Varina Davis, photographed near the time this letter was written.
The following is a “mystery” letter said to have been penned by Varina Davis, widow of Jefferson Davis, at their home, Beauvoir, in Biloxi, Mississippi, apparently sometime after her husband's death (which occurred December 6, 1889). The letter was copied by Mattie S. (Mrs. Luther) Meadows of Chatham, Virginia in 1937 as a part of the WPA Writers Project Historical Inventory. The document was in the possession of Belle (Mrs. Scott) Carter of Chatham, Virginia. (Her home is at 9 Aston Place.)
The letter appears to be incomplete, but the overall subject is the survival of Southern families during the War Between the States. Mrs. Davis gave a heading to each topic in her letter, lending a sense of academic formality to the letter. As a result, one might surmise that the letter was a communication intended for general circulation, rather than a letter to a single recipient. If any reader has seen this letter in some other context — either a portion or its entirety — the author of this article invites your correspondence.
Good conduct of the negroes
All southern women acknowledge with pride the good conduct of the rank and file of negroes on the breaking out of the war. They generally remained true to the families left in their charge and protected the women and children to the best of their ability. In short, their cause was a powerful testimonial to the lifelong kind and just exercise of their masters' power over them. However, the crops failed frequently, the negroes to partake more or less of the excitement which pervaded the whole country, and this interfered with the needful routine of their labors. Then the work horses were levied upon for the use of the government, thus were the means of cultivation narrowed. The fallow land grew impassable with weeds, the fences fell, the fields which had waved with corn and cotton became a tangle of vines and bushes. All larges balances of cash lay out of reach invested so that there was little with which to buy from towns and cities, they being dependent upon the grain and cotton sent in from the plantations, want came to all. The poor suffered from the absence of their breadwinners.
The First White House of the Confederacy in Montgomery, Alabama, was the home of the Davis family from February until May of 1861.
How the women faced the war situation
When this began to afflict the women, their powers of endurance were at once demonstrated to the world. The harbors were closed by the blockade. No supplies of clothing could be imported. The time came when the stock of cloth, shoes, medicine, machinery, indeed everything necessary to civilized people was nearly exhausted.
The people found themselves confronted with problems which they must learn to solve. All these needs must be supplied by the women. The stores each family possessed of quinine and such other drugs as were needed for the diseases of a warm climate, was gradually relinquished for the use of the soldiers. Replenishment was impossible. Quinine had been proclaimed by the blockaders “Contrabands of War.” The women turned undaunted to the indigenous Materia Medica. Decoctions of willow bark, of dewberry root, orange flowers and leaves, red pepper teas and other tisanes took the place of drugs. One heart-broken woman wrote to her husband, “twenty grains of quinine would have saved our two children, they could not drink the bitter willow tea, but now they are at rest, and I have no one to work for but you.”
How clothing was contrived
The sheep were sheared, the wool cleansed, carded and spun in the home. Small looms were set up and the warp adjusted under the eye of the practical weaver. All the clothes for the plantation, as well as some cloth to exchange for other commodities, was woven for winter use. In the winter the cotton cloth was made for summer. Pretty home spun checks, brown, black, blue or red and white were manufactured for the ladies and children's frocks.
The ladies spun the wool and knitted stockings and socks for their families, also many for the soldiers. An officer's wife called to see the wife of the President and brought her, as the most acceptable present, a paper pattern of a glove, like those she herself wore, beautifully embroidered, and fitted to her hand. This paper pattern is still extant and very precious to the recipient. It is very useful in providing the President's family with presentable gloves made from sleeves of old Confederate uniforms and cast off garments.
When new companies or battalions organized, for which flags were needed, the wives, sisters, and sweethearts of the men, sacrificed their best silk frocks to make the flags. They emblazoned them is such royal style, they are beautiful even to this day. The snippings left by the army tailors, pieces of gray and black, five or six inches across, were pieced together and then cut into jackets for the soldiers' children. Very acceptable were these Joseph's Coats proved to those who could boast no better covering.
The White House of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, was the residence of Jefferson and Varina Davis and their family through the rest of the war years.
How we lighted our homes
Lamp wicks were plaited by hand and the oil was tried out of refuse pork. Sometimes wild myrtle berries were stewed until they yielded a pale wax which was used. I once saw five soldiers' wives making clothes by this light, and while they sewed they talked over the chances of their men coming home alive. Night schools were established in the basements of churches where poor ragged children were taught by ladies. Great barrels of soap were made of the refuse of hogs killed for family and plantation use. When toilet soap was required, this need was met by a home cured ham boiled for family use, and the old-fashioned sweet flowers and herbs of the garden furnished the perfume. Hundreds of gallons of black berry brandy was made and sent to the hospitals for the soldiers.
Our coffee and tea
In order that the wounded might have tea and coffee, substitutes were made for home use. [For tea,] … sassafras leaves, balsam, sage, and orange leaves were steeped in hot water and sweetened with sorghum molasses. For coffee, parched sweet potato shavings, parched corn and wheat, and parched carrots were used. All the coffee, tea, white or brown sugar was sent to the soldiers.
A signature by Varina Davis (“V. Jefferson Davis,” as was her custom), at about the time this letter was written.
Reading matter and starvation parties
The strong tension upon the nerves of the women was not relieved by books and magazines. The newspapers were annals of ardent endeavor, triumphs and sorrows, wounds and death. All work and no play began to tell upon our nervous women. Some of them turned for relief, when their soldiers came home, to … starvation parties.
The placid gray haired women of today have covered with pride the scars of that dread struggle, but they are no less veteran conquerors in a mortal conflict in which every noble aspiration and human effort was called forth and answered with cheer.
Beauvoir House, Miss.
V. Jefferson Davis
Copyright © 1994–2009 Patricia B. Mitchell.