Varina Anne Davis
Hollywood Cemetery
Richmond, Virginia

Varina Anne Davis

One of my favorite cemeteries to visit is Hollywood Cemetery in downtown Richmond, Virginia.  A rural cemetery with its origins in the mid-part of the 19th century, Hollywood provides final resting places for two U.S. Presidents, 27 Civil War generals, several thousand Civil War soldiers and the famous and not so famous of almost 200 years of Richmond society.  Hollywood is also the location of the graves of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and family including daughter Varina whose tragically short life is the subject of this story.

The Civil War had not been going well for the South by mid-1864.  Battles were being lost, casualties were mounting and suffering and shortages of basic necessities plagued the civilian population.  Hopes for a Southern victory and independence were beginning to fade, and U.S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac was literally on the doorstep of Richmond.  Despite the prevailing gloom that must have pervaded the city, a certain joy perhaps surrounded the Confederate White House as Mrs. Jefferson Davis labored to give birth to her final child, a daughter she named Varina after herself.  Born June 27th, Varina Anne (nicknamed Winnie) soon became the family favorite and quite definitely of all the Davis siblings most closely matched her father in temperament.

The earliest years of her life saw both the final collapse of Richmond and the Confederate government and the subsequent imprisonment of Jefferson Davis at Old Point Comfort.  At age 3, her father finally released from confinement, the family returned to Biloxi, Mississippi.  Here under the watchful eye of somewhat doting parents she enjoyed a genteel upbringing.  At the forefront was an emphasis on education.   An early love of books translated into an ability to recite Shakespeare by age 12.  Taken as an early teenager to Europe for further schooling, she was formally educated for five years in a boarding school in Karlsruhe, Germany.  By the time she left Karlsruhe she could speak and write German and French more fluently than her native English.

Life for Jefferson Davis by contrast had not been as pleasant.  Shunned by Southern society and blamed for the war’s dismal end, Davis spent considerable time in relative solitude as a guest in residence at Beauvoir, the estate of the widow of Samuel Dorsey, a Mississippi planter, where Davis occupied himself in the writing of his memoirs.  Three years after Dorsey’s death, Mrs. Dorsey, terminally ill, willed Beauvoir to Jefferson Davis which became his home for the remainder of his life.

Varina, as a student in Germany, was painfully shy and constantly homesick.  Finally in 1884, her education deemed complete, she was allowed to return home to Beauvoir.  Again, the next five years were spent as a constant companion to a doting and adoring father.  A continued but refined life of leisure coupled with its social amenities also provided ample opportunity for beach walking, horseback riding and piano playing.  Her talent as a painter was also encouraged, and her numerous water colors adorned the walls of the family study.

By the mid-1880’s Davis’s memoirs were complete and some of the rancor of the post-war years was now calming.  Peace and contentment that had long eluded him were now possible and Davis began appearing in public in the years 1886-1887 especially when attending services for Confederate war monuments erected and dedicated in places like Montgomery, Atlanta, Savannah and Macon.   At one of the Georgia dedications, the ex-Confederate general and now Governor of Georgia, J.B. Gordon, met Varina sitting on the podium with her father and seized upon the idea to present her to the assembled crowd as the “Daughter of the Confederacy” in consideration of her wartime birth.  The response of the assembled veterans was electric, and she became the darling of the Confederacy from that point forward.

In 1888 an unexpected visitor arrived at Beauvoir.  His name was Alfred Wilkerson, Jr. of New York State, not only a Yankee but a grandson of famed abolitionist Samuel Way.  A romance had apparently developed between Varina and Wilkerson during one of her travels to New York City.  A long correspondence had ensued, and young Wilkinson now told Varina’s astonished parents he had come to ask for her hand in marriage.  Recovering from their initial shock, both parents argued angrily into the night in their attempt to dissuade poor Winnie of her folly.  Both flatly refused to accede to the marriage.  Wilkinson returned to Syracuse following the refusal as Winnie played out the role of distraught daughter.  Winnie’s health had been less than robust, and the family turmoil seemed to worsen her condition.  Her father eventually softened his stance due to her declining health and also remembering perhaps his own tortured dealings with his future father-in-law when President Zachary Taylor had resisted giving his daughter’s hand in marriage to a then brash young Mississippi planter and West Point graduate.  Davis finally and reluctantly gave his consent to the marriage, and Wilkinson hurried to Mississippi a second time only to find that news of the announced engagement had been greeted by howls of public protest throughout the Deep South.  Frightened and dazed, Varina broke off the engagement and fled to Europe, her mother meanwhile triumphant in denunciation of Wilkinson whose Yankee background and slim financial prospects had proven so offensive to her.

Varina ultimately never married, nor did young Wilkinson.  The popular and romantic view was that Varina Anne Davis had sacrificed her happiness to the “Lost Cause” a term by which the Civil War was now being referred to in many areas of the South.  This stance no doubt served to strengthen her continued claim to the title of “Daughter of the Confederacy”.

Jefferson Davis passed on in 1889 and the City of Richmond immediately offered the family its choice of available grave sites in Hollywood Cemetery.  Mrs. Davis initially declined believing a final decision needed the consent of all surviving family members who were widely scattered at the time of Jefferson Davis’s death.  Mrs. Davis, herself, would have preferred Beauvoir but feared the hurricanes of the Mississippi Coast too unpredictable for a permanent internment so close to the Gulf waters.  She instead chose Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans, that city’s only cemetery located above sea level.  Two years later under pressure from Confederate veterans who wanted Davis to rest in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, a cemetery already containing the graves of 18,000 Confederate soldiers from all states in the Confederacy, Mrs. Davis consented to a re-internment.  It took almost two years to develop the chosen grave site, a circular arrangement, but finally in 1893 a funeral train brought Jefferson Davis’s coffin to Richmond where he was laid to rest.  Three sons who had all died in childhood and were buried in Washington, Memphis and in Hollywood were also reinterred next to their father.  Attending the service was Varina, a sister and her mother along with a host of dignitaries.  Varina had returned from Europe in late 1889 following her father’s death and joined her mother in New York.  Here, they had both pursued careers as writers:  Winnie as a novelist and mother as a staunch defender of her late husband’s presidency.  Winnie’s writing talents were insignificant at best, and while published, she achieved no particular acclaim as a writer.

Recurring attacks of her longtime ailment, malarial gastritis, plagued Varina’s days in New York and led to an untimely death on September 18, 1898 at age 34 while vacationing in Narragansett Pier, Rhode Island.  Her remains were immediately brought to Richmond for burial alongside her father and brothers.  The funeral service was held in a Richmond church, and our friend Mr. Wilkinson was seen leaving a pew at the back of the church following the conclusion of the service.

Confederate veterans worked to raise funds for a suitable grave marker and commissioned a larger than life “angel of death” monument.  It now stands atop Varina’s grave adjacent to and facing the Jefferson Davis monument carved by the same sculptor.    The monument speaks for itself with the only adornment being brief inscription on its base especially the left side that states simply “BORN IN THE EXECUTIVE MANSION RICHMOND, VA.  DIED SEPT. 18, 1898 AT NARRAGANSETT PIER, RHODE ISLAND.”  The Davis circle of graves became complete when Varina’s mother and sister were brought to Hollywood and laid to rest in the family plot following their deaths after the turn of the century.

Varina valued and cherished her title as “Daughter of the Confederacy” throughout her adult life.  She had been adopted, idolized and idealized by an adoring public when a romantic view of the war dominated every aspect of Southern society.  She became in death, as she had been in life, one of the cherished symbols of the “Lost Cause” and is remembered to this day with much affection as the true “Daughter of the Confederacy”.