DAVIS, VARINA. (1826-1906). Wife of Jefferson Davis, secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce and, later, president the Confederate States of America. ALS. (“Varina Davis”). 7½ pp. 8vo. Washington, D.C., October 13 and October 14, 1860. To her close friend, former First Lady JANE M.A. PIERCE (1806-1863).
The Future First Lady of the Confederacy Writes to Former First Lady Jane Pierce on the Eve of the Civil War
Signed by Varina Davis
“So far from being surprised to hear from you my heart has often yearned for a letter and I have often felt like writing to you particularly of late, but did not know where to direct the letter. We had cherished the hope of being able to go North to see you ere we returned home, but Mr. Davis’ avocations you know are numerous, and as I tell him the only time I expect he would feel at leisure to anything because it was pleasant would be going home to stay there always. I was wearied to death with the noise & confusion of West Point parades, young people & constant dancing and longed to go to Prof. Baches camp, & from there to see you, but he was busy with the committee upon which he worked from five to six hours a day, and did not think we could get off together, & of course was not willing for me to go without him. My husband is now in the south, not well when I heard last, but not sick – however I feel quite anxious as he has to pass through Natches where the dengue prevails, (twin sister to the yellow fever.) he is speaking though.
My little ones though sadly disfigured by an eruption are quite well otherwise and pretty good. Jeff is a splendid boy, and Joe, the little one you have not seen is a pretty black eyed baby like Maggie. Margaret goes home to Ma this fall to live, and Becket [Varina’s brother] whom you used to feel interested in is now in the Marine corps, and over six feet high, a good tously boy, and much liked. I live now opposite the Aulicks [naval officer John H. Aulick and his wife Mary] on I Street, nearly opposite Mr. Dobbins old house, and find the change very much for the better. Mrs. Aulick’s son Richmond whom you knew as a miserable sufferer, confined to his bed entirely with a shocking issue in his foot, but he is brought down stairs every night and his fair young wife sings to him like the troubled water spirit in the fable “until late into the night.” Mrs. Yulee has Mr. Dobbin’s house. Col. Aberts [John J. Abert, former Head of the Topographical Engineers] family are under a sad cloud. He is nearly an idiot – or rather quite in his second childhood, has to be taken about by a Negro man, and both the daughters are widows of a few weeks standing and very poor. How hard to see the blessing under such a cloud. Mrs. McComb is here too in the same place looking back like Lot’s Wife upon former glories. Mrs. Wood’s family are as when you left, save that Nina has married Edward Boyce, and has a sweet little white baby whom the family dote upon. Mrs. Emory is much grieved about her Mother’s death and is in Maryland at present, as she cannot bear to stay here just yet, her boys are grown & quite satisfactory as they develop. Mrs. Stuckel is one of my neighbors, she has had the E. Riggs fitted up for herself beautifully, and lives very nicely. Mrs. Eustis has returned, and seems in better health than I have ever seen her. I see by the papers that Sidney Webster & his wife have gotten back – I trust they are as happy as they diserve [sic] to be.
When the prince was here I dined with him, and the noblemen in his suite, and had a nice time – the Earl of St. Germans handed me in to dinner and I found him elegant, and educated to the highest degree, but I did not discover that great superiority which is claimed for them over our own people. As for the boy, if I had loved his Mother (an honor denied to me, a pleasure from which she is debarred) I would have taken more interest in him. I think I am deficient in reverence for rank – perhaps because I have tested thoroughly the hollowness of position, on a small scale. I am pained to hear that your health is no better. Would that I could look forward to seeing you even as well as you were three years ago, it maybe that next winter I shall be at home, and I will hope to have you and dear Mr. Pierce with us.
Political affairs look very dark, and seem to threaten loudly the union under which we have lived like the scriptural birds in the cedars of Lebanon. God grant us peace I nightly pray, and yet feel sure he will not answer the prayer. Jeff is much excited, & very much depressed, and I suppose there is really no doubt that Lincoln is elected, or rather will be. If we are to be buried under such a tumulus of negrodom, I trust we will be interred as were the warriors of old, standing, armed, and resistant. Dieu est nos droits – if I may paraphrase England’s motto. I never before was for resistance but now I feel as if our southern members have had that last feather added which they could not sustain. I spend my time wishing I have lived sixty years ago.
Please offer my sincere regards to your sister, and my affectionate remembrances to Mr. Pierce, and pray excuse this scrawl for I am beset with shrieking children who are irritated by a kind of milk crust they caught from someone at West Point. Very sincerely & affectionately your friend…”
“I suppose there is really no doubt that Lincoln is elected, or rather will be. If we are to be buried under such a tumulus of negrodom, I trust we will be interred as were the warriors of old, standing, armed, and resistant.”
The son of New Hampshire’s governor, Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) studied law before enjoying a varied career in state and national politics. In 1832, he was elected to Congress, and four years later, Pierce won a Senate seat that he held until 1837. In 1846, President Polk offered Pierce the office of Attorney General, but Pierce declined, observing that when he had resigned from the Senate, he had done so with the express purpose never being separated from his family again except to serve his country during war, which, in fact, he did the following year when he was commissioned as a colonel during the Mexican‑American War. Despite his promise to his wife, Jane, he accepted the Democratic nomination for president, and served from 1853-1857.
