Varina Banks Howell was born on 7 May 1826 in Natchez, Missippi. Her parents, William and Margaret (Kemp) Howell, were fairly well-to-do. It is worth noting that William was a Northerner which would lead Southern born and raised Varina to call herself a “half-breed”. If Varina ever found herself wanting for company she had a number of siblings to turn to—and care for—as she was the second of a total of 11 Howell children (not all survived childhood). Varina was very close to her mother and would remain so until her mother’s death in 1867. For her day Varina was a very well-read lady and her education would later bring some condemnation down on her head.
In 1843 family friend Joseph Davis invited Varina to visit at his home. It was on this visit Varina met 35-year-old widower Jefferson Davis, Joseph’s brother. Varina and Jefferson were apparently smitten with one another and on 26 February 1845 the two were married. The couple took up residence at Brierfield, a plantation “given” to Jefferson by Joseph. Joseph hadn’t given Jefferson the deed to Brierfield and Varina distrusted the rather dictatorial man immensely.
In the meantime, Varina hadn’t forgotten her down-on-their-luck family who had gone bankrupt in the late 1830s. Varina once forwent purchasing a new piano in favor of sending the money to her parents. In any way that she could, Varina helped the Howells.
When Jefferson was elected to the House of Representatives in 1846 the Davises pulled up stakes and moved to Washington D.C. Varina relished the new lifestyle and in time she would become a popular hostess. But that same year Jefferson resigned his seat and joined the US Army to fight in the Mexican War. Varina returned to Brierfield. When he came home Jefferson was appointed a to fill vacant senate seat. It was sometime before Varina followed him to Washington, however, due to an argument between her and Jefferson regarding the latter’s will. Varina eventually accepted it and in 1850 she joined Jefferson in Washington. Two years later Jefferson and self-appointed patriarch of the Davis family, Joseph, had a falling out. In turn Jefferson “defied” Joseph by rewriting his will.
In 1852 Samuel was born to the Davises. Sadly two years later Samuel left his parents heartbroken when he died. In all Varina and Jefferson had 7 children their births spanning from 1852-1864. The others were: Margaret, Jefferson Jr., Joseph, William and Varina “Winnie”.
As the nation crept closer to the coming civil war, Jefferson resigned his senate seat and the Davises moved back to the South. Shortly after, Jefferson was elected president of the newly formed Confederate States of America, making Varina the nation’s first and only First Lady. Montgomery, Alabama was then the capital of the Confederacy and this was where Varina found her new residence. The Southern public didn’t quite take to Varina. Her dark complexion, bluntness and well-learned ways were criticized. There were also suspicions that Varina was disloyal to the Confederacy (she believed it was a lost cause as soon as it began. Other than that she wasn’t a traitor to the Confederacy). Because she had Northern relatives and because she didn’t break her ties with friends in Washington it is not altogether unreasonable that people speculated about her loyalty, or lack thereof, to the Confederacy. She was also thought to have a great influence—imaginary influence, as it turns out—over Jefferson. In May the Confederate capital was moved to Richmond, Virginia and with it went the Davises.
In 1864 Varina saw a mulatto boy, James Limber, being beat. She interfered, stopping the beating and took the orphan into the Davis home. The Davis children took a liking to Limber and he soon became a member of the family. On 30 April 1864 the Davises’ son, Joseph, died after falling from a balcony. Needless to say, Varina and Jefferson were grief-stricken over their loss, with Varina suffering from depression.
By Spring 1865 Union forces were closing in on Richmond. The Davises escaped to the South, with the intent of going to Europe. Unfortunately for them, one night in May US troops located the Davis party. Varina tried to help Jefferson escape by placing a raglan and shawl over him. She then instructed a slave, Ellen Barnes, to walk away with Jefferson. Making it look as if they pair were off to fetch water, they walked on. That is until someone spotted and recognized Jefferson. A soldier aimed at Jefferson just as Varina threw herself in front of her husband. They were arrested; Jefferson was sent to prison while Varina was restricted to the state of Georgia.
While scraping to make ends meet Varina also supported the Davis children who had been sent to Montreal, Canada with the Howells. When Jefferson was finally released in 1867 the Davis parents and family were reunited in Montreal. In the following years Varina spent a lot of time in England and in the US while Jefferson traveled around looking for a job. Understandably, the immensely famous Davises lacked funds. Jefferson at one point went to work for an insurance company in the States, but the company later went bankrupt. While Jefferson continued to search for a job, Varina sometimes took in sewing to support the family.
After losing two siblings and young son in a short period of time, Varina was under a major strain. Her health worsened and her body was wracked with pain. She moved to England where she began to recover. It wasn’t until 1877 that she returned to the States. By then Jefferson was residing at, Beauvoir, the home of Varina’s old Philadelphia classmate Sarah Dorsey. Varina opted not to join him immediately and instead resided with her married daughter and family. She eventually moved to Beauvoir, where Jefferson had been working on writing a book. In 1879 Dorsey died leaving Beauvoir to Jefferson. Some of you will recall that Beauvoir was damaged during Hurricane Katrina.
In 1878 Jefferson Jr. died of yellow fever. All of Varina’s sons were now dead and she had only Margaret and Winnie left. Ten years later Jefferson too died. Varina’s family had vastly shrunk. Varina and Winnie moved to New York, where they both took up writing. Oddly enough, Varina and Julia Grant, the widow of Ulysses S. Grant, befriended one another. In 1898 Winnie, “the Daughter of the Confederacy”, died. Varina kept on for 8 more years before succumbing to pneumonia on 16 October 1906. October 16th was the anniversary of the deaths of her sons William and Jefferson Jr.