Varina Anne Davis, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Jefferson Davis, was born in 1865 during the last year of the Civil War in the Confederate White House. Her father was the President of the Confederate States at the time of her birth. She was named for her mother and was the youngest of the Davis children. She was called “Winnie” for most of her life; a pet name Jefferson had first given his wife and then his daughter. According to what she was told as a child, “Winnie” was an Indian name meaning “bright or sunny”.
When the Civil War was finally over, President Davis became a prisoner. Baby Winnie was the only one of the children allowed to accompany Mrs. Davis on her visit to the prison to see her husband. Soon after this, Winnie was sent to visit relatives in Canada, where she remained until Mr. Davis was settled in Memphis, Tennessee.
Winnie received most of her early education at home from her mother in the post-Civil War years. At the age of twelve, Winnie was taken to Europe, where she was enrolled in a boarding school in Karlsruhe, Germany. Here she received a thorough education. Afterwards, she spent some time in Paris, France, to finish her social education and
was then she was ready to take a leading role in the intellectual and social society among the people of the South. Winnie’s beauty and grace and her kind-hearted manner made her a distinguished favorite in both the North and the South. Soon after her return to America, while on a visit to Atlanta, she was introduced by General John B.
Gordon as “The Daughter of the Confederacy” and this title clung to her for all time (King, Woman, p. 467).
Winnie showed much skill in the arts. She was a fine painter and skilled musician. She had also inherited her mother’s literary interests and published several books under the name of Varina Anne Jefferson Davis. Some of the titles were “An Irish Knight of the Seventeenth Century”, “The Veiled Doctor”, and “Foreign Education for American
Winnie lived with her parents during most of the 1880’s and accompanied her father to many public functions. At one point, Winnie was engaged to Alfred C. Wilkinson, a Syracuse, New York attorney, whose grandfather had been a leading abolitionist. While their romance lasted five years, they finally succumbed to public outcry against their union.
In 1891, Winnie moved to New York City to continue her literary career. Later on, she bought a beautiful home at Beuvoir, Mississippi, but the closing years of her life were largely spent in travel.
Varina Anne Davis died on September 18, 1898 after an illness of several weeks. It is believed that on a trip to Rhode Island she contracted “malarial gastritis”. The funeral services were held in Richmond, Virginia and her body was laid to rest beside that of her father in Hollywood Cemetery. In keeping with her status among ex-Confederates, Winnie was buried with full military honors.
This article is an excerpt from the book “History’s Women – The Unsung Heroines” by Patricia Chadwick. For more information on this eBook visit https://historyswomen.com/product/historys-women/.