First Lady of the Confederacy

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

In First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis’s Civil War, Joan E. Cashin depicts Varina Davis as a complex woman. Varina, who balanced a large and extended family, was sometimes torn between doing her duty to her husband and being true to her opinions. She was by no means a feminist in the modern sense; no evidence exists, for example, that she supported the woman suffrage movement in her later years. At the same time, she was not averse to expressing her own opinions among those she could trust of her husband’s contemporaries and colleagues.

Varina was well read and educated, and she enjoyed conversations about current events as well as the plots and implications of contemporary books. Both during her marriage and in the years after Jefferson Davis’s death, Varina’s books were published in a time when it was considered almost scandalous for a woman of means to work; her daughter Winnie also became a writer.

The most significant example of Varina Howell Davis’s independent thinking, as presented by Cashin, was a lukewarm acceptance of the secession movement and creation of the Confederate States of America. She maintained friendships in the North even during the war and was not averse to befriending others who were staunch Unionists. Her final years were spent in New York City, and in the end she conceded that it had been best that the Unionists were successful in the war.

Born May 7, 1826, at The Briars, the family plantation in Natchez, Mississippi, Varina Howell was the second child and first daughter of William and Margaret Howell. Both sides of the family had been prominently involved with America’s wars. Her grandfather, Major Richard Howell, was a veteran of the revolution who fought at Brandywine and Germantown and endured the famous winter at Valley Forge. Richard Howell’s brother died in the war, while his cousin, George Read of Delaware, was among the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Following the victory over the British, Richard Howell entered New Jersey politics, becoming a member of the Federalist Party, and in 1793 was elected to the first of four terms as governor of the state. Indeed Varina Howell had a large extended family, many of whom settled in the North, including most of her thirty-four cousins.

Varina’s father, William, had been commended for bravery during the War of 1812. Following the war, he eventually settled in Natchez, where he met a local landowner and lawyer, Joseph Davis. It was through Davis that Howell met Margaret Kempe, the woman he would marry. Joseph Davis also had a brother, Jefferson, who would play a significant role in Margaret’s life.

Margaret’s father, James, likewise had a distinguished military career. During the revolution, he had enlisted as a teenager. During the War of 1812, he again served his country, by participating in the Battle of New Orleans under General Andrew Jackson. Like Howell, he became a wealthy landowner. Both James and his wife, also named Margaret, died in the years after the war. Their daughter, Margaret, inherited enough of her father’s estate to be considered a wealthy young woman.

The Howell family into which the younger Margaret Kempe married in 1823 fit well into the Southern stereotype of wealthy, slaveholding landowners. Following a fire in their first home, the Howells moved to The Briars, where they remained until 1850. Varina Howell had an idyllic childhood, inheriting a love of books from her mother and maintaining a close relationship with a woman who would be both adviser and confidant until Margaret Howell’s death in 1867. As a child of wealth, Varina had the benefit of a private tutor, as well as education in Madame Grelaud’s academy, a school for privileged girls in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The Howell’s family fortune did not last. A series of poor financial decisions on the part of William Howell left him increasingly in debt, a state in which even use of Margaret Howell’s inheritance did not change. Eventually he went bankrupt and was forced to borrow from friends and relatives. Even Varina’s Philadelphia school tuition had to be paid by her godfather.

The Varina Davis depicted by the author was rarely...

(The entire section is 1732 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Booklist 102, no. 21 (July 1, 2006): 23.

Library Journal 131, no. 12 (July 1, 2006): 87.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 21 (May 22, 2006): 40.