All’s not quite fair in love and war for the daughter of Jefferson Davis.
Varina Anne “Winnie” Davis, younger daughter of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his second wife, Varina Howell Davis, was born in June 1864, only a month after the death of Confederate hero General Jeb Stuart during a string of Rebel victories. Winnie’s birth was hailed as a blessing by war-weary Southerners who saw her arrival as a good omen. But after the Civil War, Winnie would spend her early life as a genteel refugee and expatriate abroad. After returning to the South from a German boarding school, Winnie was christened the “Daughter of the Confederacy” in 1886 by a Southern culture trying to sublimate its war losses. Particularly idolized by Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Winnie became an icon of the Lost Cause, eclipsing even her father Jefferson in popularity. Winnie’s controversial engagement in 1890 to a Northern lawyer whose grandfather was a famous abolitionist shocked her friends, family and the Southern groups who idolized her. Winnie never did marry, but she did move with her mother to New York City where she became a writer for family friend and newspaper baron Joseph Pulitzer at The World. But despite her blooming literary career, she could never escape the looming legacy of the Lost Cause. This excerpt is from Chapter 11 of Winnie Davis: Daughter of the Lost Cause.
Winnie’s love story begins, not unlike Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with a party. In the late fall of 1886, after Winnie and her friend Bessie Dew had enjoyed a visit together in New York City, Winnie moved on to Syracuse, New York, to visit her parents’ friends Gen. and Mrs. William H. Emory and their son Dr. Thomas Emory and his wife. The northern town in the 1880s was at the peak of its prosperity, strategically located as it was on the Erie Canal.
Many locals were not too enthusiastic about the Daughter of the Confederacy visiting their town. Some Northerners, according to a piece in the New Orleans Times-Picayune from mid-December 1886, “had hoped she would not come to Syracuse.” Many in this Northern city still found the Southern cause abhorrent, and Winnie was seen as part and parcel of this legacy.
Winnie was acutely aware of this ill feeling regarding her background, and as a consequence she had declined repeated invitations to visit the Emory family. Mrs. Thomas Emory had urged Winnie to visit for three years. Mrs. Emory’s father-in-law, General Emory, was an old friend of Jefferson from his time as a senator in Washington in the 1850s. The time had come for Winnie to accept the Emorys’ invitation.
The Emory home, known to have the most elegant dining room in the city, was located at fashionable 80 East Fayette Street. The neighborhood was replete with Greek Revival mansions bought with railroading fortunes. The dinner parties at the Emory mansion, according to the piece in the Times-Picayune, were well known in the community “for their excellence, and to be invited there is one of the tests of position in society here.”
It was at the Emory home where Winnie first encountered Alfred “Fred” Wilkinson, an eligible young patent lawyer. She supposedly was introduced to Fred in the receiving line and was intrigued by the attractive and unattached Syracusian. The young man was described in one of Varina’s letters to her friend and neighbor Maj. W.H. Morgan as “handsome and physically striking with an imposing height of 6 feet, dark eyes and even, regular features. He possessed a refined and cultured demeanor in addition to excellent manners.” Fred was regarded in the community as a confirmed bachelor at the ripe old age of 28 but an individual whom young women of the town watched with interest. The eligible young man would have been considered quite a catch for any young woman in the Syracuse social set.
The young barrister had attended Harvard, where he graduated in the same class (1880) as Theodore Roosevelt. From a Northern perspective Fred’s lineage was illustrious. His paternal grandfather was a lawyer and one of the founding fathers of Syracuse; the young lawyer’s maternal grandfather, the Rev. Samuel Joseph May, was a well-known abolitionist linked with Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Lloyd Garrison, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Wendell Phillips. Samuel Joseph May had wielded great influence both in the United States and in Great Britain as a spokesman for this cause and was known as “one of the bright gems in the Abolitionist sky.”
When Winnie and Fred first began to spend time together during the late fall and winter seasons of 1886–87, the young woman had already suffered through some unpleasant encounters with Syracuse socialites who refused to be drawn in by her winning personality. According to the memoir of one of the town’s native sons, travel writer E. Alexander Powell, Syracuse began as a clannish town that did not welcome outsiders, Southern or otherwise: “Our local society was a close corporation, dominated by a few old families who were inclined to regard all outsiders with suspicion and distrust.”
Fred, despite his abolitionist heritage, did not view Winnie’s background as a defect. Nor did she seem to give his grandfather’s pivotal role in the abolitionist movement a second thought. As is typical of those young and in love, their forebears’ political leanings made not a dent in their initial attraction for each other. “Really who cares about that now? It was so long ago,” the couple might have said to each other, if they even acknowledged these facts at all.
