South's first lady believed right side won war

February 19, 2009 1:02:21 PM PST
"First Lady of the Confederacy/Varina Davis's Civil War" by Joan E. Cashin. During the four years that North and South fought the bloodiest war in American history, there were two American republics -- with two presidents and two first ladies.

Mary Todd was a slaveholder's daughter who turned abolitionist and shopaholic. She also had a taste for meddling in war-time politics. All three traits caused problems for her burdened husband, Abraham Lincoln.

Varina Howell had a similar background and supported slavery, but foresaw the defeat of the South that defended it. That made her life unhappy in Richmond where her husband, Jefferson Davis, became the first and only president of the Confederate States of America.

She nevertheless turned into a revered symbol of the "Lost Cause" after its defeat and her husband's death.

At 19, long before the war, she had fallen in love with widower Davis, a rich Mississippi planter. Biographer Joan E. Cashin writes that Varina's letters, unusual for the time, "suggest that the honeymoon was a prelude to a satisfactory physical relationship that lasted much of the rest of their lives." Demurely, the biography refrains from quoting.

Davis became a U.S. senator and then secretary of War. Varina -- tall, dark, not yet 30, better educated than most women of her class -- won a reputation as a brilliant hostess and conversationalist, and was friend to three presidents.

Then came the war.

In Richmond a starchily provincial society held Varina suspect, with some reason. Submission to her husband was her principle of marriage; she found slavery natural and right, but doubted that the government based on it could survive. And she laughed audibly at a story about a Confederate regiment that found its underpants made with two left legs.

Fleeing after the Confederate defeat she may have saved her husband's life by throwing her arms around him when Union soldiers spotted his disguise. He lived another 24 years, acclaimed in the South as defender of an oppressed people.

After he died at 81, Varina wrote a long memoir justifying him and the Southern cause. Her biographer criticizes it as following "a pattern of sentiment, misrepresentation, unorthodoxy and silence."

She moved to New York, which roused criticism from fervent southerners who felt she should have stayed among them. Publisher Joseph Pulitzer, an admirer of her conversation, put her on a stipend in her 70s, equivalent to about $30,000 a year in today's money. His New York World, one of the country's leading dailies, printed many of her articles.

In 1901, four years before her death at 80, she wrote that the right side had won the Civil War.


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