Known for her shyness and melancholy, Jane was mildly tubercular and spent a good deal of time away from her husband, preferring the cold north to the more hot and humid climate of Washington. Her years in the White House were largely unhappy ones. The horrific death of her third child, Benjamin, in a train accident just two months prior to her husband’s inauguration, plus the loss of her two other sons in infancy, cast a shadow over the remainder of her public and private life.
President Pierce’s efforts to lead the nation were hindered by divisions within his party. Nonetheless, he reformed the Civil Service, the Departments of the Interior and Treasury; and oversaw the territorial expansion of the United States, most notably in completing the Gadsden Purchase, by which the U.S. obtained modern-day Arizona and southern New Mexico from Mexico, and which Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) strongly advocated. However, it was also territorial expansion and its relation to the issue of slavery that undermined Pierce’s presidency, specifically the Kansas-Nebraska Act whose passage on May 30, 1854, contributed to the birth of the Republican Party. The legislation, drafted by Pierce and Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas, opened Kansas to settlement while allowing popular sovereignty to determine whether Kansas would allow slavery. This led both pro- and anti-slavery advocates to settle in Kansas for the sole purpose of casting their ballots on the matter. The resulting violence, such as that famously perpetrated by John Brown, was dubbed “Bleeding Kansas” and helped further divide both the Democratic Party and the entire nation, propelling it toward civil war.
Because of the political discord that marked Pierce’s presidency, the Democratic Party failed to nominate him for reelection. After leaving Washington, he briefly returned to his native New Hampshire before setting off on a three-year tour of Europe and the Bahamas. From afar he managed to stay abreast of American affairs while maintaining an extensive correspondence with Sidney Webster (1829-1910), a New Hampshire native who, after graduating from Yale University and Harvard Law School, became President Pierce’s private secretary. The pair formed a close relationship that would persist long after Pierce left Washington. In 1860, Webster married Sarah Morris Fish (1838-1925), the eldest daughter of Senator Hamilton Fish of New York, future secretary of state under Ulysses S. Grant. In 1892, Webster published Franklin Pierce and His Administration.
Born in Natchez, Mississippi, Varina Banks Howell was the granddaughter of New Jersey Governor Richard Howell; her mother came from a wealthy family of Virginia planters. Varina was educated in Philadelphia, an experience that further served to divide her loyalties between Northern and Southern family and friends. After returning to Mississippi, she met West Point graduate and owner of Brierfield Plantation Jefferson Davis. Davis was a widower; his wife, Sarah Knox Taylor, the daughter of future president Zachary Taylor, had died just three months after their wedding in 1835. Varina’s parents initially objected to Davis’ courtship of their daughter because of their age and in politics differences, but they were married in 1845, when he was 37 and she 19.
At the end of 1845, Davis was elected to Congress and the couple moved to Washington, D.C. where the outgoing and politically savvy Varina flourished. When Pierce selected Davis to serve as his secretary of war in 1853, the two men formed a close friendship as did Varina and Jane despite the differences in their ages and temperaments. Still grieving the loss of her children, Jane Pierce sometimes took Davis’ baby Samuel for carriage rides and, after the baby’s 1854 death, lent her support to Varina as she mourned.
After Pierce left office, Davis was elected to represent Mississippi in the U.S. Senate where he spoke out on slavery and secession, issues that had become increasingly difficult following Abraham Lincoln’s (1809-1865) election in November 1860, less than a month after our letter was penned. When Mississippi withdrew from the Union in January 1861, Davis resigned his seat and became the provisional (and later elected) president of the Confederate States of America. Varina attempted to fulfill the responsibilities of first lady and moved first to the Confederate capital of Montgomery, Alabama and, later in 1861, to the new capital of Richmond, Virginia, where the couple lived in the Presidential Mansion until 1865.
Franklin Pierce and Jefferson Davis remained close, with Pierce traveling to visit Davis during his incarceration at Fort Monroe after the end of the war. Varina and Jane also maintained their friendship through correspondence but did not see each other after 1860, despite the sentiments expressed in our letter.
Our letter mentions three of the Davis’ six children: Margaret Howell Davis (1855-1909), Jefferson Davis Jr. (1857-1864) and Joseph Evan Davis (1859-1864). Mrs. (Ann) Woods, Zachary Taylor’s daughter was married to Dr. Robert C. Wood. Their daughter, Nina married a paymaster Edward Boyce who died in 1862, and their son, mentioned above, was named William.
Also mentioned is the 18-year-old Edward, Prince of Wales (1841-1910), the future King Edward VII, who was received by President James Buchanan and member of Congress at Mount Vernon on October 5, 1860. Davis also obliquely registers her disdain for the prince’s mother Queen Victoria (1819-1901): “As for the boy, if I had loved his Mother (an honor denied to me, a pleasure from which she is debarred) I would have taken more interest in him.”
Written on two folded sheets with some age toning on the last page; in very fine condition.