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

31 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674022942
ISBN-10: 0674022947
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Cashin has written a smashing study—the first scholarly biography—of Varina Howell Davis (1826–1906), wife of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Cashin, an associate professor of history at Ohio State, follows Davis from her Mississippi childhood through her marriage, her years in Washington (when her husband served in the Senate), through the Civil War, concluding with her widowhood, during which Varina lived in New York City and supported herself by writing for newspapers. Davis had a deep commitment to family (and in later years an almost co-dependent attachment to her daughter) and intellectual sophistication. She was a passionate reader and a scintillating conversationalist. The letters quoted here sparkle with wit. Cashin also uncovers Davis's ambivalence about the Confederacy; a "wavering Confederate patriot," she believed the South was doomed from the start. Davis kept up correspondence with Northern friends and relatives throughout the Civil War, an act that could have landed her in jail. Cashin is a strong, clear writer and situates her complex subject in larger academic debates, for example, about gender in the 19th century, without getting bogged down in academese. All in all, this is a terrifically winning portrait of a fascinating woman. B&w photos. (Sept.)
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From Booklist

As historian Cashin remarks in the concluding chapter of this thorough biography of the wife of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, "If Mary Todd Lincoln is remembered as the First Lady who went to an insane asylum, [Mrs.] Davis is scarcely remembered at all." Sympathetic but not uncritical in her well--researched treatment, Cashin gives Varina Davis her due, drawing distinct images of her personality and clearly estimating her effect on her husband and country. Finding that Mrs. Davis "made many sacrifices for a cause she did not fully support and for a husband who did not fully return her love," Cashin views her within a framework of the traditional role expected of a Southern plantation wife and the role that was anticipated by the Confederate public for their first First Lady. Living in Washington, D.C., as the wife of a congressman, then senator, then secretary of war under President Pierce, was a happy time for her; conversely, times were unhappy when she resided in the Confederate White House in Richmond. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (October 1, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674022947
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674022942
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.5 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,415,498 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

25 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Sharon Lee Watts on March 11, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I have always been curious about Varina Davis as so little is written about her. This account has been well researched and is a good read. It struck a chord with me as so many families during the Civil War had to deal with divisions in their families, and this book shows how painful this was for them.

Varina was close to her Northern family, as they supported her when her father was unable to do so from his multiple financial misadventures. Her prominent family was involved in Delaware politics from before the Revolution, and yet she finds herself married to a man who would be the President of the Confederacy. After spending years in Washington DC as a hostess of note, she found it hard to leave some close friends behind. She worked at being a leader of the Confederate Ladies- even though she was greatly criticized for being too outspoken, too well educated, not having a "proper" sense of humor, and not being a classic Southern Beauty. She loved her children and was, along with Jefferson Davis, an overly indulgent parent. She loved her husband, although they had a stained marriage at times, as he also had difficulty dealing with a wife who had opinions that did not always mirror his opinions. She tried to support her husband through her mixed feelings about succession- she was a woman of her times-supporting slavery- seeing no other way to financial security, but would have been much happier if the South had just continued to compromise on issues instead of declaring succession. A difficult place to find yourself as a lady.

I gained a different insight into the Civil War through Ms. Cashin's words and would recommend this to readers interested in the Civil War and Women's History.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By C. Stephens on January 5, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I appreciate J Cashin's wealth of information on a very interesting woman. Her research is why I give this book a "3". The writing style is disappointing; I felt 'rushed through', as though the author was in a hurry to finish. Cashin seemed intent on lecturing rather than in interpreting this complex, intelligent woman. I'm not surprised that Cashin found her subject perplexing.

I suspect that I was dealing with Cashin's own political/racial views too often as well. She seemed to be trying to make some point with her numerous references to 'whites' -"white Southerners", "white Richmond", "white Northerners", "white newspapers" without making comparisons to 'other' Southerners, Northerners, newspapers, etc. Cashin went through most of the book wondering why VHD didn't take a visible stand on her personally held views on gender, the war, and slavery. I thought the answers were obvious; finally, in the last two pages of the book, Cashin acknowledges that taking such public stands would have been costly in the extreme to VHD.

Having read far too many antebellum diaries and memoirs, I, a 'Great Lakes yankee', have developed some understanding of the mind set of the Old South. I cannot see that Cashin has, or that she cares to. VHD has not been greatly studied, and I look forward to another biography on her. Hopefully the next author will possess the writing skill and mental qualities equal to the subject.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Kindle Customer on August 7, 2007
Format: Hardcover
The author has thoroughly researched her subject, a most interesting woman, but has concealed her through her own 20th century views on women. Frequently, she refers to Davis' wit and writing style, but rarely gives us a direct quote so we can see for ourselves. She presents her opinion without letting us see how she arrived at it. It reads like a college class lecture from a professor who believes we'll never read the primary sources for ourselves. Mrs. Davis was right: Agnes Strickland would have been a better biographer for her.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Kay's Husband on August 5, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
For many a year I had searched for a biography on Varina Howell Davis, without success, several novels existed but no biography. Now thanks to Professor Joan E. Cashin the first contemporary biography now resides on my Civil War shelf.

But let's clear up a possible misunderstanding in at least one other review: Varina Howell WAS NOT born a Yankee, she was born an American citizen of Welsh decent at 'The Briars', near NATCHEZ, MISSISSIPPI, on 7 May 1826. She was very much a woman of the South, though she spent much time in the North due to Jefferson's political career, came to enjoy Washington, D.C., very much, even missed being in the North and Washington during the Civil War, but she felt it her duty as the wife of the president of the C.S.A. to support the Confederate cause. While she may have been ambivalent, she was no traitor to the South's cause. And to her betterment, she never truly seemed to feel any viseral 'hate' many Southerners felt for the so-called 'Yankees' as they incorrectly called all Northerners who were more to the truth, simply Unionists. Some unionists believed in slavery, some did not, however, all still believed in a Union from the 'founding fathers' rather than 'states rights' or nullification.

Though she was unsure of the South's ability to win such a war, she stood by the cause. She was never a Northern spy, as some maliciously gossiped, but had seen and lived in the North, and realistically knew that 22,000,000 northerners existed to only 5,000,000 southerners, being certain the productive ability of the North would eventually overwhelm the capacity of the South. And by year's end of 1864, Varina in much anguish, truly wished the war and its suffering to end in a peaceful outcome.
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