- Paperback: 416 pages
- Publisher: Belknap Press (February 15, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0674030370
- ISBN-13: 978-0674030374
- Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 47 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #485,615 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis’s Civil War
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This fascinating biography is the first full life of Varina Howell, the wife of Jefferson Davis. It is also the first detailed account of their turbulent marriage--between an adoring woman who could not always agree with her husband's ideas, and a stiff, much older man who cared nothing for his wife's opinions but demanded her total obedience. Joan Cashin has done an extraordinary amount of research--much of it in manuscripts and diaries hitherto unused by historians--and she writes with sensitivity, but without sentimentality. This is a major biography, essential for an understanding of the Confederacy and important for the history of women. (David Herbert Donald, author of Lincoln)
Cashin has done justice to this compelling figure. A respected and prolific scholar of southern women's history, Cashin spent over fourteen years researching Varina Davis, painstakingly examining print sources and combing the many archives that hold relevant manuscript material. This extraordinary effort and Cashin's skill as a historian and writer are apparent on every page of this thorough, objective, and engaging book. Cashin has been careful not to impose twenty-first-century feminist values on Varina Davis, instead establishing the historical context of social, political, and gender relations and letting the documentary evidence fill in the details of Davis's life. The result is a subtle examination of an actual person, warts and all. (Elizabeth Bramm Dunn North Carolina Historical Review 2007-01-01)
Joan Cashin's superb new reading of the First Lady of the Confederacy offers a vivid yet balanced account of Varina Howell Davis. This is biography at its best: deep research, new material, a perceptive author, and an engrossing subject. In Cashin's hands Varina's story reaches beyond the First Lady's unique circumstances as wife, mother and widow to tell us about the old and new South. Both specialists and the general public will enjoy this exceptional portrait. (Jean Baker, Professor of History, Goucher College)
Fascinating in her own right, Varina Davis was in some ways a 20th century woman out of her time. Her force of personality, dedication, and independent spirit, make her in many ways more interesting than her husband. In Joan Cashin's First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis's Civil War we have a biography worthy of the woman at last. (William C. Davis, author of An Honorable Defeat: The Last Days of the Confederate Government)
Cashin is always sure-handed in showing us Varina Davis as a woman who kept an inner toughness while giving in to inflexible demands, a woman who endured a marriage that was "so many holocausts of herself." A signal scholarly achievement and a marvelous read! (Jane Turner Censer, Professor of History, George Mason University)
Cashin has written a smashing study--the first scholarly biography of Varina Howell Davis (1826–1906), wife of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Cashin 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. (starred review) (Publishers Weekly 2006-05-22)
Though Davis's life reads like a tragic novel, Cashin has taken care not to romanticize her subject...Cashin has meticulously researched her subject's long life, including her move to New York after Jefferson Davis's death in 1889 and her subsequent career as a writer. (Tessa L. H. Minchew Library Journal 2006-07-01)
Over the past three decades a great deal has been written about Southern women in the Civil War period, and it has left little doubt that some of them were far more restless and rebellious than their husbands and fathers would have preferred. But the case of Varina Davis takes on special meaning because she was the most prominent Southern woman of her time...Cashin's book leaves no doubt that she was in fact a considerably more interesting person than her husband, and a better one as well. (Jonathan Yardley Washington Post 2006-09-03)
First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis's Civil War is that rare combination of a scholarly masterpiece which is also enjoyable to read. You will come away from it glad that you took the time to get to know this woman and her life. (Laurie Chambliss Civil War Interactive)
Joan Cashin has dedicated years of research and writing to produce what will surely become the definitive work on this remarkable and misunderstood woman. Meticulous research in contemporary newspapers, government documents and correspondence places Varina Davis within the political and social framework of her world. The contents of nearly 600 letters reveal Davis' private thoughts on the hot-button issues of her time: women's rights, slavery and secession. Her belief that women should have at least equal rights within the bonds of marriage set her apart from her husband on numerous occasions...Varina Davis occupies a unique position in American history, and Cashin's masterful work leaves us imagining what this woman of talent and tenacity might have achieved in a later time. (Mary Hatcher Charleston Post and Courier 2006-10-29)
About the Author
Joan E. Cashin is Associate Professor of History at Ohio State University.
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VHD was raised in Mississippi but educated in Philadelphia and a long time resident of Washington D.C. when Jefferson Davis was a congressman, Senator for Mississippi and then Secretary of Defense under Pierce. According to the author VHD never felt at ease in Richmond. During the War she nursed confederate soldiers and Union prisoners of War and secretly corresponded with friends in the North.
Cashin paints VHD as a highly intelligent, acutely observant woman, who apparently spent long years struggling to reconcile her societal duties to her personal beliefs.
Women of this time were required to marry, have children and devote themselves to their family exclusively. They had no or little education, no vote, and no rights and were ruled by their husbands. They gave up autonomy for protection. Cashin masterfully reveals VHD as a deeply conflicted woman, pro-slavery but also pro Union. She was inhibited by her role as Confederate First Lady and unable to reveal her true convictions. Davis had numerous mistress including Virginia Clay and Sarah Dorsey. VHD made many sacrifices for a cause she did not support and for a husband who did not fully return her love and who was unfaithful.
After the War, VHD endured financial woes and the loss of several children. But following her husband’s death in 1885, she moved to New York and began a career in journalism. She advocated reconciliation between the North and South. She became friends with Julia Grant, the widow of Ulysses S. Grant. I recently read the book “Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule “by Jennifer Chiaverini. The book also covered the friendship between Varnia Davis and Julia Grant. Mrs. Grant arranged Varnia Davis’s funeral.
Cashin has written the first definitive biography of VHD. The book is well written and researched. Cashin has done a splendid job painting a portrait of a fascinating woman. The book is 416 pages released in 2009. I read this on my Kindle app for my iPad.
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. Later, on page 150, Mary Chestnut's words about Varina "Davis's prediction in 1860 that the whole thing would fail" are recalled. She also said Varina's "worst enemies had to grant her the gift of prophecy.
But the book covers much more than just the Civil War years allowing Varina Davis to stand alone as her own woman. And what a woman she was: intelligent, educated, and a woman who was far more and far larger than her times. But like her heroine Mary, Queen of Scots, Varina's life was set upon by death and travail through the war and numerous times after the war. At times she felt she could take no more or that she would go mad, but somehow she always rebounded.
One interesting item Varina mentioned was with Jefferson being blind in one eye and being gone much of the time, she had gotten proficient signing his name, so that many of the Confederate historical documents bearing his signatures, are in fact hers!
Thank you professor for finally bringing this talented and interesting woman to life. Don't miss this exceptional biography.
Why no book club picked this up is only to their shame. This book deserves a wide reading audience