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The Only First Lady, Part Two

Updated: Mar 28, 2022

Varina's story continues. For Part One, click here.

Anticipating a call for his services since Mississippi had seceded, Jefferson Davis sent a telegraph message to Governor John J. Pettus that read, "Judge what Mississippi requires of me and place me accordingly." On 23 January 1861, Pettus made Davis a major general of the Army of Mississippi. On 9 February, a constitutional convention met at Montgomery, Alabama and considered Davis and Robert Toombs of Georgia as a possible president. Davis and Alexander Hamilton Stephens, were elected the title of President and Vice-President respectively, unanimously by the convention. Davis was the first choice because of his strong political and military credentials. Varina later wrote that when he heard that he had been chosen as president, "Reading that telegram he looked so grieved that I feared some evil had befallen our family."

He was inaugurated on 18 February 1861.

In the wake of secession and the choice to make Jefferson Davis president of an infant republic, the Confederacy got a seasoned drawing-room campaigner as first lady. Varina seemed a bit overwhelmed during the early days when the new government was struggling toward self-realization in Montgomery, Alabama. After all, she was the first of her kind, just as much as her husband and her earnest desire not to screw it up lay plainly in her forced expressions of confidence. But not long after relocating the capital to Richmond, Virginia, Varina came into her own, manifesting in greater relief all the qualities that had defined her and her link to Jefferson. To a society that prided itself on the quality of its cultured womanhood, Varina’s educated polish was plain to see. She shined in public. Even her husband’s critics were taken by her; indeed, Varina was much better at feigning goodwill than the president was and did him many a service by smoothing over rifts in the government. She shared his ambition, but none of his excruciating sensitivity. In fact, she may have been a better politician than he was. And eventually everybody knew it.

Though Jefferson had always shined as a legislator, his ability as an executive was anyone’s guess. In time, that question was answered and not very flatteringly. Varina, on the other hand, had a facility with people that made her useful and dangerous. The women of Richmond felt it keenly and were acutely divided on their opinion of her. But the men were mostly won by her nature, which could shift from motherly to seductive to literary to sanguinary in a heartbeat. She was an intellectual with a mean streak, a ready tongue, and an ability to manipulate. But whatever she did, it was always with the president’s welfare in mind, for she loved him unconditionally.

However, Varina was not exactly sure about the South's chances of triumphing in the conflict. On 6 July 1862, she confided to her husband that if the Union won the Civil War, then it will have been God's will.

The first lady’s direct impact on Jefferson Davis’s decisions was always subtle; but everybody seemed to know that she spared no effort in the attempt to influence. In fact, the president was deaf to the advice of everybody. But the knowledge that a woman had even mild sway over decisions, especially military ones, caused no shortage of aggravation. The fact was that, whatever remarkable processes fueled Varina’s mind, her primary impulse was always loyalty: she despised those who didn’t adore Davis.

Varina did her best, day after day, to buttress her husband’s waning support. But on one occasion she did much more than just save his reputation, she saved his life. In November 1863, when returning to Richmond one night after a visit to Drewry’s Bluff on the James River south of the city, President Davis and his wife were challenged by a guard in front of Libby Prison. When Davis responded that he was Jefferson Davis, the tense young man called him a liar. Incensed, the president raised his cane in a threatening motion and the guard responded by leveling his musket. Varina quickly placed herself between the cane and the rifle and assured the sharp-eyed sentinel that her companion was indeed the president, bringing the conflict to a peaceful conclusion.

That she was so eloquent and crafty made her a subject of hostile scrutiny. Varina was much shrewder in her judgments of those who surrounded her husband than he was, but just as careless in leaking her opinions. The generals under her husband’s command came to understand how she felt about them: Joseph Johnston was despised, Beauregard was useless, Lee was worthy of respect, etc. This stuff sowed the sensation of intrigue where none was welcome. And maybe it would not have made a difference, but for the fact that Varina was open-minded in her associations. Her enduring friendship with Margaret Sumner McLean, a Union sympathizer and daughter of a Northern officer, for instance, did nothing to warm her to people who were looking for ammunition against her and her husband. Varina openly maintained her Northern associations, damn the consequences. Other, perhaps more inevitable, factors made things worse. Though her wardrobe was famously plain, she continued to set a relatively decent table when everyone else in town was scrounging for the simplest of amenities. She got appointments for friends and family that they didn’t always merit. Her tenure was dogged by controversies and gossip. Her political loyalties were suspect from the beginning, of course. Her conversation, filled with literary references, baffled some of her peers. Her olive complexion was considered unattractive, and some white Richmonders compared her to a mulatto or an Indian “squaw.”

In the final year of the war, as hope of victory faded, Varina became the realist of the relationship—Jefferson could not imagine absolute defeat, but his wife was not nearly as stubborn and began to see the writing on the wall. As the Confederacy fell apart around them, she was burdened with standing by Jefferson in a cause whose hopelessness was apparent to everyone except him.

Confederate White House, Richmond, VA

To add the faltering war effort, tragedy visited the Davis family on a personal level. On 30 April 1864, five-year-old Joseph E. Davis, died as a result of a fall from the balcony of the Confederate White House in Richmond. A few weeks later, Varina gave birth to their last child, a girl named Varina Anne Davis, who was called "Winnie". She became known to the public as "the Daughter of the Confederacy;" stories about her and likenesses of her were distributed throughout the Confederacy during the last year of the war to raise morale. She retained the nickname for the rest of her life.

When the fall of Richmond seemed imminent, Jefferson insisted that Varina and the children should leave for the Florida coast, where they would then depart for England. He sent them packing after giving her a lesson in loading and shooting a pistol he insisted on giving her. She headed south as he and his cabinet, in a separate party, did the same. The two exchanged frantic letters on the run in an attempt to meet up as the final moments of the war played out. When they finally reunited in Georgia, it was just in time to get nabbed by Federal cavalry.

In addition to all the extreme physical discomforts and moments of terror, the trip had been a humiliating one. Varina had been able to shield herself from opponents while ensconced in her Richmond home. But now, as a refugee on the run, she was sometimes confronted with hostility by those whose feelings of propriety had fallen with the cause. Mocked openly by many who encountered her on the road, she was taken in by stalwarts who risked life and limb by doing so. Caring for her family had become her sole purpose in life and now Jefferson was arrested and taken to Fort Monroe, Virginia, and she was put under house arrest in Savannah, Georgia.

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