Leaders of the American Civil War: A Biographical and Historiographical Dictionary

By Charles F. Ritter; Jon L. Wakelyn | Go to book overview

VARINA HOWELL DAVIS
(May 7, 1826–October 16, 1906)

Jon L. Wakelyn

Unfortunately for her own place in this country’s history, Varina Howell Davis’s considerable accomplishments are inseparably linked to those of her husband, Confederate States President Jefferson Finis Davis (q.v.). Some of her contemporaries viewed her as a cold and interfering woman, perhaps frustrated by her lack of personal political power. Others believed she wasted her own time in later life in the vain attempt to resurrect her husband’s career through her book Jefferson Davis, A Memoir (1890). More careful studies of the woman herself reveal a deeply flawed, yet heroic person. She made incisive judgments about the strengths and weaknesses of Confederate leaders, judgments her husband took to heart and acted upon. If her friend Mary Chesnut labeled her a meddler for that activity, Chesnut all too well understood her powers. Chesnut, too, grasped Varina’s calming effect on the president, as well as her efforts to set a proper social scene in beleaguered Richmond. Mrs. Davis’s duty was always to appear calm, collected, and optimistic, even in the face of adversity. Thus, her activities in behalf of the Confederate war effort, if appearing to some historians as problematic, require objective evaluation.

Varina was born into an ex-Yankee family of enormous pride and status, if of modest income, in the clannish, rich Mississippi delta near Natchez. What income there was came from the family of her Virginia-born mother, Margaret Kempe. Her father, William Burr Howell, had been born into a prestigious family of New Jersey políticos. His father had been governor. But William, despite his advantages, seems to have had little ambition. For a time he wandered aimlessly through the Midwest, then served ably in the navy during the War of 1812, and later visited old war acquaintances in Natchez. A gregarious man, he became friends with Joseph Davis, the elder brother of Jefferson, who set him up in a law practice there. Howell met, courted, and married the heiress Margaret Kempe. That marriage allowed William to give up the law, become a planter, and purchase a modest home, “The Briers.” The young couple became

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