Varina Davis

Varina Davis (1826–1906). Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Digital ID # cph.3b41146

The First Lady of the Confederate States of America, Varina Howell Davis (1826–1906) was born in Louisiana, across the Mississippi River from Natchez, Mississippi, to William and Margaret Howell. Her paternal family heritage was rooted in the North, and included her grandfather Richard Howell, the governor of New Jersey from 1793 to 1801. After briefly attending an academy for girls in Philadelphia, the intelligent and opinionated Varina married Jefferson Davis in 1845. Davis, a wealthy Mississippi plantation owner, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate and served as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. The couple spent most of the next fifteen years in Washington, D.C. (Jefferson Davis interrupting this government service to lead a Mississippi regiment during the 1846–1848 war with Mexico). Three of Davis’s six children were born in the District of Columbia. It was with trepidation that Varina Davis learned her husband had been selected as the first president of the Confederate States of America in 1861. She nevertheless carried out her duties as First Lady with fortitude, although many of the controversies and tragedies which she encountered paralleled those of Mary Todd Lincoln. These included questions regarding her loyalty to the Confederacy, particularly since she had extended family members serving in the Union army; criticism of her social deportment; and the devastating death of a young son, Joseph Davis, in 1864. The years immediately following the Civil War brought further trials as Varina Davis coped with her husband’s imprisonment at Fort Monroe, Virginia, from 1865–1867 and the deaths of three more of her children. Following Jefferson Davis’s death in 1889, she moved permanently to New York City. To the consternation of many in the South, among her close friends was Julia Dent Grant, the widow of Union General Ulysses S. Grant.

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