Varina Davis was the first and only first lady of the Confederate States of America. She was and still is well known for being the wife of the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis. Although this may be what she is remembered as, there is still so much more to her history and background to learn about. Varina had her share of hard times and struggles, but her determination and drive for success throughout her life is what made her a truly memorable person.
Varina Howell Davis was born May 7, 1826 in Louisiana. Her parents were Margaret Kempe and William Howell. Although she was born in Lousiana, her parents were originally from Natchez, Mississippi. Varina’s grandfather had been in politics before she was born, his title being governor of New Jersey. Varina had a nice childhood, getting to experience boarding school in which she received an excellent education. Although her childhood was nice, it was not all because of her parents that she received this experience. Her father was prosperous for some time, but then he became bankrupt when Varina was young. Since he became bankrupt, their assets were taken from them but later retrieved and returned by rich relatives. These relatives are assumed to have been the reason Varina had the chance to attend boarding school.
When Varina was 17 years old, she visited a family friend for the winter season. This visit was an important date in her life for this is when and where she met her soon to be husband, Jefferson Davis. Jefferson was double her age at the time, but that did not stop her from falling in love with him. He had previously been married before meeting Varina, but his wife lost her life to malaria early in their marriage. Davis was depressed for some time because of this and then soon decided to get involved in politics.
Jefferson and Varina’s relationship had a rocky start because her family did not approve of him. Her family described them as being very different from each other. A difference between them that would play an important role in her life later on was that she was a Whig and Jefferson was Democrat. Although politically different, they did not let this stop their relationship and they went on to get married on February 26, 1845. During their early marriage, Varina had many disputes with Jefferson’s family, because she thought they interfered in their marriage to much. Since her husband became involved in politics, he was away from home frequently and this caused Varina to have a more rocky relationship with his family.
Jefferson and Varina would soon move to Washington D.C. because of his election into the U.S. House of Representatives. Varina loved getting to move there and be surrounded by smart minded people like herself. She seemed to fit in with everyone and loved it much more than her old home. This happiness did not last for forever, because in 1861 Jefferson was no longer apart of United States politics. Mississippi was no longer apart of the Union and Jefferson had his last speech as Senate. This all made Varina depressed because she loved her home and where she spent most of her marriage. By this time they had children and had to pack up and move back to their family. Not long after this, Jefferson was nominated to be the President of the Confederate States of America. Although Varina became the First Lady of the Confederacy, she did not necessarily believe they could win the war.
Varina’s new life as the First Lady living in Richmond, Virginia took a drastic turn from what she was previously accustomed to. In Washington D.C., she had many friends and was popular among them all. She now was judged and ridiculed for everything she did. People judged her appearance, figure, personality, and even humor. She was used to mingling among intelligent individuals who understood her references, but she now received confused looks and stares. Her heart still belonged with the Union and that had a big impact on her support for the Confederacy. Even though she was still for the Union, she was also pro-slavery and that made her different from the conservatives that surrounded her. Varina missed her friends and environment back in Washington D.C. so dearly, that she still kept in contact with them. She had someone that would sneak letters to the north for her and that gossip spread amongst the people.
Varina and Jefferson’s marriage throughout the war is a topic that puzzles everyone. During this time they had more children, but also lost a child in 1864 when Joseph fell from the balcony. This time was hard for them both and they confided in each other to help get through it. Although Varina was close with Jefferson throughout the war, she lied to him about believing in the Confederacy. Later on, when the war was close to an end, Varina knew that her prediction of the fate of the Confederacy was right. She did not spend much time dwelling on the past, for she had to move on to what her family was going to do in the future.
In 1865, Jefferson and his family were caught and he was arrested and Varina was put under house arrest. She spent several months under house arrest before she could go. Varina then went on to fight nonstop for her husband’s release from jail. Jefferson was released in 1867 and never even ended up having to go on trial. The Davises went on to have more hard times which included moving to England and coming back to the United States after realizing they would have no success there. Jefferson had lost his fortune like expected and had to find work. For some time Jefferson worked for an insurance company, but it eventually became bankrupt.
Distressed and in need of work, Jefferson met a widow who ended up taking Jefferson in. Jefferson went and lived with this lady, her name was Sarah Dorsey. Varina had not known of this arrangement beforehand but had to move there and stay as well. Sarah ended up passing away in 1879 and left a lot to the Davises. Although what they received was generous, it did not keep bad things from happening to them. They experienced many deaths amongst their family and friends in the upcoming years. Two of their sons died, and so did five of Varina’s siblings. Varina also lost many of her dearest friends.
Varina spent some time away from Davis in Europe and Memphis. Afterwards Davis goes on to write his two-volume memoir “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government”, Varina had helped edit it later on. Three years later the book had been finished, however the book never made much profit, but Davis didn’t write it for a profit. In 1889, Davis grew extremely sick with acute bronchitis, leaving him to linger closer and closer to death for days; Varina refused to leave his side. When she was giving him his medication for the last time, he told her, “Pray, excuse me,” and looked away. He passed away and went the days after came the letters to Varina from all over the world.
After Davis’s, Varina had quickly grieved and left for New York, where she started to write her memoirs about Davis. In New York she enjoyed the opera, theater, concerts, and the exciting urban life. Varina passed away October 16, 1906, seventeen years after her husband Jefferson. She was laid to rest beside her beloved husband in Richmond, Virginia.
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