Varina Howell Davis was born at her family plantation, the Briers, near Natchez, Mississippi in 1826. As a plantation owner’s daughter, Davis received her education from a private tutor and later attended finishing school. She was seventeen when she met Jefferson Davis while visiting the Hurricane, the plantation of his older brother, Joseph Emory Davis. “Uncle Joe” was an old family friend, but it was the first time she met any of his extended family. Davis was taken with her beauty and intelligence, and by the time her visit ended two months later she and Davis were unofficially engaged. Margaret Howell, her mother, objected to the engagement. She was not convinced that Davis, widowed and eighteen years older than her daughter, was a good match for Varina. She thought he was too brooding, and feared that Varina would be second fiddle to his former wife. Eventually, however, she gave in and they were married on February 26, 1845.
Jefferson Davis had intended to live the life of a planter, but within just a few months of the wedding, he was nominated for a seat in the US House of Representatives. Long interested in politics, Varina was ideally suited for the life of a politician’s wife. Varina had grown up believing strongly in the Whig party. She gave up her Whig beliefs, however, for the Democratic views of her husband. As her husband rose in political ranks, she rose in the ranks of Washington society. When Jefferson Davis resigned his seat in the Senate at the outbreak of the Civil War, Varina was depressed and sad to the leave the city that had become her home, having lived there for most of her adult life.
They returned to their Mississippi plantation, the Brierfield but their days there were short. Jefferson Davis was elected the President of the Confederate State of America and the Davises moved first to Montgomery, Alabama, the temporary capital, and then to Richmond, Virginia, the permanent capital. There she was pleased to find many of her Southern friends from Washington DC, including Mary Chesnut. Varina settled comfortably into her new role as First Lady, and enjoyed much public support and adulation for the first year of the Confederacy. During the second year, however, as living conditions deteriorated and commodities became scarce, people began to speak out and criticize. While acknowledging her intelligence, critics claimed she put on airs, and that she wasn’t as well-read as she claimed. They accused her of being uncouth and domineering, having far too much influence over the President. Some accused her of entertaining too lavishly in such trying times, while others thought she was too skimpy and accused her of hoarding the President’s salary. Others frowned upon her style of entertaining, thinking it too much in the manner of the Yankee capital of Washington DC, and questioned her loyalty to the Confederacy. Despite the criticism, Varina continued in her support of the troops. She knitted countless articles of clothing for soldiers, donated rugs for blankets and made shoes of the scraps. She spent hours visiting soldiers in the hospitals, although she did not serve as a volunteer nurse at the request of her husband.
Following Jefferson Davis’s arrest at the end of the Civil War, Varina Davis and the children were sent to Savannah, where she complained of being a virtual prisoner as she was forbidden to leave the city. While she rarely ventured out, the children did. The soldiers, carpetbaggers and Union supporters treated the children cruelly and Varina constantly worried for their safely. After a former slave leveled a gun at one of them, she arranged for them to go to Canada along with her mother. Varina then turned her attention to gaining her husband’s release from prison. She petitioned endlessly and he was finally released in May 1867. The Davises struggled for a few years as Jefferson unsuccessfully tried to establish himself as a businessman. They retired to Beauvoir in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1879 after a friend bequeathed it to them in her will. After Jefferson died, Varina stayed at Beauvoir for a few years. She then donated it to be used as a Confederate veterans home and moved to New York, where she supported herself as a writer until her death in 1905.