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  • First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis’s Civil War
  • Stephanie McCurry
First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis’s Civil War. By Joan E. Cashin . ( Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006. Pp. 312 $29.95.)

Varina Howell Davis has been lucky in her biographer. In Joan Cashin, associate professor of history at Ohio State University, she has found an astute and sympathetic reader of the record of her life, and especially of her marriage, to Jefferson Davis, Mississippi senator, Confederate president, and embodiment of the Lost Cause. In this biography Varina Davis comes [End Page 422] fully to life, excavated from under the weight of her other half's much more public past. That is no small accomplishment.

But the burden of the marriage still tells. The book has a revealing architecture: vibrant and engaging in the beginning, dull and slogging in the middle, as if marriage to Jefferson Davis dragged down author with subject. For much as Cashin labors to trace out "the unorthodox voice" (305) that is, to her, the true Varina, its full flowering comes late in life, the loyal widow's reward. The extended middle—a forty-four-year marriage to Jefferson Davis that spans the Civil War—is a study of repression, submission, betrayal (his), and endurance (hers). For good reason does Cashin hurry through the years of the Civil War. There is another war story she wants to tell. Varina Howell Davis fought a long "civil war," and, like the Confederates, she lost.

Varina Howell was nineteen years old when she married Jefferson Davis. He was thirty-six and a widower—"a girdled tree" as she would later describe him and older men who remarried after losing their own first young loves (258). "Uncle Jeff," she called him (38). Davis emerges clearly from Cashin's brief treatment of her premarried life as a young woman of some substance, tried by her father's bankruptcy, buoyed by her intellect and wit, one who had already learned the critical lesson that "catastrophes could be survived" (30). She was also, as she would later describe herself, "a half breed," "Yankee on one side," by the New Jersey Howells, and "Confederate on the other" (11). Out of these scant materials Cashin successfully establishes Davis's singularity. No Southern belle she.

But marriage to Davis would test his wife's fortitude and the biographer's resourcefulness. After a brief breaking-in period, Davis buckled under for forty-four long years, during which singularity, wit, intelligence, and fortitude were summoned to allow her survive the iron will and colossal selfishness of her husband. Cashin makes much, to the reader's benefit, of the opening rounds, when Varina Howell Davis went head to head with her brother-in-law Joseph over title to her husband's plantation and the right to run her own household affairs—and with Jefferson Davis, her new husband, whose loyalty remained with his brother and whose will acceded to her only a life interest in his property. "When attacked," she told her mother, "I can fight" (50). For three years she did, standing up for her rights "as a woman and a wife" (49). Throughout his time in service in the Mexican War and as Mississippi senator in Washington, D.C., they fought it out. "He stayed at the front, fighting one war, and she stayed home, fighting another" (45). Cashin's portrait of this crisis of her marriage is masterful indeed, a full-on [End Page 423] view into marriage as "so many holocausts of herself," as Varina Davis would later refer to the institution (131). Jefferson Davis conceded nothing. For three years he quarantined her on the plantation, refusing to let her join him in Washington and issuing clear ultimatums about his own total authority. In 1848, seeing no alternative but divorce, Varina bent the proverbial knee, making peace in a groveling letter. Still only twenty-two years old, her will to resist him was broken. And so the wife was made.

The following forty years of marriage, and especially the four of the Civil War, prove a trial to Cashin the biographer. She struggles mightily in the middle section of...


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pp. 422-425
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