Winnie Davis: Daughter of the Lost Cause
What is it about Varina Anne “Winnie” Davis, daughter of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Varina Howell Davis, and appointed “Daughter of the Confederacy” that has had such a hold on me for the past 20-odd years? Even in Richmond, Virginia, where Winnie and I were both born, she is a half-forgotten symbol of the Lost Cause known primarily for her scandalous romance with the Northern grandson of a famous abolitionist following the Civil War.
Winnie’s 1897 portrait by Virginia artist John P. Walker has hung in various clubs and museums in Richmond for many years. I remember seeing this image as a teenager and wondering about this beautiful lady: who was she and why was her expression so melancholy? In the painting, Winnie is dressed in a white lace gown that drapes beautifully over her slim figure. She has dark hair and deep blue eyes with a diamond tiara in her hair and a red ribbon badge pinned to her bodice. Her regal bearing suggested to me that she was nineteenth century royalty of some sort. I wondered for a number of years about her in an offhand way, not bothering to do any research on her until college.
By my senior year at Davidson College in 1991, I began to outgrow the confines of the academic cage. Having taken all the required classes, had my share of failed romances, and exhausted the limited shopping options in downtown Davidson, North Carolina, I decided to devote myself entirely to my thesis on Winnie Davis.
As I began to delve into Winnie’s background through personal letters, diaries, newspaper accounts and short references to her in Southern history books, I became fascinated with her tragic story. As part of my thesis work, I convinced my professors to send me to her family home Beauvoir in Mississippi. I don’t remember much about the academic conference I attended there, but I do remember the dresses.
Beauvoir had a collection of Winnie’s dresses-elaborate nineteenth century gowns for both day and evening. The docent leading the tour that day picked me out of the crowd and said “Now you could wear her clothes easily-you are just her exact same size!” Of course, nothing would have pleased me more that day than to be able to try on all her clothes-just to see how they fit.
In a sense, that is exactly what I have been doing the past twenty years.
Trying on Winnie’s metaphorical clothes through researching her life, her motivations, and passions has made me realize why I am so drawn to her. We are both Richmonders from similar social backgrounds. We both grew up perhaps a bit over-protected by well-meaning parents. We were both partially educated in Europe, both schooled in all-female environments. We both have a deep-rooted relationship with Richmond. Working on her life story was like seeing what my life could have been if I had been raised in the late nineteenth century South.
Richmond itself is not so very different now than it was during Winnie’s day. It is a still a small village, with its provincial, gossipy side and its highly cultured sophisticated side. It has an infinitely strong hold on those who are born here even if they later live far away. The White House of the Confederacy where Winnie was born still stands on Clay Street. Gracious homes from the Civil War and Reconstruction periods still line the streets. The ghosts of the Confederacy, including those of the Davis family, still flit through Hollywood Cemetery:
If you visit the Davis family graves at Hollywood, you will find the entire clan there. Jefferson and Varina, the patriarch and matriarch; oldest daughter Margaret “Maggie” Hayes, her husband Addison and some of their children; and the four Davis sons: Samuel, little Joe, Billy, and Jeff Jr. Moss covers all tombs, and you can barely make out the names of the younger Davis boys with their tiny crumbling grave markers.
Winnie’s grave, however, stands out. Well-tended with blooming red geraniums at its base, her tomb is guarded by a sculpture of a beautiful granite angel, sculpted by Hungarian artist C.J. Zolnay, with an appropriately melancholy expression. She clearly represents the public’s image of the former Daughter of the Confederacy. The angel is tendering a wreath- perhaps attempting to heal the breach between North and South caused by the Civil War. In my mind though, the angel-Winnie herself-is trying to reconcile her private life with her public image. The contrast between these two as illustrated by her life story, is striking.
Most telling of all is the dedication marker next to the grave. Erected in 1899 three years after Winnie’s death, one would expect it would have been placed there by Richmonders.
Instead, the marker on the grave says United Daughters of the Confederacy: New York Chapter. Only in death was Winnie able to help reconcile the breach between North and South: a wound that festered and refused to heal during her short lifetime.
Winnie Davis: Daughter of the Lost Cause
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