Varina Banks Howell was born at Natchez, Mississippi, the daughter of William Burr Howell and Margaret Louisa Kempe. Her father was from a distinguished family in New Jersey: his father Richard Howell served several terms as Governor of New Jersey and died when William was a boy. William inherited little money and used family connections to become a clerk in the Bank of the United States.
William Howell relocated to Mississippi, the area for development of new cotton plantations. There he met and married Margaret Louisa Kempe (1806–1867), born in Prince William County, Virginia, of a wealthy planter family who moved to Mississippi before 1816. Her parents were Colonel Joseph Kempe (sometimes spelled Kemp), a Scots-Irish immigrant from northern Ireland who became a planter and major landowner, and Margaret Graham, born in Prince William County. Margaret Graham was considered illegitimate, as her parents, George Graham, a Scots immigrant, and Susanna McAllister (1783–1816) of Virginia, never officially married.
After the Kempe family moved to Mississippi, Joseph Kempe also bought land in Louisiana. For his daughter's marriage to Howell, he gave her a dowry of 60 slaves and 2,000 acres (8.1 km2) of land. William Howell worked as a planter, merchant, politician, postmaster, cotton broker, banker, and military commissary manager, but never secured long-term financial success. He lost the majority of Margaret's sizable dowry and inheritance through bad investments and their expensive lifestyle. They suffered intermittent serious financial problems throughout their lives.
Varina was the second Howell child of eleven, seven of whom survived to adulthood. She was described as tall and thin, with an olive complexion attributed to Welsh ancestors. (Later when she was living in Richmond as the unpopular First Lady of the Confederacy, critics described her less charitably as looking like a mulatto or Indian squaw.) When she was thirteen, her father declared bankruptcy, and the Howell family home, furnishings and slaves were seized by creditors to be sold at public auction. Her mother's Kempe relatives intervened to redeem the family's property. It was one of several sharp changes in fortune that she would encounter in her life. Varina grew to adulthood in a house called The Briars, when Natchez was a thriving city, but she learned that her family was dependent on the wealthy Kempe relatives of her mother's family to avoid poverty.
Varina Howell was sent to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for her education, where she studied at Madame Deborah Grelaud's French School, a prestigious academy for young ladies. Grelaud, a Protestant Huguenot, was a refugee from the French Revolution and had founded her school in the 1790s. One of her classmates was Sarah Anne Ellis, the daughter of extremely wealthy Mississippi planters. (After the Civil War, Sara Ellis Dorsey, at that time a wealthy widow, helped support the Davises financially.)
While at school in Philadelphia, Varina got to know many of her northern Howell relatives; she carried on a lifelong correspondence with some, and called herself a "half-breed" for her connections in both regions. After a year, she returned to Natchez, where she was privately tutored by Judge George Winchester, a Harvard graduate and family friend. She was intelligent and better educated than many of her peers, which led to tensions with Southern expectations for women. In her later years, Varina Howell Davis referred fondly to Madame Grelaud and Judge Winchester; she sacrificed to provide the highest quality of education for her two daughters in their turn.
In 1843, at age 17, Howell was invited to spend the Christmas season at Hurricane, the 5,000 acres (20 km2) cotton plantation of Joseph Davis, the family friend for whom Varina's parents had named their oldest child. Located at Davis Bend, Mississippi, Hurricane was a few miles south of Vicksburg and Davis was planning a gala housewarming with many guests and entertainers to inaugurate his lavish new mansion. (Varina described the house in detail in her memoirs.) During her stay, she met her host's much younger brother Jefferson Davis, a West Point graduate and former Army officer, who was then working as a planter managing his own cotton plantation.
Jefferson Davis was a 35-year-old widower when he and Varina met. His first wife, Sarah Knox Taylor, daughter of the future president Zachary Taylor, had died of malaria three months after their wedding in 1835.
The young couple had long periods of separation, first as Jefferson Davis gave campaign speeches and "politicked" (or campaigned) for himself and for other Democratic candidates in the elections of 1846. He was also gone for extended periods during the Mexican War, when Varina was left under the guardianship of Joseph Davis, whom she had come to dislike intensely. Her correspondence with her husband during this time demonstrated her growing discontent, an emotion to which Jefferson was not particularly sympathetic.