Others remembered the past vividly, however, and could not forget it so soon. Fred gallantly championed Winnie, trying to protect her from the rudeness she encountered in the Northern atmosphere. In Fred’s eyes the young Southern visitor, five years his junior, was beautiful, bright, cultured and everything he could want in a potential mate. From all accounts Winnie regarded Fred in exactly the same manner. It was a classic case of love at first sight.
Because no love letters between Fred and Winnie have ever been found (women’s personal correspondence was often burned in the 19th century to preserve their privacy), one must imagine the psychological and emotional factors that drew the young couple together. Physically, they were both young and attractive. Both were extremely well educated and well spoken. Both were kind, thoughtful people from close-knit families.
Their backgrounds, however, could not have been more opposite. Was this perhaps part of their initial attraction? Up North, Winnie had the freedom to see whomever she chose, and there were few Southern “friends” to keep her away from Northern men, who would be seen as undesirable. She could breathe in the North, relax, and be herself in a way she could not at home. Her public persona in the South was too much in demand.
During Winnie’s extended visit to Syracuse, the couple was often seen riding in Fred’s horse-drawn carriage or “strolling out of James Street toward the old home of [Fred’s] grandfather, Samuel Joseph May.” Later generations speculated that the couple must have spent some of their time courting in the charming summerhouse outside of May’s home—an ironic place for the Northerner Fred to romance the daughter of Jefferson Davis, considering that his grandfather’s back porch had been a known hiding place for slaves headed to Canada via the Underground Railroad.
Although both Winnie and Fred were lovestruck, even in the midst of the heady holiday atmosphere of Syracuse in the 1880s there were nevertheless rules and rituals that each party was bound to observe. These rituals transcended North–South boundaries and represented the mores of the social class to which both young people belonged. The pressure of wartime romances had ended, and social etiquette of the period now prescribed a more gradual courtship. Winnie was to be treated in much the same manner as her alter ego, the Daughter of the Confederacy. As was considered appropriate for southern young ladies of her social status, Winnie was to be placed “on a pedestal, enshrined like a holy object…and approached only through a set ritual.” Fred for his part was probably not even considering the repercussions of pursuing a romance with the daughter of Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy, at this point in the relationship. It is easy to imagine that he was not even thinking of family genealogy when he was first getting to know Winnie. He had just met an attractive, cultured and lovely young girl in need of his protection and assistance. What could have been more appealing?
Winnie returned to Mississippi the first of the year in 1887 in a glorious fog, probably envisioning her life to come with Fred up North, far away from her parents and what she may have seen as her temporary role as Daughter of the Confederacy. She had enough presence of mind, however, to keep the romance a secret from Varina, Jefferson and her sister, Margaret.
The fact she kept the romance hidden from her family for months may indicate that Winnie had indeed thought through the repercussions of her involvement with the grandson of an abolitionist. According to a former curator of Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis’ final home in Mississippi, during this era, “Abolitionists were seen as the ultimate haters of the South, the lunatic fringe.” Winnie also knew her father was the type who would not give his favorite daughter up to any man easily. He was in very poor health, and Winnie was most likely frightened of shocking him with her controversial news.
Winnie pined for Fred, corresponding regularly with him as she returned to her former life at Beauvoir. She was at this point completely infatuated with her tall, dark and handsome beau and in the throes of her first mature romance. Her parents knew nothing of her feelings, and the pressure was on Winnie to entertain her father and continue to work with him as his secretary and companion for the Confederate cause. In February 1887, the Washington Post reported that the young woman was happily ensconced at Beauvoir, keeping “busy with her studies and literary work and helpful to her father in what historic research he may undertake.” “Miss Davis’s life is as different as possible from that of a ‘society girl’ of the period,” the paper declared.
Despite her seeming engagement in literary and historical pursuits, Winnie shared her father’s predisposition for frailty in the face of major life events. The stress of keeping her romance under wraps while working hard to help preserve the family legacy made her physically ill, and she began to waste away, not eating or sleeping well. Her mother worried terribly about Winnie and hoped to build up her strength over the summer. Varina wrote that her daughter was “a shadow of her former self—thin to the point of attenuation and so weak a little drive tires her.”
Varina promised to send Winnie to Kate Pulitzer—a distant cousin and wife of Joseph Pulitzer—in Bar Harbor, Maine, for a restorative visit. She begged Kate’s pardon for the state of Winnie’s wardrobe, which was always minimal due to the depleted state of the Davises’ finances. “I hope you have considered in inviting Winnie that her wardrobe is increasingly very simple and made up your mind to take her as she is. This of course, you have done, but I hope your friends will too.”
