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Varina Davis
Born May 7, 1826(1826-05-07)
Natchez, Mississippi
Died October 16, 1906 (aged 80)
New York City
Other names Varina Howell
Occupation First Lady of the Confederacy Writer
Known for Being Jefferson Davis' wife

Varina Banks Howell Davis (May 7, 1826 – October 16, 1906) was an American author who was best-known as the First Lady of the Confederate States of America, second wife of President Jefferson Davis. She held contradictory attitudes on gender, race, region, wealth, and the Confederacy itself. A dutiful obedient wife, she ignored her husband's affairs. She had accepted slavery but never was enthusiastic about secession or the Confederacy, and was not highly visible during the war. She shocked "Lost Cause" sensibilities by moving to New York after her husband's death and associating with the hated Yankees.


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 served several terms as Governor of New Jersey and on his mother's side he was a relative of Aaron Burr and Jonathan Edwards, but his father's death when he was a child combined with many siblings left William with very little by way of inheritance. He served as a clerk in the Bank of the United States and afterward engaged in real estate speculation and served as a postmaster for Natchez, Mississippi. Margaret Kempe was the daughter of Colonel Joseph Kempe (sometimes spelled Kemp), an Irish born associate of Robert Emmett who became wealthy through land speculation and planting in Mississippi and Louisiana.

William Burr Howell was at times a planter, a merchant, a politician and a banker but long-term financial success eluded him. He lost the majority of his wife Margaret's sizable inheritance through bad investments and his family, which would eventually include 11 children (8 of whom lived to adulthood) was frequently plagued by serious financial problems. When their oldest daughter Varina was a child the family home and furnishings were seized by creditors and were redeemed only through intervention of Margaret Howell's wealthy relatives.

Varina was educated first by a private tutor, Judge George Winchester, a Harvard graduate and family friend for 12 years. Afterwards she attended Madame Greenland's School in Philadelphia, where one of her classmates was fellow Mississippian Sarah Ellis. Her parents were close friends with Joseph Davis (1784–1870), an extremely wealthy planter for whom their oldest son was named, and in 1843, at age 17, she met Joseph's much younger brother Jefferson Davis during a Christmas vacation at Joseph's plantation, Hurricane.


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 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."[1]

In keeping with custom, Davis sought the permission of Varina's parents before beginning a formal courtship. Margaret Kempe Howell initially strongly disapproved of the relationship due to the differences in the pair and what she perceived as Davis's excessive devotion to his living relatives and to the memory of his first wife, but the Howells ultimately consented. They became engaged soon after and from their surviving correspondence it is known that the wedding, a grand affair, was set for Christmas of 1844 but was cancelled and the engagement broken shortly before, though the reasons are unknown. Soon after Varina grew sick of fever. Davis proposed again. They were married on February 26, 1845, at The Briars, the home of her parents, with only her parents and a very few friends in attendance. None of the groom's family was present.


The newlyweds took up residence with Jefferson's brother Joseph at Hurricane until a suitable house could be built for them on the large tract of land Joseph had previously given his youngest brother. Davis christened the home Briarfield, and it housed not only himself and his bride but his widowed sister and her seven children, a situation not relished by Varina. The marriage was often contentious in its early years due to personality conflicts and to problems with each other's families. Varina considered Jefferson's family, particularly his wealthy and patriarchal brother Joseph, as controlling of her husband, while the constant financial demands of Varina's family (her father frequently sought appointed positions from his son-in-law and Jefferson and Varina ultimately reared the Howells younger children along with their own) created embarrassment and resentment. The relationship was further strained by long periods of separation, first as Davis gave campaign speeches and later as he served in the Mexican American War. Their surviving correspondence implies there were periods of separation for personal reasons as well, including when Jefferson was appointed to a Senate seat and Varina, though she loved Washington, initially chose to remain in Mississippi.

Ultimately the couple reconciled and Varina rejoined her husband in Washington, where as the former son-in-law of the then current President Zachary Taylor he became very visible for a freshman. Varina, who had felt extremely isolated 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 (and, in her early 20s, one of the youngest) 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, named Samuel Emory Davis, in 1852. Her letters from this period reflect her happiness and portray Davis as an exceptionally doting father. They were devastated when Samuel died in infancy, but in the next few years she would give birth to a daughter, Margaret (1855–1909), and to three more sons Jefferson, Jr. (1857–1878), Joseph (1859–1864), and William Howell (1861–1871).

Confederate First Lady[]

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 (then capital of the new nation) to be inaugurated. She followed a few weeks later however 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). While first lady, she rescued a young slavde boy named Jim Limber from a beating, and took him in to live at the White House of the Confederacy.

In spring 1864 the Davis's 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 Howell 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.

File:Varina Howell.jpg

Wedding photograph of Jefferson Davis and Varina Howell


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 (writings that Davis himself said were much exaggerated) 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[2]. 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 the wife of their friend Clement Clay. For several years the couple lived apart far more than they lived together.

In 1877 Jefferson Davis accepted an invitation to visit Sarah Dorsey, a widowed heiress who owned a home with a view of the Mississippi Sound named Beauvoir. Mrs. Dorsey was the former Sarah Ellis Varina had known in school and prevailed upon her to join them, but her letters to Jefferson during this time make very clear that she found his relationship with the widow inappropriate. She did move into the home of their married oldest daughter in Memphis and a very gradual reconciliation with her husband began. She was with him 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 move that left them less than wealthy but with enough financial security to enjoy some comfort in the final years of their marriage. They were joined by their daughter Winnie upon completion of her education and remained at Beauvoir for several years.


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. With little income, poor health, and the inability to properly care for Beauvoir, she moved to New York City to pursue a literary career, writing for Joseph Pulitzer and the New York World in 1891. In October 1902, she 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 shocked 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 attended a reception where she met and shook hands with Booker T. Washington, head of Tuskegee Institute; shaking hands with an African-American male as if he were an equal was seen as socially unacceptable for both parties to conservative southerners of the time. She was also far less sentimental towards the antebellum way of life than most apologists for the Confederacy were in the last years of the 19th century.

In many ways Varina Howell Davis was happier in New York City than she had ever been in Mississippi. The greatest tragedy of her later years was the death of her daughter Winnie in 1898. Nevertheless she continued to write for the newspaper she worked for 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, survived by only one of her six children and by several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The former "First Lady of the Confederacy" is interred at Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia, adjacent to the tomb of her famous husband.


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 Anne "Winnie" Davis (1864–1899), a novelist and journalist, popularly known as "the Daughter of the Confederacy".


  1. The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Volume 2, pages 52-53
  2. His U.S. citizenship was posthumously restored in the 20th century
  • Cashin, Joan. First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis's Civil War. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2006.

External links[]

et:Varina Howell nl:Varina Howell ja:ヴァリナ・デイヴィス