Varina Howell Davis
Varina Howell Davis, 1826-1905
Born at "The Briars," near Natchez, Miss., 7 May 1826. Had Jefferson Davis known at the time of his marriage in 1845 of the future awaiting him as president of a Southern confederacy, he could not have chosen a better wife than Varina Howell. In time she abandoned her Whig convictions, deferred to Davis' politics, and became the guardian of his beleaguered reputation.
Howell was an intelligent, deeply religious woman educated by a private tutor and close family friend, later attending a finishing school to polish her considerable social graces.
Her mother at first objected to the marriage with Davis, who was 18 years older than her daughter, but the union turned out to be a long, happy one.
An accomplished hostess and lively conversationalist with a serious interest in politics, Varina adjusted well to life as the wife of a politician in Washington. in her own way, she shared her husband's ambitious temperament, though not his extreme sensitivity to criticism. The latter trait, coupled with the tendency to be aggressively critical of others, would help sustain her through the difficult years as First Lady of the Confederacy.
As living conditions in Richmond deteriorated during the second year of war, Varina found herself increasingly under public scrutiny. Some decried her as insensitive to the hardships endured by the city's residents because she entertained at the White House of the Confederacy; others complained that she did not entertain lavishly enough. There were those who considered her influence on the president too great, challenged her loyalty to the cause because of her father's Northern roots, or called her ill-bred and unrefined. The last may have been justified by her heated retorts to gossip denigrating Davis' ability as a politician.
Of Varina's 6 children, 1 was born during these frantic years, and another died tragically. Yet through all the family's public and private trials, Varina provided Davis with loyalty, companionship, and a great reserve of strength.
Varina was with Davis when he was arrested in Georgia. After his capture and confinement the children were sent to Canada in the charge of their maternal grandmother. Varina was prohibited from leaving Georgia without permission from Federal authorities, but she lobbied incessantly to secure her husband's release from prison, succeeding May 1867.
The Davises lived in near-poverty until the early 1870s, when a friend arranged for them to purchase "Beauvoir," the Mississippi estate to which they retired. Varina stayed on to write her memoirs after Davis' death in 1889. She then gave Beauvoir to the state as a Confederate veterans' home and moved to New York City to support herself by writing articles for magazines and periodicals. She died there 16 Oct. 1905, survived by only 1 of her children.