Despite such distractions, Winnie and Fred continued to correspond surreptitiously. Things could not continue for long in this mode, so Fred began to prepare for his most important case to date: the request for the hand in marriage of Jefferson Davis’s youngest, cherished daughter.
Although sickly, Winnie still made the social rounds that summer, first visiting with Kate Pulitzer and her children at their rented house on Mount Desert Island in Maine that June. Later she accompanied her parents’ friend and Confederate comrade Gen. Jubal Early and his family to a restorative spa in Virginia, where she spent the rest of the summer attempting to regain her health. The young woman returned home to Beauvoir feeling better in late August.
Winnie had barely unpacked her bags from the spa when Fred arrived on Beauvoir’s doorstep in September 1888 to ask for his beloved’s hand in marriage. Varina and Jefferson were completely unprepared for this encounter. Jefferson was not even at home at the time. Winnie had done such a good job of keeping her true feelings hidden from her parents that neither one of them had realized the depth of the attachment that had apparently formed between the couple.
Varina recalled that Fred was extremely agitated and nervous when he first arrived at Beauvoir and declared the purpose of his mission to her. Despite his apparent anxiety, Varina was immediately struck by Fred’s dark good looks. In a letter to her good friend Major Morgan, she appraised Fred favorably, noting, “Not enough nose, but enough chin, lithe and energetic & had fine teeth & small feet and hands & as tender and boyish a heart as I ever saw & a very good mind as well as exquisite manners.
“He came having announced he could no longer be put off….I determined my consent never should be given to union with a Yankee—he urged the condition of health into which she [Winnie] had fallen, his great love—his patient waiting & forlorn hope.”
Shaking with emotion, Winnie fled to her room awaiting the no she felt almost certain would come from her parents. Varina noted that Winnie was “as white as death, after saying she could never love anyone else, but would give him up if I wished it.” Even in the throes of an epic love affair, Winnie was still deferential to her elders. The approval of her parents was crucial: she was not the type who would ever have married without their consent.
Jefferson, unlike his daughter, displayed no such qualms when he wed his first wife, Sarah Knox-Taylor, despite extreme disapproval from Sarah’s father, Zachary, who forbade the match for several years. Even when Jefferson and Sarah finally did get married, neither of her parents attended the ceremony. Varina Davis herself was so deeply in love with Jefferson upon her own marriage to him that it is doubtful she would ever have given him up, even if her parents had objected. The adult Winnie was a people-pleaser, something neither of her parents could ever claim to be. This pronounced trait in Winnie would affect both her physical and mental health greatly in the months to come.
Varina claimed in her letter to Major Morgan that when she broke the news of Fred’s plea to her husband, “he was cool and resolved—‘Death would be preferable said he—I will never consent.’” Later historians would claim Jefferson never said such a thing, but the initial sense of rebuff was there. Despite Jefferson’s immediate refusal of Fred’s proposal, he seemed to like the young man. At least he did not send Fred away immediately or toss him violently out of the house.
How must the young couple have felt after this emotionally charged confrontation? It is doubtful they spent any time alone together. They may have dined together, however, perhaps in tense silence, with longing looks between them. Winnie would have been pale, thin and exhausted, Fred agitated and upset. Varina and Jefferson were undoubtedly shocked and perhaps angry with both Winnie and Fred for having been taken so off guard by the proposal.
Yet something magical happened the night that Fred arrived at Beauvoir. The grandson of a Northern abolitionist somehow engaged Jefferson Davis, past president of the Confederacy. Some kind of alchemy was forced into existence by the old man’s love for his youngest daughter and his concern for her well-being. Fred’s lawyerly ability to negotiate a deal may have also come into play. In any case everyone involved in this drama must have retired feeling emotionally spent that evening.
The next morning Varina related to Major Morgan,: “To our profound astonishment the next day Mr. Davis invited him to go up to Brierfield in Oct. next—and then the next day Mr. Davis invited him to go down to the bath house to watch the founders, a liberty never accorded to any other young man.” Very quickly, “Fred had won Jefferson Davis’s attention, if not his total approval.”
It is interesting to note that Varina took on a traditionally male role during Alfred’s visit and in subsequent other meetings with him. It was she and not Jefferson who talked to him about Winnie’s lack of dowry or practical skills. Varina was also the one who asked for a frank estimate of his financial situation.
Fred assured Varina he had taken care of his mother and sisters after his father had lost his fortune. He also confided to her that a recent favorable lawsuit had resulted in $80,000 for his mother; these monies would also help fund the marriage with his new bride. The young lawyer also claimed “his law practice was thriving and that money was no problem….He has already achieved some renown through his successful litigation against the General Electric Company over patents for sockets for incandescent lamps. His clients included many of the large businesses in central New York.”