Jefferson Davis was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and Howell Davis accompanied him to Washington, D.C., which she loved. She was stimulated by the social life with intelligent people and was known for making "unorthodox observations". Among them were that "slaves were human beings with their frailties" and that "everyone was a 'half breed' of one kind or another." She referred to herself as one because of her strong family connections in both North and South. The Davises lived in Washington, DC for most of the next fifteen years before the American Civil War, which gave Varina Howell Davis a broader outlook than many Southerners. It was her favorite place to live; as an example of their many differences, her husband preferred life on their Mississippi plantation.
Soon he took a leave from his Congressional position to serve as an officer in the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). Howell Davis returned for a time to Brierfield, where she chafed under the supervision of her brother-in-law Joseph Davis. The surviving correspondence between the Davises from this period expresses their difficulties and mutual resentments. After his return from the war, Varina Davis did not immediately return with her husband to Washington when the Mississippi legislature appointed him to fill a Senate seat.
Ultimately the couple reconciled. Mrs. Davis rejoined her husband in Washington. As the son-in-law (by his late wife) and former junior officer of President Zachary Taylor, her husband had unusual visibility for a freshman senator. Varina enjoyed the vibrant social life of the capital city and quickly established herself as one of the city's most popular (and, in her early 20s, one of the youngest) hostesses and party guests. The later memoir of her contemporary, Virginia Clay-Clopton, described the lively parties of the Southern families with other Congressional delegations, as well as international representatives of the diplomatic corps.
After seven childless years, in 1852 Mrs. Davis gave birth to a son, Samuel. Her letters from this period express her happiness and portray Jefferson Davis as a doting father. The couple had a total of six children:
Samuel Emory Davis, born July 30, 1852, was named after his paternal grandfather; he died June 30, 1854, of an undiagnosed disease.
Margaret Howell Davis was born February 25, 1855. She married Joel Addison Hayes, Jr. (1848–1919), and they lived first in Memphis; later they moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado. They had five children; she was the only Davis child to marry and raise a family. She died on July 18, 1909 at the age of 54.
Jefferson Davis, Jr., was born January 16, 1857. He died of yellow fever at age 21 on October 16, 1878, during an epidemic in the Mississippi River Valley that caused 20,000 deaths.
Joseph Evan Davis, born on April 18, 1859, died at five years old as the result of an accidental fall on April 30, 1864.
William Howell Davis was born on December 6, 1861, and was named for Varina's father; he died of diphtheria on October 16, 1872.
Varina Anne "Winnie" Davis was born on June 27, 1864, two months after Joseph's death. She died on September 18, 1898, at age 34. She never married after her parents had refused to let her marry into a northern, abolitionist family.
Jim Limber, also known as Jim Limber Davis, was a mulatto boy who was briefly a ward of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America. He was under the care of the Davis family from February 1864 to May 1865. His real name may have been James Henry Brooks.
On February 14, 1864, Varina Howell Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, was returning home in Richmond, Virginia, when she saw a black boy being beaten by a black man. Outraged, she immediately put an end to the beating and had the boy come with her in her carriage. He was cared for by Mrs. Davis and her staff. They gave him clothes belonging to the Davises' son, Joe, since the boys were of similar age. When asked his name, he just said "Jim Limber."
Davis arranged for Jim to be freed from slavery. It is unknown if Davis actually adopted him. There was no adoption law in Virginia at that time, so any adoption would be an "extralegal" affair.
Jim was with the Davises when they were forced to abandon Richmond before the Union Army captured the city in April 1865. When the Davises were captured by Union forces in Irwinville, Georgia, on May 15, Jim was separated from them. Some recounts of the story say this was due to a swift kidnapping of Limber by the Union Army, while other accounts say that the Davises recognized a Union general they knew well, Rufus Saxton. The Davis family never saw Jim again.
Jim briefly lived with Saxton in Charleston, South Carolina, but was eventually sent north for education until he was old enough to support himself. Though it is mentioned in some of the more sympathetic biographies of Jefferson Davis that he never stopped searching for Jim Limber, this search seems to be recorded only in oral history as it is not mentioned in his voluminous surviving correspondence for the last two decades of his life in which mention at all of Jim Limber is fleeting.
In 2008, the Sons of Confederate Veterans offered a $100,000 statue of Jefferson Davis to the American Civil War Center in Richmond. A life-sized Jim Limber is depicted on the statue, holding one hand of a life sized Jefferson Davis who is holding the hand of his son Joseph with the other hand. The statue was completed in fall 2008 and while it was initially accepted by the center, the deal quickly fell through and is now on permanent display at Beauvoir, Davis' Mississippi home.
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