FIRST LADY OF THE CONFEDERACY
Varina Davis's Civil War
By Joan E. Cashin
Belknap/Harvard Univ. 403 pp. $29.95
In the antebellum South, white women, like black slaves, were expected to stay in "their place." As Joan E. Cashin, a history professor at Ohio State, writes, they "were expected to marry young, have many children, and devote themselves exclusively to the family." They "did not attend universities or enter the professions, and in Mississippi, unlike New Jersey, they had never voted and were not expected to have the faintest interest in public life. . . . In return for such self-denial, women were supposed to receive security; they gave up autonomy in exchange for protection." Varina Howell was born into this world in 1826 and accepted its conditions, but not always happily and, as Cashin notes, with "a series of bewildering questions" that eluded easy answers:
"If a man did not honor the sacred vows of marriage, if he neglected his wife, or failed to provide for her, what should she do? Should she defy social convention . . . even at the cost of scandal, or should she submit, endure, and hope for the best, as her mother did? . . . How should a woman strike a balance between devotion to others and her duty to herself? What, if anything, did a woman owe herself, in addition to what she owed family and household? These questions lingered as she approached adulthood, for she identified strongly with women but wanted the security that men, and only certain men, could deliver."
These questions as framed by Cashin obviously are informed by contemporary feminism, but they are legitimate ones that almost certainly occurred to Varina Howell before, during and after her marriage to Jefferson Davis in February 1845 in Natchez. She was 19 years old, and he was 36. Ten years earlier he had married Sarah Knox Taylor, the daughter of Zachary Taylor, but she died of malaria less than three months later, a loss that left Davis "nearly crushed with grief" and reverberated throughout the four-and-a-half decades of his marriage to Varina.
Davis -- planter, soldier, politician -- was a handsome, commanding man whom Varina claimed to love right up to -- and beyond -- his death in 1889, but he was also stern, demanding and headstrong. He accepted without question every clause of the Southern code, and he expected his wife to honor that code as well. He "expected her to abide by his wishes, which he said was demanded by her 'duties as a wife,' " and he "did not see marriage as a partnership." Varina by contrast "wanted a reciprocal relationship, a companionate marriage in which husband and wife both had obligations."
In this desire she was perhaps not quite so unusual as we might think; over the past three decades a great deal has been written about Southern women in the Civil War period, and it has left little doubt that some of them were far more restless and rebellious than their husbands and fathers would have preferred. But the case of Varina Davis takes on special meaning because she was the most prominent Southern woman of her time. For a decade and a half before the Civil War, she had accompanied her husband to Washington, where he represented Mississippi as congressman and senator, and served as secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce; in 1861 he was chosen president of the Confederate States of America. She was First Lady of the new nation, a role she had not bargained for and that did not especially suit her:
"The role of the Southern 'lady,' although it was only a generation old, had great political valence, and the Confederate elite expected Davis to conform to it; she should embody the values of the planter class, as her husband seemed to do. . . . [But] she did not talk like a First Lady, . . . for she was too well-read, too smart, and too blunt. . . . [Mrs.] Davis's sense of humor, which was evident in her debut summer in 1861, also became a liability. She was a good mimic, and after she did some impersonation at a party that summer, one onlooker thought she should make such demonstrations in private. . . . The Confederate elite might have overlooked Mrs. Davis's shortcomings -- the wrong appearance, the wrong sense of humor, the wrong manners -- if she had fully supported the Southern cause."
She did not. She supported slavery and held mostly conventional views about race for a person of her time and class, but she had not favored secession and did not believe -- never believed -- that the South could win the war. She had loved her years in Washington and had many close friends on the Union side -- she hated every minute in Richmond, surrounded as she was by the New World's most hermetic and self-important aristocracy -- and her own "family history was intertwined with the nation's history." The South "was not ready to fight," she believed, and "the North's advantage in population and manufacturing power was immense." The most she could muster was "resignation, a desire to conform, and a determination to endure, with none of the fiery enthusiasm for the cause that her peers might hope for from the First Lady."
In addition to her qualms about secession and the war, she simply had other things on her mind. Her marriage was never easy, she was frequently separated from her husband, tensions between them at times were extreme. Like many women of her period she saw too many of her children to their graves -- all four of her sons died while young, her beloved youngest daughter died in her early thirties, and only her other daughter lived to mature adulthood -- and struggled through serious illnesses of her own. As the Confederacy reached its final months, even the First Lady had to scramble for food, and at the end she, like her husband, was on the run.
With her husband in prison awaiting the trial that ultimately never was held, Varina was warned that white Southerners might be hostile toward her. Instead she found herself lionized:
"Now she was the wife of a prisoner whom many white Southerners saw as a martyr for his cause, which mitigated much of the animosity toward him, and her. At her New Orleans hotel, she was inundated with callers, and shopkeepers would not accept her money. The outpouring overwhelmed her. The Richmond complaints about her 'crudeness' vanished, and her lack of enthusiasm for the Southern cause was forgotten or overlooked. She had become, in the latest incarnation, a symbol of the Confederacy."
The irony of this surely amused her and may well have angered her. Certainly she showed little enthusiasm for her husband's efforts to solidify his own image as what he called "the Representative of an oppressed people." His self-esteem, never wanting even in the most uncertain of times, ballooned to "leviathan proportions as he assumed a new role as symbol of the 'Lost Cause,' as the Southern effort came to be called," and he "seemed to expect his wife to defer to him as members of the public did." He lived a quarter-century after the war, always depending on the generosity of others, rarely holding a real job and never making anything of the ones that came his way. He fell rather foolishly in love with a woman named Virginia Clay and had a strange relationship with another named Sarah Dorsey. He almost certainly was unfaithful to Varina, perhaps often, but divorce was out of the question, and she, in any case, always did her duty, no matter how much she may have disliked it.
Her life took an interesting turn after his death. She moved to New York, which she loved, and did occasional pieces of journalism for various publications. In 1893 she "had a friendly meeting with another famous widow, Julia Dent Grant," and the two actually became friends. The press delighted in this, seeing the friendship as symbolic of reconciliation within the nation. Varina "sincerely wanted whites in both regions to make peace, and she genuinely liked Julia Grant." By contrast she remained steadfast in her dismissive views of African Americans, though Cashin suggests -- probably based more in wish than in fact -- that "her residence in New York may have prompted her to question the racial views she had taken for granted for most of her life."
There was nothing unusual about those views, and Cashin admirably refrains from judging them by today's ostensibly more elevated standards. She does fault Davis for "a Hamlet-like indecision on the political and cultural issues of her time" but acknowledges that she faced many difficult choices over her long life -- she died in October 1906 -- and that "she made many sacrifices for a cause she did not fully support and for a husband who did not fully return her love." Cashin's book leaves no doubt that she was in fact a considerably more interesting person than her husband, and a better one as well. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.