First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis's Civil War

First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis's Civil War

by Joan E. Cashin


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When Jefferson Davis became president of the Confederacy, his wife, Varina Howell Davis, reluctantly became the First Lady. For this highly intelligent, acutely observant woman, loyalty did not come easily: she spent long years struggling to reconcile her societal duties to her personal beliefs. Raised in Mississippi but educated in Philadelphia, and a long-time resident of Washington, D.C., Mrs. Davis never felt at ease in Richmond. During the war she nursed Union prisoners and secretly corresponded with friends in the North. Though she publicly supported the South, her term as First Lady was plagued by rumors of her disaffection.

After the war, Varina Davis endured financial woes and the loss of several children, but following her husband's death in 1889, she moved to New York and began a career in journalism. Here she advocated reconciliation between the North and South and became friends with Julia Grant, the widow of Ulysses S. Grant. She shocked many by declaring in a newspaper that it was God's will that the North won the war.

A century after Varina Davis's death in 1906, Joan E. Cashin has written a masterly work, the first definitive biography of this truly modern, but deeply conflicted, woman. Pro-slavery but also pro-Union, Varina Davis was inhibited by her role as Confederate First Lady and unable to reveal her true convictions. In this pathbreaking book, Cashin offers a splendid portrait of a fascinating woman who struggled with the constraints of her time and place.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674030374
Publisher: Harvard
Publication date: 02/15/2009
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 554,328
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Joan E. Cashin is Professor of History at The Ohio State University.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


1. Half Breed

2. This Mr. Davis

3. Flattered and Courted

4. First Lady

5. No Matter What Danger There Was

6. Holocausts of Herself

7. Run with the Rest

8. Threadbare Great Folks

9. Topic of the Day

10. Crowd of Sorrows

11. Fascinating Failures

12. The Girdled Tree

13. Delectable City

14. Like Martha

15. At Peace


A Note on Sources




Varina Howell, 1840s

Mr. and Mrs. Davis, 1845

Joseph E. Davis

Zachary Taylor

Franklin Pierce

Jefferson Davis, 1850s

Minna Blair

Harriet Lane Johnston

Winfield Scott

Varina Howell Davis, circa 1860

Confederate White House, 1865

The Davis children, 1860s

Ellen Barnes and the infant Winnie Davis

Varina Davis and her daughter Winnie

John W. Garrett

Margaret Howell

Jefferson and Varina Davis, 1867

Virginia Clay

Court Street, the Davis home in Memphis

Sarah Dorsey


Oscar Wilde

Jefferson Davis in old age

Joseph Pulitzer

Julia Grant

Winnie Davis

Four generations of Davis women, 1905

Varina Davis, the pensive widow

What People are Saying About This

David Herbert Donald

This fascinating biography is the first full life of Varina Howell, the wife of Jefferson Davis. It is also the first detailed account of their turbulent marriage--between an adoring woman who could not always agree with her husband's ideas, and a stiff, much older man who cared nothing for his wife's opinions but demanded her total obedience. Joan Cashin has done an extraordinary amount of research--much of it in manuscripts and diaries hitherto unused by historians--and she writes with sensitivity, but without sentimentality. This is a major biography, essential for an understanding of the Confederacy and important for the history of women.
David Herbert Donald, author of Lincoln

Jane Turner Censer

Cashin is always sure-handed in showing us Varina Davis as a woman who kept an inner toughness while giving in to inflexible demands, a woman who endured a marriage that was "so many holocausts of herself." A signal scholarly achievement and a marvelous read!

Jane Turner Censer, Professor of History, George Mason University

William C. Davis

Fascinating in her own right, Varina Davis was in some ways a 20th century woman out of her time. Her force of personality, dedication, and independent spirit, make her in many ways more interesting than her husband. In Joan Cashin's First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis's Civil War we have a biography worthy of the woman at last.
William C. Davis, author of An Honorable Defeat: The Last Days of the Confederate Government

Jean Baker

Joan Cashin's superb new reading of the First Lady of the Confederacy offers a vivid yet balanced account of Varina Howell Davis. This is biography at its best: deep research, new material, a perceptive author, and an engrossing subject. In Cashin's hands Varina's story reaches beyond the First Lady's unique circumstances as wife, mother and widow to tell us about the old and new South. Both specialists and the general public will enjoy this exceptional portrait.
Jean Baker, Professor of History, Goucher College

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