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The Only First Lady, Part Three

Varina's story continues. Click here for Part One and here for Part Two.

Final surrender ended one kind of suffering and began another. Living in postwar Savannah, Varina read newspaper stories about Jefferson’s imprisonment at Fortress Monroe and seethed. Upon hearing that he had been shackled, she fell into hysterics, barely controlled by a liberal regimen of opiates. She sent her children to exile in Canada and began one of the most important efforts of her life: a letter campaign to ease her beloved husband’s suffering. Though the couple was granted the right to correspond by letters (all of Jefferson’s were screened by the attorney general), it was not until the spring of 1866 that she was given permission to visit him in Fortress Monroe, and then only because he appeared to be dying. Varina and young Winnie were allowed to join Jefferson in his prison cell. The family was eventually given a more comfortable apartment in the officers' quarters of the fort. The Andrew Johnson administration and the Republican Party, could not decide what to do with Jefferson and had long since stopped caring about Davis’s capacity for mischief, saving him from a grisly wasting death that no doubt awaited him in his incarceration.

He was released two years later on 13 May 1867 when a bond of $100,000 was posted by a number of prominent citizens including Horace Greeley, Cornelius Vanderbilt and abolitionist Gerrit Smith. Jefferson never went to trial and he never swore allegiance to the United States government. President Johnson's Fourth Amnesty Proclamation, dated 25 December 1868, formally absolved Jefferson Davis of any guilt for his participation in the Civil War.

Jefferson Davis was then sixty years old, but the strain of the past four years had aged him prematurely. He was in frail health and blind in one eye. With the Mississippi plantation confiscated, Jefferson tried to find a new job in an attempt to rebuild his fortunes. The Davises moved to England, where the former president tried to start an international trading firm. Varina hoped they would settle permanently in London, a great city she found most stimulating. The Davises enrolled twelve-year-old Winnie in the Misses Friedlanders Boarding School in Karlsruhe, Germany. She studied there for five years, acquiring a slight German accent. She then studied in Paris for a short while before returning to the United States.

But Jefferson had no experience as a businessman, so when the business collapsed, he returned to America. Varina remained in England to visit her sister who had recently moved there, and stayed for several months. The surviving correspondence suggests her stay may have been prompted by renewed marital difficulties.

Jefferson Davis had fallen in love with Virginia Clay, the wife of former Confederate official Clement Clay, a fellow political prisoner at Fort Monroe. He wrote passionate letters to her for three years, and in 1871 he was discovered on a train "with a woman not his wife" (possibly Clay). The story appeared in newspapers all over the United States. Varina, still in England at the time, was outraged. The legal system made divorce very difficult, however, and divorce had such a stigma that neither one of the Davises discussed it in writing.

Jefferson accepted the presidency of an insurance agency headquartered in Memphis, Tennessee. Just as the family began to regain some financial comfort, tragedy struck again when their youngest son William Davis died of typhoid fever in 1872. The Panic of 1873 followed and the insurance company was one of many that went bankrupt.

Sarah Anne Ellis Dorsey (1829-1879)

In 1877 Jefferson was ill and nearly bankrupt. Advised to take a home near the sea for his health, he accepted an invitation from Sarah Anne Ellis Dorsey, a widowed heiress, whose husband had died in 1875, to visit her plantation of Beauvoir on the Mississippi Sound in Biloxi. He did not consult with Varina before making his decision. Sarah had been a classmate of Varina's in Philadelphia and had become a respected novelist and historian, and had traveled extensively. She arranged for Jefferson to use a cottage on the grounds of her plantation. There she helped him organize and write his memoir of the Confederacy, in part by her active encouragement. She also invited Varina Davis to stay with her.

Varina and her eldest daughter, Margaret Howell Hayes, disapproved of her husband's friendship with Sarah. After Varina returned to the United States, she lived in Memphis with Margaret and her family. For a long time Varina refused to set foot on Sarah's property. Gradually she began a reconciliation with her husband and eventually accepted Sarah's invitation to live there and moved into one of the guest cottages at Beauvoir.

Varina was with him at Beauvoir in 1878 when they learned that their last surviving son, Jefferson Davis, Jr., had died during a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis. That year 20,000 people died throughout the South in the epidemic. During her grieving, Varina became friends again with Sarah.

The Davis family had little privacy at Beauvoir. Curious strangers appeared to meet Jefferson and ask for his autograph, to give him a present, or simply to talk to him, so Varina had to act the part of hostess yet again. She grew tired of the seemingly endless throng of inquisitive visitors at the door, as she admitted to a friend, but she had to be polite. Moreover, she felt that Beauvoir was Sarah’s house, and she had always preferred urban life to country living. She was happy to see some callers, such as Oscar Wilde, who came by during his tour of the United States. With the witty young Irishman, she had a most enjoyable talk about books.

