Civil War Profiles: The First Lady of the Confederacy’s Delaware connection


The Howell family, described as impulsive and hard-driving, emigrated from Wales to the Newark, Del., area in the early 18th century. The ambitious Ebenezer and Mary Bond Howell moved across the Delaware River to Shiloh, N.J., where they purchased land and slaves to work it.

A son named Richard had a brilliant military career and developed a friendship with George Washington. Richard Howell fought in the Revolutionary War at Brandywine, Germantown and Monmouth, and endured the cruel winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge. His cousin George Read of Delaware signed the Declaration of Independence; actually signing twice, having been authorized to sign for John Dickinson of Delaware, who was ill.

Joan Cashin relates the story of the Howell family in “First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Howell Davis’s Civil War.” After the war, Richard Howell served four terms as governor of New Jersey. His son William Burr Howell was commended for bravery as an officer in the War of 1812. William Howell, however, would migrate to and seek his fortune in Natchez, Miss., a small but thriving community on the Mississippi River.

Howell developed a friendship with Joseph E. Davis, a land owner on the Mississippi Delta, who introduced him to his future wife, Margaret Kempe — an heiress of 2,000 acres of land and 60 slaves. William and Margaret married, and two years later, in 1824, a daughter was born, with the olive complexion of their Welsh ancestors, whom they named Varina.

Varina Howell, described as a courageous “tomboy” as a youngster, would grow into an attractive, well-educated young lady with a mind of her own. She attended school in Philadelphia, where she was able to spend time with her Northern kinfolk.

At 17, Varina visited Joseph Davis’s Hurricane plantation in Mississippi, where she met his brother, Jefferson, a widower twice her age. They soon fell in love, married in 1845 and settled on the 900-acre Brierfield plantation with 74 slaves. She was 18; he 36.

Both having strong personalities, their early years together were literally a struggle for domination. Given the tenor of the times, Jefferson eventually forced Varina to bend to his will. They would spend much time apart, given Jefferson’s political ambitions and travels, and he would soon go off to the Mexican War.

Life in Washington would follow, with Jefferson serving as a U.S. senator, Secretary of War in the Pierce administration and again as U.S. senator. A lively, outgoing person, Varina loved the social life in the capital city.

Although no children were born to Varina and Jefferson for the first seven years of their marriage, she eventually had six — four boys and two girls. Tragically, all four of the boys would die young, only one living to 21.

When seven states, including Mississippi, seceded from the Union in 1860-1861 following the election of Abraham Lincoln as president, Jefferson Davis resigned his senate seat and soon was called to Montgomery, Ala., as interim president of the newly-formed Confederate States of America. Varina Davis took sorrowful leave of Washington, where she was never happier, in order to become first lady of the Confederacy.

As Carol Berkin points out in “Civil War Wives,” Varina Davis had hoped for reconciliation between North and South before they went to war against each other. But war came, and the Confederate president and first lady took up residence in Richmond, Va.

The outspoken Varina Davis was not popular with the staid upper-class society matrons of the Southern capital, who looked with some disdain and suspicion at the dark-skinned Westerner with relatives in the North.

When Richmond fell in 1865, Varina and Jefferson Davis were captured in Georgia as they attempted to escape to Texas. From that point on, life would become stressful, both psychologically and financially, for the former president and first lady.

Upon Jefferson Davis’ death in 1889, Varina Davis demonstrated her independence — much to the chagrin of her Southerner compatriots — by settling in New York, along with her youngest child “Winnie” — both landing assignments writing articles and reviews for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. Varina, as a member of the Howell clan, had come full circle, back to her Northern roots.

In “Crowns of Thorns and Glory,” Gerry Van der Heuvel quotes Varina Davis’ forthright defense of her lifestyle: “Some day in the future the hard battle I have fought with disease and poverty will I hope suggest itself to the people of the South, and the effort I have made to sustain myself in dignified independence may be acceptable to them as not unworthy of my position [as former first lady of the Confederacy].”

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War” (available at Bethany Beach Books or from www.tomryan-civilwar.com). Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com.