Where History and Myth Meet: Winnie Davis

I am just about finished with Joan Cashin’s new biography, First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis’s Civil War (Harvard University Press, 2006).  It is well written, includes just enough analysis, and is based largely on manuscript sources.  This is the first modern scholarly biography of Varina Davis.  I was struck by Cashin’s analysis of Winnie Davis, who was popularly known as the "Daughter of the Confederacy."  This was due to her decision to accompany her father on a trip through the South beginning in 1886 to take part in celebrations of the Lost Cause.  What most people don’t know is that  the identification of Winnie as the embodiment of everything that was noble and pure about the "Old South" and the Confederacy was manufactured.  From Cashin’s biography:

The title was factually correct, since Winnie was born in Richmond in 1864, but she did not remember the war and actually knew little of the South.  In many respects she was scarcely an American, having spent almost half her life abroad before she returned to the States in 1881.  In Karlsruhe [Germany, where she attended school] she kept a scrapbook with numerous mementos from such figures as Bismarck and Moltke, and a few images from her native country, including the Confederate flag.  She was fluent in German and French, and her accent when she spoke English was mittel-European.  Sometimes Winnie had to look up words such as gingham in the dictionary, and she made mistakes in usage, as if she were trying to translate German noun constructions into English.  She is best described as a transnational figure–unlike her mother, an American who was drawn to European culture, or her father, who felt homesick in the Luxembourg Gardens. (pp. 247-48)

What is interesting and ably argued for by Cashin is that not even Varina Davis would have provided for a more honest vindication or confirmation of the Lost Cause mantra.  Her support of the Confederacy was challenged throughout the war and her decision to reside in New York City following the death of her husband alienated and upset many white Southerners.  She even published a very positive account of Ulysses S. Grant in a New York City newspaper.  This was a complex woman who was born in Natchez and was educated in the North and later studied under a private tutor from New England; in addition, she maintained contact with Northerners even during the war and after it had been deemed illegal by the Confederate government. 

7 thoughts on “Where History and Myth Meet: Winnie Davis

  1. Ken Noe

    Kevin:

    My friend Cita Cook at West Georgia has been looking at Winnie Davis for several years now. When reading her work, or hearing her talk at a recent SHA, I often made a comparison to Princess Di. Winnie was a nineteenth century, media-made pop star, a triumph of image over substance who privately expressed disgust at all those aging Johnny Rebs who wanted a kiss or autograph. Ultimately that image took over her life, notably when the southern public expresed outrage at her announced engagement to the Yankee son of abolitionists, ending the relationship. She died relatively young and unhappily, a precursor to Diana or perhaps Elvis, trapped in Graceland by his adoring fans. How this young, homesick-for-Europe woman with the German accent became the symbol of the Confederacy is quite a story.

    Ken

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  2. Kevin Levin

    Ken, — Thanks for the reference to Cita Cook. I am going to look to see if there is anything published on Winnie Davis. Her death was a result of one of those trips south to take part in a Confederate reunion in Atlanta. The whole question of gender and specifically the roles women played in the Lost Cause is absolutely fascinating. I’ve been reading Caroline Janney’s work on the Ladies Memorial Association and Karen Cox’s _Dixie’s Daughters_.

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  3. Kaye

    I’ve just stumbled across your website while searching for photos of Winnie Davis. I’m a huge Civil War Buff, and I’m also just finishing Joan Cashin’s book about Varina Davis. I agree that the book is very well written, and makes one feel like they are experiencing the Davis’s lives their own selves. Varina’s political viewpoints reminded me of Hilary Clinton in alot of ways. (Of course she denied having any power over her husband while he was in office, but everyone thought that the country was ran by Hilary during Bill’s presidential tenure.) As a closing comment regarding the book, I don’t think I could have endured the hardships that she had to endure as the spouse of Jefferson Davis. She was obviously a strong woman.

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  4. Ed

    I am particularly interested in which “manuscript sources” were used to write about Winnie and Varina Davis. In retrospective Civil War literature, is it common to rely on diaries and journals or is there a trend towards a more “historical fiction” style in which reality is somewhat suspended? As a biography, is this book particularly telling of the time period, or does it really focus on its subjects as people who happen to be living at the time of the Civil War? It’s just an interesting thing that I seem to find a lot of biographies that rely solely on the events of the times and not on character. Is this necessary for a good history book? Just some thoughts…

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  5. Stephen Conrad

    Is there a published photograph of the profile portrait of Winnie Davis which Adolfo Muller-Ury (1862-1947) painted and presented to the Museum of the Confederacy in 1918? His portrait of Mrs Davis is at Beauvoir. Why Muller-Ury kept the portrait of Winnie for 20 years and gave it suddenly to Richmond, I do not know, and any letters or documentation that shed light on this would be appreciated as I am working a biography of the artist. Please do look at his Wikipedia entry which I have extensively rewritten.

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  6. Kevin Levin

    Stephen, — Thanks for writing, but unfortunately I don’t have any additional information for you.

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  7. Rachel Zelazny

    Dear Kevin,

    I’m not exactly sure if I agree with everything that’s been said about Winnie Davis…But in comment to many of the comments left on here, yes, Varina was a very strong woman. Jefferson Davis and Varina Howell-Davis were my great-great-great grandparents, and often I’ve felt a close connection to Winnie. Though I’m descended from her sister Margeret(or Polly, as she was called), I share a birthday with Winnie, and a love of the South as she did. In both Beauvoir and the Briars (where Jefferson and Varina were married), they have copies of a couple pages from letters Winnie wrote when she was younger. Though I’ve never heard it said that she had a German accent, I do know she somewhat remembered the war, as the whole family was on the run after Jefferson was captured, and she was old enough to at least have a recollection of what happened at that time.

    -Rachel Zelazny

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