First Lady of the Confederacy
The Woman After Whom Virginia City Was Almost Named
BY GARY R. FORNEY
If not for the obstinacy of Dr. Gaylord Giles Bissell, instead of being named in honor of a queen of England, Virginia City, Montana, would have honored the first lady of the Confederacy. Bissell was affor-ded the dubious honor of being elected Judge of the Fairweather Mining District at the miner's meeting held June 12, 1863. Five days later, Judge Bissell was presented with a charter calling for the formal estab-lishment of a townsite. The proposal was presented by the Verona Town Company, whose directors included Thomas Cover; one of the original Alder Gulch discovery men.
The town charter called for the ambitiously platted new metropolis to be named Varina, in honor of Varina Howell Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States, and at the height of the Civil War. In a story perhaps a bit embellished over the years, Judge Bissell (a Connecticut Yankee and dyed-in-the wool Unionist) thunderously declared he would never approve any charter that honored such a prominent figure of the Confeder-acy. The proponents advanced the explanation that, inasmuch as Mrs. Davis was related to a prominent New Jersey family, the name represented a thoughtful compromise in sectional consciousness. Judge Bissell offered his own version of compromise by crossing out the propos-ed name Varina and writing in Virginia. Commonly overlooked in this account, though, are the biograph-ical particulars of Varina Davis.
Varina Banks Howell was born May 7, 1826, at the family home (The Briers) near Natchez, Mississippi. Her mother, Margaret Kempe Howell, came from a wealthy Southern family. Varina's father, William, had been commended for gallantry during the War of 1812, but found life's battles after the war more difficult to conquer. After settling in Natchez, William bounced from one enterprise to another, spent his inheritance, and was well on the way to squandering his wife's substantial inheritance by the time Varina was born. (A historical footnote is that William's good friend, the best man at his wedding to Margaret, was Joseph Davis; older brother of Jefferson Davis.)
Varina's paternal grandfather, Richard Bond Howell, was—as claimed by the Verona Town Company organizers—not only a seven term New Jersey governor, but a Revolutionary War hero and widely respected national figure in Whig Party politics. Her maternal grandfather, Joseph Kempe, a native of Ireland (and friend of legendary Irish martyr Robert Emmet) became wealthy by means of land speculation across Mississippi and Louisiana.
Unlike most women of the time, Varina received a high quality formal education. Her first twelve years of instruction came under a private tutor, Judge George Winchester (a Harvard graduate), and then, at age 16, she enrolled at Madame Greenland's School in Philadelphia. Although considered a tom-boy as a girl, Varina matured into a respected and talented young woman known as possessing “far more than a usual share of beauty…[and] a graceful bearing.” In addition to being fluent in Latin and French, Varina was also an accom-plished pianist and spoke knowledgeably of politics. As one acquaintance noted, “'Varina is a mighty fine girl,' was a common saying about Natchez.”
During the Christmas holiday season of 1843, Varina first met Jefferson Davis during a social gathering at the plantation home of Jefferson's brother, Joseph. At the time, Jefferson was a thirty-six year-old widower who was becoming a popular political figure. The Joseph Davis plantation was known as Hurricane, which was appropriate given the whirlwind events that would follow. In a letter to her mother soon after her initial meeting with Davis, Varina wrote, “I do not know whether this Mr. Jefferson Davis is young or old…I hear he is only two years younger than you are. He [is] a remarkable kind of man, [but] has a way of taking for granted that everybody agrees with him when he expresses an opinion, which offends me; yet he is most agreeable and has a peculiarly sweet voice and a winning manner.”
Apparently, Varina's initial reservations toward Jefferson were trumped by his “sweet voice” and “winning manner.” By the time she returned to Philadelphia in February of 1844, she and Jefferson were engaged to be married. In what appears to something of a mystery, Varina subsequently broke the engagement prior to their scheduled Christmas wedding date. Davis determinedly continued to court her, however (visiting her in Philadelphia and Natchez), and the couple subsequently married at The Briers on February 26, 1845. The couple's wedding photograph shows Varina to be a tall, thin, and very attractive young woman—in obvious contrast to the rather dour appearance of her husband.
Varina would actively support her husband's careers as a soldier and politician from 1845 to 1860, dividing her time between residences in Washington, D.C., and their plantation (Brierfield) in Mississippi. By all accounts, Varina thoroughly enjoyed the cultural amenities and excitement of life in Washington and was disappointed when Jefferson resigned his seat in the Senate in January, 1861, just a few months prior to the outbreak of the Civil War.
Nevertheless, Varina continued to support Jefferson and, upon his election as President of the Confederate States, moved with him first to Montgomery, then to Richmond. During the War, she was tireless in visiting wounded soldiers, knitting items of clothing for their comfort, hosting social and fund-raising events as First Lady, and serving as confidant to her husband. She was not, however, without detractors. While some Richmond residents carped that Varina entertained too much, others said she entertained too little. Some Southerners expressed the opinion she acted “too much like a Yankee” and questioned her commitment to The Cause. Moreover, critics also said Varina exerted too much influence upon her husband, and that “some commanders and cabinet ministers took pains to cultivate her good will” so as to advance their own agenda.
Varina's attitude toward The Cause may have, at best, been ambivalence, but there is no question she felt deep compassion toward those who suffered as a result of the War and that she gave great support to her husband's efforts.
It should also be noted that, between 1852 and 1864, Varina gave birth to six children. All but one of her children, however, would die before her; including a five year-old son who died in April 1864, just two months before the birth of her last child. This tragedy marked the beginning of difficult years for Varina.
Jefferson was arrested and imprisoned at the end of the war and Varina (held under house arrest in Savannah, Georgia) sent her children to live with her mother, who had fled to Canada. Jefferson was held without trial and all communication and personal contact between he and Varina was severely restricted. Following Jefferson's release (in 1867), he and Varina went through a difficult readjustment; undoubtedly compounded by finan-cial difficulties, the loss of their home, the deaths of their children, and the fact they were often living apart for several months at a time.
With the significant financial help of friends, Varina and Jefferson would move in 1879 to a home (Beauvoir) on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Jefferson's health was failing, and Varina would serve as editor for her husband's two-volume tome, The Rise & Fall of the Confederate Government.
Following Jefferson's death, in 1889, Varina began her own literary career with a biography of her husband. She moved to New York City in 1891, and began writing articles for several magazines (including the New Yorker) and was a regular columnist for the New York World. Her Southern critics were further appalled by the fact that one of Varina's closest friendships during this time was with Julia Dent Grant—the widow of Ulysses S. Grant.
On October 16, 1906, at the age of 80, Varina died of pneumonia in her hotel room at the Hotel Majestic in New York City. Four years earlier, Varina had sold Beauvoir with the stipulation it be used as a Confederate veteran's home. Since 1957, the home has served as the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library.
Varina was buried next to her husband's grave at the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. It is perhaps a fitting irony that it was the New York State Division of the United Daughters of the Confeder-acy, rather than her native state, that placed a memorial marker at her gravesite. And perhaps it was a fitting example of the duality of Varina's life and complex loyalties that defied an easy label, and that Judge Bissell could not recognize.
Gary Forney is the author of the just-released book Dawn in El Dorado, the Story of the Founding and Early Years of the Montana Territory. Previous works include: Discovery Men and Thomas Francis Meagher: Irish Rebel, American Yankee, Montana Pioneer. Forney lives and writes near Ennis, Montana.