Saturday, January 25, 2014

First Lady of the Confederacy; Varina Davis's Civil War by Joan Cashin

I don't have a car horn that plays "Dixie" and I don't hang a confederate flag in my upstairs window as a curtain so why did I choose to read a biography of the First Lady of the Confederacy?

Varina Davis's name kept popping up in the biographies of the first ladies that I've read so far! The first time I read her name was in Julia Tyler's biography And Tyler, Too. Varina and Julia were in the same social circles in Richmond when it was the confederate capital. Varina called Julia "my beautiful step mother." (Tyler's grandson married Varina's younger sister.) Julia sent Varina gifts of shoes and clothing for her and her children while Jefferson Davis was imprisoned post-war. 

Jefferson Davis had married Zachary Taylor's daughter but after only three months of marriage Sarah Knox Taylor Davis died. Years later, when the Taylor's were in the White House, Senator Jefferson Davis and Varina were in Washington DC, and were very close with the family including the reclusive Margaret Taylor. Varina was even at President Taylor's bedside when he died in office.

Joan Cashin in First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis's Civil War also noted that Varina had a relationship with Jane Pierce. And later in life as a widow and living in New York, Varina struck up a friendship with the widowed Julia Grant. 

Before reading her biography I assumed Varina would have been enthusiastic about the confederacy and her husband's work and cause. But now I see Varina as a dutiful, loyal wife who publicly embodied the quote from another civil war era woman "my husband is my country." 

Varina married Jefferson Davis while she was young and became a plantation mistress. She felt lonely in her home at Natchez, Mississippi and Jefferson was often gone on political trips. The happiest times in Varina's life was her time in Washington DC as a Senator's wife. Varina was well-educated, well-read, and a witty conversationalist. People from all parties enjoyed spending time with her. Since Jefferson Davis was more boss to Varina than companion, she relied on the women friends she made in this time in her life for the rest of her life regardless of whether they were Northern or Southern.

Varina had Northern roots. Her grandfather Howell was the first governor of New Jersey and she was schooled in Philadelphia. She remained close to her northern relations.

There are hints in her early letters that she did not agree with succession and thought it was a hopeless cause. There are other places in her letters where she supports the confederacy. But really, what choice did she have? It would not do to have the First Lady unsupportive of her husband and her country. What else could she do but put on her public duty face and press on?

Even if he wasn't the president, the husband Jefferson Davis would not had been easy to support. He did not consult her about anything in life like where they would live, children's schooling, etc. She just had to wait for his instructions and then follow them. As a second wife she lived in the shadow of his "perfect" first wife. Post-war Varina was in England with the children while Jefferson had gone back to the south to find work, something that was hard for him to do. In the meantime he began an adulterous affair and continued to put off bringing Varina back to the states! She could do nothing but wait for his instructions to come which he was not in a hurry to do. When this affair fizzled out on the woman's part, Jefferson decided to write his memoirs and did so while living in a rich widow's home while she acted as his personal secretary. Finally Jefferson brought Varina live with him in the widow's house! How awkward! Yet through all of this Varina remained loyal to him. There is no hint she had any attachment or attraction to any other man. 

I read in a foreword to a Robert Frost book that to have an idea is different from entertaining an idea. Varina seems to have had ideas contrary to a woman's typical role in her time and place, but it didn't seem like she entertained or fully developed her ideas and beliefs. For example, as a plantation mistress she had written to someone that she thought it would be better to treat slaves with kindness. Wow! What if she would have entertained that idea? She might have ended up an abolitionist! But I can understand her predicament: what was the point if she could not act on her own ideas and thoughts but was limited to living out her husband's ideas and beliefs?

Varina as a widow writing for Joseph Pulitzer in New York

After Jefferson Davis died in 1889, Varina moved to New York. She supported herself by writing for Joseph Pulitzer, her friend. The rest of her days, Varina defended herself against angry confederates who were appalled that the First Lady was living in the North! She defended herself explaining that she needed to support herself and in New York was where the writing jobs were. 

In 1900, she was assigned to an article on Ulysses Grant. The article gave her opportunity to publicly declare that the south should not have succeeded and could have worked with the Union for state's rights. And that God in his wisdom allowed the North to win the war. Freed of her husband-country, towards the end of her life, Varina courageously, publicly declared her own ideas and thoughts! 

Varina remained in New York until her death in 1906. 

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