“Winnie Davis: Daughter of the Lost Cause” by Heath Hardage Lee
Varina Anne Davis, called “Winnie,” was born in the Confederate White House in June, 1864. She instantly became the symbol of hope for the entire Confederate nation. Author and southern women’s history writer Heath Hardage Lee, also born in Richmond, has written an excellent biography of this sad young woman and her journey from Rebel royalty to a lingering death at a closed resort in Narragansett, Rhode Island.
Winnie fled from Richmond in her mother’s arms as the southern capital was evacuated, escaping into the countryside. Later, when Confederate President Jefferson Davis was imprisoned at Fort Monroe, little Winnie visited him daily, accompanying her mother. When the Davis family was allowed to return to the South, Winnie had become, for better or worse, a living symbol of the Lost Cause.
Lee traces Winnie’s education abroad, in a German boarding school, and then back to
America. Winnie was only seventeen when she returned to Beauvoir, Mississippi, living with her alienated mother and rapidly aging father in the coastal home willed to Jefferson Davis by Sarah Dorsey. Dorsey had earlier offered her home to Davis, who was penniless after the war, ostensibly to show her support for the fallen Confederacy. Varina, suspecting the obvious, refused to live for any length of time at Beauvoir with her husband and his lover. Dorsey died in 1878, willing Davis the estate, although Varina never felt comfortable there.
At this time, former Confederate general Jubal Early had begun to speak about the loss of the war and the ideals of the Confederacy as the “Lost Cause.” As this concept caught on, former members of the southern armies began to hold reunions and join organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans. It was at one of these meetings, in 1886, that Georgia governor John Gordon Brown anointed Winnie the “Daughter of the Confederacy,” an unasked-for title at best. Ms. Lee leads the reader through this labyrinth of southern mysticism with clear directions and a simple recounting of facts.
Later in 1886, Winnie Davis tried to escape her probable destiny by living in Syracuse, New York. There, she met a successful New York attorney named Alfred Wilkinson. He was not only a Yankee, he was the grandson of well-known abolitionist Reverend Samuel Joseph May. Fred, as he was called, had attended Harvard with Theodore Roosevelt, was tall and handsome, and became attached to Winnie very quickly.
Love would conquer nothing, however. Jefferson Davis grudgingly approved of the match before his death in 1889, but Varina–in her role as Davis’ wife and former Confederate First Lady–drummed up some irrelevant facts concerning Wilkinson’s family finances, and the engagement was called off.
After this, Winnie seems to have given herself up to the Lost Cause, attending meetings of the Daughters of the Confederacy and veteran’s reunions ad nauseam. The former Confederacy wanted Winnie just as she was: young, pure, and symbolic of better times. Marrying a “damned bloody Yankee” did not fit this image. Winnie and her mother became inseparable, and author Lee points out the possible unhealthiness of this relationship. Lee is not always kind to Varina Davis, and seems to feel that Winnie was kept from realizing much of her potential as a woman of refinement and education, or as an author. Winnie wrote a novel, The Veiled Doctor, in 1895 and had her second book, A Romance of the Summer Seas, published in 1889.
In July, 1898, Winnie attended a Confederate Veterans’ Reunion in Atlanta. There, she was drenched in a rainstorm and was unable to change out of her wet clothes for hours. The next day she travelled by train to Rhode Island, to meet her mother and spend the summer at the fashionable Rockingham Hotel, in Narragansett Pier. Winnie became ill within a few days, and remained at the hotel after it had “closed for the season,” suffering from chills, a high fever, and poor appetite. She died there on September 18, 1898, at age thirty-four.
I read an Advance Reading Copy, so I do not know if there is an Index in the sale copies. The absence of one makes it difficult to access information in any sort of context, and therefore not a good bet for research. I would recommend Winnie Davis: Daughter of the Lost Cause as a good, if a bit unsatisfying, read. Lee makes her likeable, but not loveable. Winnie is a pliable victim, and seemingly gives herself to her father’s memory and the machinations of Lost Cause organizations.
Winnie’s story is sad and romantic. Although Heath Lee is a southerner by birth, education and culture, she is able to make the tragedy of young Winnie’s life clear: she died a victim of the Lost Cause, a point of view that looks to the past. Winnie needed to look to the future, and was denied that right.
6 Responses to “Winnie Davis: Daughter of the Lost Cause” by Heath Hardage Lee
Thanks Meg very interesting
Meg thank your for your beautiful and well written review of my book! Just want to let readers know the book has an extensive index bibliography and footnotes (your advance copy did not include these sections) so this is a great book for scholars and researchers of the period. Thank you so very much for reading Winnie!
How lovely to hear from you! I am glad to know that the book available for purchase has both footnotes & a good Index. Those of you who buy this book will certainly be able to use it as a research tool. Going to go out on a limb here, but considering Ms. Lee’s southern background, I am betting there are some good leads for primary sources as well.
Now for the sequels–Lee’s daughters and Stonewall’s daughter!
Hi meg! Yes numerous NEW primary source documents here both from the Davis family AND from the Northern side-Fred Wilkinson’s family! I used a diary Winnie kept in Italy too that was recently bought at auction by the Museum of the Confederacy. I hope this will help scholars continue to research Winnie! Sequels yes! I am working on a book about women in 1850s DC-Varina Davis among them! Stay tuned and thank you so much for the wonderful review! Warmly, Heath
At a recent state workshop for the Daughters of the American Revolution, I was outbid in a silent auction for the copy of this book about Winnie Davis. I do plan to read it soon as I sought out the sister member who won the bid to say I would like to buy it from her after she finishes it! Did Winnie’s artist friend Verne Moore White paint her portrait on the cover? I live in Southwest Louisiana and read he had traveled and painted in this area during his years in Southeast Texas, but have never seen any paintings he may have completed of this area. I look forward to reading your book. I had read about Varina Howell Davis and Jefferson Davis years ago, but was not aware of the “affair” with Sarah Dorsey. I visited “Beauvoir” recently. It has been beautifully restored since the damage of Hurricane Katrina. Perhaps your book is already on sale in its gift shop! Regards, Cheryl
Hi Cheryl! So nice to hear your wonderful comments! The portrait on the cover was painted by Virginia artist John P. Walker and is a posthumous portrait. Was not painted by Verner. He supposedly painted one of Winnie and her dad but it has never been found-may have been destroyed in a Gulf Coast hurricane. I love that the DAR had a silent auction and a bidding war over Winnie! That just makes my day! 🙂 I am a member of the Colonial Dames and have been speaking a lot for that group about Winnie. Easiest place to get Winnie is on Amazon or at Barnes and Noble. Beauvoir is beautiful and beautifully restored since Katrina thanks to a 2 million FEMA grant. I hope to speak in New Orleans at some point-have been so booked with talks I have had to turn down several opportunities to speak there-lots of interest in Winnie! If the DAR ever gets interested in a talk on Winnie let me know-I am speaking at the Dames national convention in DC i October. Take care and hope you will enjoy reading Winnie! Warmly, Heath