- The Washington Times - Friday, August 13, 2004

Col. Zachary Taylor had a problem, one that simply refused to go away. His daughter Sarah was determined to marry Lt. Jefferson Davis, but the idea of his junior officer as his son-in-law did not appeal to the future U.S. president.

It’s possible that Taylor disliked Davis, not the easiest of men to like, although the young fellow was a capable officer. Taylor’s stated objection was that Davis had no money and only limited prospects. In fact, Taylor did not want his daughter to marry any man wearing an Army uniform.

As Col. Davis of the 1st Mississippi Rifles, this then-irritating suitor would distinguish himself in February 1847 at Buena Vista. Long before the war with Mexico, though, Taylor conceded defeat.

On June 17, 1835, Sarah Knox Taylor and the man of her choice were married near Louisville, Ky., but it was to be a tragically short union. Three months later, the young bride died of malarial fever, which came close to carrying off her husband, too. Ten years would elapse before Davis married again.

In 1844, he met Varina Howell, daughter of W.B. Howell, originally from New Jersey, who had married a Virginia lady and had become a wealthy member of the Mississippi “plantocracy.” Born at Natchez in 1826, Varina had become a well-educated and highly intelligent young woman with a strong personality. The attraction between the planter’s daughter and the future president of the Confederacy was mutual. Without parental opposition, they became engaged, and they were married on Feb. 26, 1845.

She was 19, and he was 37. Despite such disparity in their ages, it would prove a successful union. Varina has been described as dark-eyed, dark-haired and having a rather dark complexion. They made their Natchez home in “Briarfield,” a one-story frame house that Davis himself had designed.

Davis was by then a highly regarded politician with a bright future before him, but the decision of his state to secede brought about the resignation of the senator from Mississippi, whose dignified speech was well-received by the Senate. Henceforth, his life (and his wife’s) would be entirely bound up with the fortunes of the rebellious South.

On Feb. 18, 1861, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated at Montgomery, Ala., but for some reason, his wife did not attend the ceremony. Varina joined him soon afterward, and they made their new home in Richmond. He had become the reluctant president of a defiant and supremely confident, but ultimately doomed, Confederacy, and she would be his ever-loyal first lady.

Varina Howell Davis was considered to have a regal manner and to be something of a martinet in social matters. These traits did not endear her to the good ladies of Richmond, who would have preferred someone less autocratic.

On the credit side, Varina kept herself thoroughly informed about current affairs as the Confederacy went initially from strength to strength and then into an uncontrollable decline. She was supportive and encouraging, surprisingly tolerant of her headstrong and neurotic husband.

Personal tragedies darkened their lives on two occasions. William Howell Davis, a baby son, died of illness at Richmond in June 1862. A 4-year-old son was killed when he fell from a balcony. Their daughters, though, long outlived their childhood years. Margaret married J.A. Hayes of Denver in 1877, and Varina Ann became a writer who was popular at veterans reunions.

The war the South could not possibly win was virtually over before Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. Richmond fell, and the Davis daughters were placed hurriedly in the care of others before their parents fled with a small escort and little hope of evading capture. Camped in piney woods near Irwinville, Ga., they were arrested by a detachment of the 4th Michigan Cavalry on May 10. Ill-disciplined Union soldiers plundered Varina’s baggage.

Taken to Fortress Monroe and publicly vilified, Davis was shackled for a time. Later, he received better treatment and was transferred to less spartan accommodations.

Through this unhappy and uncertain period in their lives, Varina never left him. During his incarceration, the threat of a trial for treason hung over Davis, who stubbornly refused to ask for a pardon. Released after two years, he was financially ruined; in poor health; and, because unpardoned, unable to resume a political career.

It is said that Varina spent some time in England after his release, and Davis may have accompanied her. That country had always been sympathetic to the Southern cause and hostile to Abraham Lincoln. The Davises would have been welcomed.

She undoubtedly helped him with his memoirs. Eventually, they ran an estate on the Gulf of Mexico. An uneasy mixture of opposites, intractable in public but affectionate in private, Jefferson Davis died in New Orleans on Dec. 6, 1889.

After his death, Varina moved to the North, and it was in New York City, where she settled, where her own two-volume book, “Jefferson Davis: A Memoir by His Wife,” was published in 1890. For all her loyalty, this shrewd and self-confident Southern woman, of unflinching courage in adversity, was far from blind to her husband’s shortcomings and frailties. She died in 1906.

Peter Cliffe, a retired corporate administrator, lives in Hertfordshire, England. He became interested in the Civil War while working with a multinational firm in this country.

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