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.