May 7, 1826 – October 16, 1905
Varina Howell was a well educated, refined woman from Natchez, Miss. She spoke French, played the piano beautifully, and was quite interested in politics and current affairs. Though her parents resisted her marriage to Jefferson Davis, who was 18 years her senior, the two wed on February 26, 1845.
Varina’s husband immediately entered politics, which in her own words brought about “everything which darkens the sunlight and contracts the happy sphere of home.” Still Varina was an excellent hostess in Washington, D.C., while her husband served as senator and secretary of war. Besides performing her social duties brilliantly, she helped her husband write his speeches and letters.
As First Lady of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., Varina proved to have immeasurable inner fortitude. Jefferson Davis had not wanted the presidency, and his wife knew his “super-sensitive temperament” would be deeply affected by the office. Varina cared for their children, one of whom tragically fell to his death from their balcony in Richmond. She also constantly tended to her sickly husband and helped manage many of his official affairs. Declared by some to be “the power behind the throne,” Varina tried to protect her husband from his detractors and a workload that further weakened him. Her influence was such that some commanders and cabinet ministers “took pains to cultivate her good will.”
When Jefferson Davis was arrested in Georgia after fleeing Richmond, Varina was with him. Afterward she sent their children to Canada with her mother, and then tirelessly petitioned to gain her husband’s release from prison. For a while she was allowed to join him in prison. He was released in May 1867 and they returned to Mississippi. A childhood friend of Jefferson Davis willed to him an estate, Beauvoir, to which they retired. After her husband’s death in 1889, Varina wrote her memoirs. Leaving Beauvoir to the state as a veteran’s home, she moved to New York, where she died in 1905.
Fascinating Fact: Varina stipulated in her agreement with the state that Beauvoir be used as a home for Confederate veterans and widows and be preserved as “a perpetual memorial sacred to the memory of Jefferson Davis” and the Confederate cause.