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

By Joan E. Cashin | Go to book overview
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THE DOCUMENTATION on Varina Howell Davis's life is huge, which helps explain why this book is the first biography by a professional scholar. The best previous work, by the journalist Ishbel Ross, First Lady of the South: The Life of Mrs. Jefferson Davis (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958), draws on a thin research base and presents a sanitized view of Davis's life; moreover, Ross published four biographies between 1953 and 1958. In my research, 1 examined dozens of manuscript collections, as well as census reports, government records, city directories, newspapers, magazines, memoirs, and interviews. The sources are scattered through many archives, from Massachusetts to California. Davis received and replied to letters from people all over the United States, so that quite a few institutions possess one or two of her letters. The same is true for Varina's daughter Winnie Davis, who became a household name in the 1880s and has sometimes been confused with Varina herself. Certain aspects of the Davis correspondence present special challenges to scholars. Many letters by Varina's modier, Margaret Howell, are undated or incorrectly dated, so I dated them when possible according to their contents. Because the Davises were famous, a few forgeries have surfaced (bad forgeries, easy to spot). For obvious reasons, I did not cite those letters. Nor did I cite any publications on the Davises by Hudson Strode, who altered manuscripts, deleting and rearranging passages within individual letters. 1 avoided notoriously unreliable memoirs such as LaSalle Corbell Pickett's Across My Path: Memories of People I Have Known (New York: Brentano, 1916).

Regarding the war-related controversies in Varina Davis's life, most of her letters from 1860 and 1861, such as the one to her mother in June 1861, have been omitted from other books or published in expurgated form. Other works.


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