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.