Dent Grant, widow of the former Union General and President Ulysses S. Grant. The two women dined together and a friendship blossomed. Varina was invited to attend the 1897 dedication of Grant’s tomb. This would be Julia Grant’s resting place as well when she died, and she asked Varina, when that time came, to “please visit it sometime and think of me.”

Julia Dent Grant

When Varina Davis died at the age of eighty in 1906, the reconciliation between the North and South that she had symbolized was reenacted in her funeral, as an honor guard of Union soldiers and Confederate veterans marched together in the procession. The coffin was draped in the Confederate flag and President Theodore Roosevelt sent flowers. The U.S. Army military band played Confederate favorites, such as Dixie and The Bonnie Blue Flag. The songs were chosen by General Frederick Dent Grant, the son of Ulysses and Julia Grant. She was buried in Richmond, Virginia.

Grave site of Varina Davis.

The woman who belonged to both the Daughters of the American Revolution and the United Daughters of the Confederacy found her peace in the unified nation. America’s forgotten First Lady of the Confederacy, had made her peace with the past as she opened the door to a new future for First Ladies.