- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 14, 2006

First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis’s Civil War

By Joan E. Cashin

Belknap/Harvard University Press, $29.95, 416 pages

Reviewed By Michael P. Riccards

The Civil War is our Iliad and our Odyssey, the daunting tales of war and eventual reuniting. In those difficult times for our country, the roles of the presidents of the Union and of the Confederacy have been seen as the critical variables in explaining why one side triumphed over the other. Readers have numerous biographers of Mary Todd Lincoln, but this biography by Joan E. Cashin of Ohio State University, “First Lady of the Confederacy,” is the first full scale study done of Varina Howell Davis.

Varina was born into a family that traced its distinguished roots to a four-term governor in New Jersey, and the name Howell is still well known there today. She was an educated, articulate woman who was never fully satisfied with her role and the definitions of her sex that predominated in the antebellum South. Varina also knew the economic difficulties that could face a family in America, and she suffered from downturns that plagued her father.

While in Natchez, she met an attractive, older widower named Jefferson Davis who had mourned his first wife’s early death, and who went into stoic isolation at the estate of his brother in the New Orleans area. Like so many individuals of the time, she was enthused by his strong will and dashing nature. Jefferson Davis was more of a soldier than a planter by occupation.

Varina married him, but became increasingly disenchanted when her husband did not put in his will a provision that she would acquire his lands and possessions which she could dispose of as she saw fit. Varina and Jefferson Davis came rather close in the 1840s to ending their marriage, but she had nowhere to go economically or socially. Her situation only changed when she began to give him children.

Jefferson Davis became in the 1850s a prominent political leader in Washington D.C., but in 1860 he said farewell to his beloved Senate and followed his state into secession.

Despite his initial enthusiasm for the split from the North, his wife did not share in that much vaulted excitement of leaving the Union. Varina, like Mary Todd Lincoln, acquired hosts of enemies because she did not seem to share in her husband’s commitment to the war effort. Varina believed that the North would prevail because of its wealth, size and population, and she was indeed correct.

Still, she was loyal to her husband’s Confederate leadership, admitting that he was a better soldier than a politician. She kept up her acquaintances with some Northerners and did not share many of the attitudes toward blacks that so marked her class. Yet she lived off their forced labor, while acknowledging their basic humanity.

As the war dragged to a gruesome end, she recognized that Davis, and other Confederate leaders including she herself, were in for a time of reckoning. He was arrested by Union troops, but Varina threw her body in front of him, probably saving his life. Davis uncharitably later said she prevented him thus from escaping!

Varina used her charm, her sympathies, her contacts to help free Jefferson Davis from prison, and most of the Confederate leaders were also pardoned by President Andrew Johnson. She had stood by her man and nursed him through his continuing bouts of illness. They went to Montreal and then to Europe, where she stayed with the children, while he went home.

Jefferson Davis needed some source of income, but he was given a variety of low-level positions that never worked out. While the Southerners said they loved their only president, they never provided for him or his widow. Eventually he ended up falling in love with another woman.

Varina had been more loyal to him than he was to her. But she remained with Davis for the same reasons she did in the 1840s. After his death, she became a part of New York’s literary scene and had helped create the Jefferson Davis legend. He became a glorious leader of the Lost Cause of the South, committed to states’ rights, and not just to slaveholders and their onerous way of life.

Varina was an important bit player in a great national tragedy. A person severely circumscribed by the limits of her time — like so many women of that era — she was dictated to by Jefferson Davis’ iron will and often his uncertain embraces. She was limited by her loyalty that preferred him to others, while at the same time hampered by her honest opposition to the South leaving the Union and going to war.

The Civil War in one way made her immortal, for it provided a major context in which to remember her life. As with many more accomplished women, she saw what harsh lessons emerged from standing by your man — especially when his life was so interrupted by bad choices, bad relations and bad leadership. Toward the very end of her life, when he was long gone, she observed that it was God’s will that the North prevailed in the war.

Michael P. Riccards is the author of the two-volume history of the presidency, “The Ferocious Engine of Democracy.”

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