Sarah Dorsey was determined to help support the former president. She offered to sell him her house for a reasonable price. Upon learning that she had breast cancer, Sarah rewrote her will in 1878 to leave Jefferson Davis free title to the home, as well as much of the remainder of her financial estate. Her relatives were unsuccessful in challenging the will. Her bequest provided Davis with enough financial security to provide for Varina and Winnie, and to enjoy some comfort with them in his final years.

After Sarah died in 1879, she left her considerable estate to Jefferson, so the family no longer faced destitution. But miseries continued to rain in upon them. Their two sons, William and Jefferson, Jr., had died, as did five of Varina's siblings, and a number of her close friends, such as Mary Chesnut, who passed away in 1886. Both the Davises suffered from depression due to their losses.

Varina cared for her husband when he fell ill, and she wrote most of his letters for him. She helped him finish his memoir, which appeared in 1881. In this bitter tome, he denounced his enemies, tried to justify secession, and blamed other people for the Confederacy's defeat. He said nothing about his own wife's heresies. In his last years, Jefferson remained obsessed with the war. By contrast, Varina did not like to dwell on all the men who died in what she called a “hopeless” struggle. She told a relative that her association with the Confederacy had been “accidental,” anyway.

While staying with family friends in Syracuse, New York during the fall of 1886, Winnie met a successful New York attorney named Alfred (Fred) Wilkinson. Ignoring their North/South backgrounds, the two fell deeply in love and wanted to marry. Jefferson objected to his being from "a prominent Yankee and abolitionist family" and Varina to his lack of money and being burdened by many debts. Jefferson was finally persuaded to give his consent to an engagement, perhaps believing that his prestige might soften the public reaction.

On 6 November 1889, Jefferson left Beauvoir to visit Brierfield plantation. He boarded a steamboat in New Orleans during sleety rain and fell ill during the trip, so that he initially felt too sick to disembark at his stop, and spent the night upriver in Vicksburg before making his way to the plantation the next day. He refused to send for a doctor for four days before embarking on his return trip. Meanwhile, servants sent Varina a telegram, and she took a train to New Orleans, and then a steamboat upriver, finally reaching the vessel on which her husband was returning. Jefferson finally received medical care as two doctors came aboard further south and diagnosed acute bronchitis complicated by malaria. Upon arriving in New Orleans three days later, he was taken to the Garden District home of Charles Erasmus Fenner, a former Confederate officer who became an Associate Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court. Jefferson's doctor Stanford E. Chaille pronounced him too ill to travel to Beauvoir. Four medical students who were sons of Confederate veterans and a Catholic nun attended him in the Charity Hospital ambulance which took him to the Fenner home. He remained bedridden but stable for the next two weeks before taking a turn for the worse in early December. According to Fenner, just when Jefferson again appeared to be improving, he lost consciousness on the evening of 5 December and died at 12:45 a.m. on Friday, 6 December 1889, holding Varina's hand and in the presence of several friends.

Jefferson Davis's funeral was one of the largest in the South, and New Orleans draped itself in mourning as his body lay in state in the City Hall for several days. An Executive Committee decided to emphasize his ties to the United States, so an American national flag was placed over the Confederate flag during the viewing, with many crossed American and Confederate flags nearby. Jefferson wore a new suit of Confederate grey fabric Jubal Early had given him, and Varina placed a sword Davis had carried during the Black Hawk War on the bier. A common decoration during the initial funeral was a small American flag in mourning, with a portrait of Davis in the center. While the federal government officially ignored Davis's death, many church bells rang in the South, Confederate veterans held many processions, and Senators and congressmen crossed the Potomac River to join former Confederate officials and generals in eulogizing Davis in Alexandria, Virginia.

Since her father died before Winnie could announce the engagement, everything was postponed indefinitely, and the strain wreaked havoc on Winnie’s health. When Winnie finally announced her engagement to Wilkinson in 1890, there was a great outcry from the South. Her friends, family and the Southern groups who idolized her were shocked. The couple’s engagement did not last long. Fred always claimed it was Varina who destroyed whatever slim chances the couple had for happiness. Varina maintained that she was concerned that Fred would not be able to support Winnie properly. Varina finally relented, but it was too late. Winnie could not cope with the pressure. Forced to reject this man, she never married.

After Jefferson's death, Varina completed his autobiography, publishing it in 1890 as Jefferson Davis, A Memoir. She had hoped it would earn her some income, but at first the book sold few copies. But fortune began to look up for Varina when she met Kate Davis Pulitzer, a distant cousin of Jefferson Davis and the wife of Joseph Pulitzer, a major newspaper publisher in New York, who had take a trip to the South. Kate solicited short articles from Varina for her husband's newspaper, the New York World.

At the funeral, Varina had stood like a quavering symbol of dreams long past, drawing a flood of tears from old, gray warriors who had tried in vain to put the past behind them. In a strange sort of way she was now free. She had been criticized by her detractors during the war for her Northern connections; now she would set tongues to wagging yet again in 1891 when she accepted the Pulitzers' offer to become a full-time columnist and moved to New York City with her daughter Winnie.

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