Divided: Varina Banks Howell Davis

Varina Howell (Courtesy Wikipedia)

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”.

Varina Davis (Courtesy Library of Congress)

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.

Three Generations of Davises (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Three Generations of Davises (Courtesy Library of Congress)

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.

Beauvoir (Courtesy Wikipedia)

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.

Source: Cashin, Joan E. First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis’s Civil War. 

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38 thoughts on “Divided: Varina Banks Howell Davis

  1. This was perhaps one of the interesting writings you have done for me in the sense I grew up in the south after my dad retired. I have photos ( not great ) of the home in Alabama where the Davis Family lived. I may have to do a small post and link your story to it. Amazing. Alesia

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    • Varina’s personal life sounded like a difficult one, going by what author Joan Cashin wrote.

      The “First White House of the Confederacy”? Did you take the tour? It looks like a nice place. Will be looking forward to that post.

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    • I did take the tour, but the place does a very poor job of giving you a good esperience. You can tell they are a wealth of knowledge but all they want you to do is read a label and do your own self guided tour. It is a shame really. I enjoyed the tour by myself, but I kept wanting more. I enjoyed your insightfulness on Jefferson Davis’ wife. My photos of the house in the inside are just ok. I may need to share those on my blog though as it is very interesting. The home in Montgomery was actually moved from its original spot to where it is now. I would encourage anyone that is near Montgomery, AL to go downtown and see the sights. The town has taken alot of pride of making it a great spot to learn of the heritage of our country in regards to civil rights, Martin Luther King, and of course The White House of the Confederacy.

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    • Oh that’s too bad. However, if I am ever down that way I’d love to visit the White House. Ugh, the South, New England, Great Lakes, Australia, Scotland, Ireland, Wales…How am I ever going to get around to visiting all of these places? 🙂

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  2. Fascinating! Have you read Lois Leveen’s book The Secrets of Mary Bowser? It is an excellent work of Civil War era historical fiction that focuses in part on the Davis household in Richmond. It does not treat Varina particularly kindly, though given the POV of the story that probably makes sense. It’s nice to read a gentler description of her.

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    • No, I haven’t read this book, but have a read a little about Bowser. This book sounds interesting; I’m always on the lookout for good historical fiction.

      Thank you for your comment, glad you liked the post!

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  3. Very interesting post! Why was it that Varina did not live with her husband when she first returned to the States? Was there a particular reason she went to live with her daughter first? So much I didn’t know about Mrs. Davis!

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    • Good to hear.

      About the will, this is what I gathered from reading Joan Cashin’s biography of Varina: In the event of Jefferson’s death Varina would live at Brierfield and receive some of the income generated by the plantation. This may have been Joseph’s doings. Since Joseph wanted to keep the property in the Davis family, if Varina remarried after Jefferson’s death it wouldn’t be possible to do that. Joseph SOUNDED like a control freak; I don’t know if that’s true but it just sounds that way. Anywho in 1852 Jefferson rewrote his will leaving much of his property to Varina and their new son, Samuel. Because of this act of defiance towards Joseph the brothers would not to speak to one another for three years.

      Thanks for your comment!

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    • Thanks for the extra info about the will. I can understand not wanting property to go outside a family in a way (my partner was on the reverse side of that when his father remarried), but still interesting times – and legal rights too.

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    • You’re welcome, I’m glad you liked it.

      Yes Margaret was the only Davis child to outlive her mother. And Varina outlived all but one of her siblings whose name was also Margaret. That Varina outlived so many of her siblings was very surprising to me as she was the second eldest of the Howell clan. Varina suffered so much loss. In that regard she reminds me a little of Martha Washington.

      Thanks for your comment!

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  4. I never knew what a hard life she had. Very sad.
    Very uplifting that they took in abused James Limber.
    Thank you for the summary!

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    • After the capture of the Davis part, Varina “bawled her eyes out” when Limber was taken away and sent to the North. She never saw him again, which is sad.

      Thank you for your comment.

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  5. While attending MCV in Richmond, I visited the White House of the Confederacy and have always remembered the story of the loss of Joseph. Of course, the Davis’ suffered so many loses and hardships. Such a hard, hard life.

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    • Wasn’t that awful? 😦 Only six years old. I read elsewhere that there was talk that Jefferson Jr. had pushed Joseph. But that’s all it was—talk.

      Thanks for your comment.

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  6. excellent read J.G. Tough times indeed, for all involved, even for those at the top. As a European, it’s great to get an insight into American political life, and indeed the personal lives of America’s political & civil war families. On the Northern side of the war, I read Dorris K Goodwin’s Team of Rivals a couple of years back, (a fantastic book) and was delighted to see Spielberg’s “Lincoln” do such a sober, responsible and nuanced job of what is, effectively, an adaptation of that tome. Great to get information on the other side of that terrible dispute. Keep up the great work. Arran.

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    • The Civil War is a fascinating aspect in American history. It’s nice to know the personalities of the people who lived in that time too, rather than just their names. I’ve heard a lot about “Lincoln” but haven’t seen it. Also about the number of pages in “Team of Rivals”…944 pages?! Now that’s what I call a book. That had to take some time in getting through.

      I’m a Northerner (just barely!) but have always had a larger fascination with the Confederate side of things rather than the Union.

      Thank you for your comment, appreciate it!

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