There were, however, some skeletons lurking in the Wilkinson family’s proverbial closet. Although it is highly possible that Winnie had heard a bit about Fred’s family during her visits to Syracuse, Varina and Jefferson were not aware at this point about the local gossip regarding Fred’s father. Details of the “Wilkinson affair” were well known among the upper-crust Syracuse set, and it is almost certain that the Emorys were aware of the scandal as well.
Fred’s father, Alfred Sr., had inherited a fortune from his father, John Wilkinson, the first postmaster general of Syracuse and the former president of the Syracuse & Utica Railroad. Alfred Sr. himself had enjoyed an illustrious banking career, even earning a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. He was also an influential player in Democratic political circles of the time. Fred and his siblings had grown up wealthy, with every comfort, as a result.
But the substantial Wilkinson family fortune was lost, and the family’s reputation was tarnished following the failure of Fred’s father’s banking and investment firm, Wilkinson Brothers, in 1884. Alfred Sr. and his brother Forman were charged with grand larceny. According to Louisa May Alcott’s biographer Eve LaPlante, “The Wilkinsons had swindled more than half a million dollars, creating a ‘sensation in the city, as it had been supposed their high social standing would protect them,’ from prosecution.”
Fred, along with his mother, Charlotte, his brother and his four sisters, spent the next decade trying to recover both their former lifestyle and the family’s good name. Charlotte was forced to open a boarding school for girls in her home to support the family, while her husband descended into an alcoholic haze. Mrs. Wilkinson had to lock up the family silver to prevent Alfred Sr. from selling it for drink.
Alfred Sr. never went to prison, probably because of his political connections. When he finally died, on July 28, 1886, Charlotte’s famous cousin, the writer Louisa May Alcott, wrote in her diary: “A. Wilkinson dead. Relief to all.” His father’s death and the scandal surrounding him must have greatly impacted Fred. Fortunately, according to Varina’s biographer, Joan Cashin, “no one accused Alfred Jr. of misconduct, and he does not seem to have known what his elders were doing.” Fred was able to attend Harvard University thanks to the help of his cousin Louisa May. The author also generously paid for Fred’s sisters, Charlotte and Katherine, to attend Smith College. After graduation Fred returned home to Syracuse to study law.
When the young man arrived at Beauvoir to ask for Winnie’s hand, the banking scandal was unknown to the Davis family. Jefferson and Varina’s main objection to Fred was simply a matter of his having been born in the wrong geographic region. In Varina’s letter to Major Morgan she notes Alfred’s insistence that, as he put it, “I am a States’ rights democrat and had nothing to do with the war & he must see that, I could not help being born a Yankee.” Varina took the precaution of telling Major Morgan to burn the letter upon reading it (which he clearly did not do) and not to tell a soul about the engagement: “Winnie’s affair is to be a dead secret, no one knows but you, not even Maggie.”
Jefferson acquiesced to the engagement relatively quickly. To everyone’s great surprise, within a few months a wedding date was set for the next winter. Winnie was thrilled, as was Fred, and all seemed to be moving along splendidly. In Syracuse the event was optimistically heralded as the solution for sectional issues caused by the war. “This union will obliterate the last vestige of animosity between North and South,” declared the Syracuse Standard on April 17, 1890.
Fred and Winnie’s romance was perfectly in tune with the times. In the 1880s and 1890s a “culture of reconciliation” began to blossom between North and South. Plays, tableaux, novels and songs heralded the rejoining of hands between the two regions. Popular playwright Augustus Thomas offered audiences dramatic interpretations emphasizing the sentimental story of love between a Southern girl and a Northern man, at first separated by war but eventually brought back together, much to the audience’s delight. The surface atmosphere and popular culture at the end of the 19th century seemed ready to embrace such a union.
Yet resentment and rebellion still seethed under the facade of Southern politesse. The theater crowd might weep empathetically at scenarios of romantic reconciliation between North and South. But in reality many circumstances and events beyond Winnie and Fred’s control were conspiring against them: Fred’s Northern birth, his abolitionist heritage and his family’s financial scandal and ruin. Winnie’s family lineage was completely at odds with that of her fiancé and sure to turn heads both North and South when the news was announced.
The Daughter of the Confederacy desperately wanted her parents’ approval for the match; her physical and mental health depended on it. The couple was most certainly deeply in love and well matched both intellectually and socioeconomically. But serious obstacles lay in their path, many of them still unforeseen.
Adapted from Winnie Davis: Daughter of the Lost Cause by Heath Hardage Lee, by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2014 by Heath Hardage Lee.
Originally published in the May 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.