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On the Eve of a Crossroads

These photographs capture perfectly the dilemmas of Jefferson Davis and Varina Howell Davis in early 1861. Soon, they would depart Washington, D.C., where they had lived for many years, and head south for an uncertain destiny. In February 1861, Jefferson would be chosen President of the new Confederacy, a role he accepted as his duty. His wife Varina would begin what she later described as the worst years of her life—her tenure as Confederate first lady.  

“They were both pro-slavery, believing that the Constitution protected the institution, but she did not share his growing hostility towards the North.” 

Both of the images are riveting, posed yet naturalistic, finely detailed and replete with symbolism. He stares grimly into the camera, his eyes in shadow, his face creased with worry. He appears older than a man in his early fifties. He wears a dinner jacket with a tie, but his hair is slightly askew, as if he has been interrupted in the middle of an argument.    

She looks away from the camera, in profile, with a hint of resignation on her face. Her tawny complexion is visible, and her long hair is braided and coiled into a chignon.  She too is dressed formally, with a lace collar and ruched sleeves, and she wears large earrings with what look like pearl insets. A carefully groomed matron in her thirties, she looks nonetheless as if she is bracing for some bad news.

Quarter-plate tintype attributed to Jesse H. Whitehurst of Washington, D.C. John O’Brien collection.
Quarter-plate tintype attributed to Jesse H. Whitehurst of Washington, D.C. John O’Brien collection.

The couple wed in 1845, and it had never been an easy match. They came from different backgrounds. He was a plantation owner from rural Mississippi, while she was a merchant’s daughter from Natchez. He was deeply rooted in the South, while she had relatives in both the South and the North; her father hailed from New Jersey, and she attended boarding school in Philadelphia. He was some 17 years her senior, and they had different personalities. He was formal, serious, and austere, she, warm, open, and practical. After they married, Jefferson and Varina had angry conflicts about money, in-laws and other issues. They separated in the late 1840s for several months. They cared for each other, and loved their children, but they were in some ways incompatible.

Divorce was not an option for this generation, however, so they stayed together. His political career, which took him to Washington, D.C., helped to keep them together.  Jefferson served in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, and then in President Franklin Pierce’s cabinet as Secretary of War. In the late 1850s, he returned to the Senate.  While he rose through the ranks in the Democratic Party, she fell in love with Washington. She preferred the city to the plantation, and she took an active part in the capitol’s vibrant social life. She developed a circle of friends from all parts of the country, including Franklin Pierce and Jane Pierce, President James Buchanan, Harriet Lane and the members of the powerful Blair family. Soon, she became a renowned hostess, admired for her wit and generosity. The happiest time in her life, Varina once remarked, was her residence in Washington before 1861.

As they packed up their belongings to leave town, she said it felt like death.

The couple did not always agree on the key political issues of the 1850s. They were both pro-slavery, believing that the Constitution protected the institution, but she did not share his growing hostility towards the North. During that decade, he began to describe Yankees as enemies, as if they were alien beings rather than fellow Americans. Because she had Northern kinfolk and friends from both regions, she never used such language. Nor was she convinced that secession was a sensible alternative. She told a friend in 1860 that if the South seceded the “whole thing is bound to be a failure.” Later, she declared that South Carolina precipitated the national crisis with its hasty action after Abraham Lincoln’s election. Unlike her husband, she was in the middle of the political spectrum of the day, both pro-slavery and pro-Union. In November 1860, her husband voted for the secessionist candidate John Breckinridge, as did most voters in Mississippi. If she could have voted, she probably would have voted for John Bell, the Southern candidate who, like Varina, was pro-slavery and pro-Union.

With the Lincoln victory, Washington’s social life ground abruptly to a halt. Many Southern politicians prepared to resign their seats, and some came to the Davis residence on I Street to meet with Jefferson. As they conferred behind closed doors, Varina did not know what exactly they were discussing, but she realized that her husband was being considered as the new head of state. Jefferson believed deeply in the right to own slaves and the right of secession, although he understood that the seceded states faced great obstacles if they went to war. He nevertheless deemed Lincoln as a grave threat, and was willing to accept the post. Varina knew that she would have to accompany him if he joined the Confederacy.

After Mississippi seceded from the Union on January 9, 1861, Jefferson resigned from the Senate. Varina went alone to the White House to bid an affectionate farewell to James Buchanan, even though her husband had broken off contact with the president because he thought Buchanan was too strongly pro-Union.

As they packed up their belongings to leave town, she said it felt like death. Some time during those unhappy weeks, they likely had these photographs taken. In February 1861, the Montgomery convention chose Jefferson as the Confederate President, and he threw himself into his job, which proved as difficult as he thought. She began her troubled stint as first lady there and later in Richmond, where her Northern relatives, her dark complexion, and her open statements of affection for her Washington friends alienated much of the Confederate elite.

This image has caught the couple at a crossroad in their lives. He looks in one direction, and she looks in another.

Joan E. Cashin has a doctorate in history from Harvard University, and she is a professor of history at Ohio State University.  She is the author or editor of four books, and she has published many articles on 19th century America.

More about the Davis Tintypes

On the Eve of War by John O’BrienPreviously unpublished portraits capture future Confederate Commander-In-Chief Jefferson Davis and first lady Varina Howell Davis at a critical moment in history

Essay: The Absolute Truth of Photos by William C. Davis

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