Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Civil War’s First Ladies

If you are in the Washington, DC area, you should take the opportunity to visit the National Museum of American History. Among the more popular exhibits is one dedicated to the nation’s First Ladies. The displays in the First Ladies Hall include a series of period rooms modeled after rooms in the White House. The rooms serve as a backdrop for the first ladies’ gowns. If you cannot make it to Washington, you can enjoy an interactive experience at http://americanhistory.si.edu/first-ladies/new-exhibition.

Mary Todd Lincoln (Source: Library of Congress)

Mary Todd Lincoln (Source: Library of Congress)

One First Lady you will not find represented in the exhibit is Varina Davis. During the Civil War, America had two first ladies, the first, Mary Todd Lincoln, of course, served as First Lady in Washington, and the second, Varina Davis, served as First Lady in Richmond, capital of the Confederacy.

The two women were similar in many ways. Both were well-educated and had traveled in high social circles, but both were criticized by their social peers for their “rough” western manners. Mary Todd Lincoln had grown up in a prominent Kentucky family but lived in Springfield, Illinois, at the eve of the war. Varina Davis lived in Mississippi. In 1861, both Illinois and Mississippi were considered western states

In an earlier blog article, Washington’s “It Girl” during the Civil War, I discussed Mary Todd Lincoln’s social rivalry with Kate Chase, the daughter of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase. Mary suffered pot shots partly due to the Todd family’s divided loyalties and partly due to her husband’s unpolished western speech. (For example, when referring to the “chairman” at an event, Lincoln pronounced the word as “cheerman,” typical of western speech.) Varina Davis, the granddaughter of a New Jersey governor, counted many prominent northerners as friends. She was suspected of northern sympathies and also suffered barbs from Virginia’s and South Carolina’s social elite. After her husband’s death, she spent her remaining years writing and living in New York City.

Varina Davis (Source: Library of Congress)

Varina Davis (Source: Library of Congress)

The ladies Lincoln and Davis received similar “titles”: Lincoln often was referred to as the Republican Queen (see Gore Vidal’s historical novel, Lincoln) while Davis was called the Confederate Queen. Mary went over-budget while decorating the White House; Varina’s critics chided her social gatherings as either too lavish in a time of sacrifice or too informal for FFV (First Families of Virginia) standards. George Rable sums up Varina Davis’s dilemma:

Many old-line Richmond families watched the arrival of Confederate politicians, generals, and their wives with a mixture of bemusement and contempt. To members of this closed society, Jefferson Davis and his wife, Varina, seemed like unrefined westerners at best and ambitious parvenus at worst. Although Varina had been a successful Washington hostess [when her husband served, on different occasions, as United States Senator and Secretary of War], the haughty Virginians, and especially the hypercritical South Carolinians, remained cool and aloof. — Rable, Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism (University of Illinois Press, 1991).

Other than attacks about their questioned loyalties, the ladies Lincoln and Davis endured what many people under the spotlight suffer as the price for fame. As you will see if you visit the National Museum of American History or its website, at least our nation’s First Ladies have dressed well for the critics.

For more about Mary Todd Lincoln’s social life, I recommend Vidal’s Lincoln, acknowledging that it is a historical novel but contending that Vidal got the history right. For more about Varina Davis, I recommend Rable’s Civil Wars.

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Alexander Stephens – Friend of Lincoln and Vice President of the Confederacy

I can name every United States president. But the vice presidents? No. They have rarely commanded the respect of historians, unless, that is, a president died and the VP took over the Oval Office. Vice President John Nance Garner once referred to the role as “not worth a bucket of warm spit.”

Alexander Stephens (Source: Library of Congress)

Alexander Stephens (Source: Library of Congress)

If a man who occupied the office held the position in such low regard, why would anyone remember the man who held the same position in the Confederacy? One might respond, well, there was only one Confederate vice president after all, so that really is not so hard to remember. And that, perhaps, is why I remember Alexander Stephens was the only Confederate VP. (If the Confederacy had survived, he would have served a six-year term.)

Just as many of the war’s opposing generals had been colleagues before the war, at West Point and/or during the Mexican War, many of the politicians had been former colleagues. Among these were Stephens and Lincoln, both of whom belonged to the Whig Party when they served in the House of Representatives.

Of Stephens, Lincoln said “[A] slim, pale-faced, consumptive man . . . has just concluded the very best speech, of an hour’s length, I ever heard.” Years later, Stephens spoke equally kind words about Lincoln:

“Mr. Lincoln was careful as to his manners, awkward in his speech, but was possessed of a very strong, clear and vigorous mind. He always attracted the riveted attention of the House when he spoke; his manner of speech as well as thought was original . . . his anecdotes were always exceedingly apt and pointed, and socially he always kept his company in a roar of laughter.” [as quoted by Doris Kearns Goodwin in Team of Rivals, p. 130]

Another photo of Alexander Stephens (Source: Library of Congress)

Another photo of Alexander Stephens (Source: Library of Congress)

In 1860, Stephens spoke bitterly of the Fire Eaters and the split in the Democratic Party. He supported northern Democratic candidate Stephen Douglas for the presidency and argued that the South would be better served by remaining in the Union rather than by seceding from it. Nevertheless, his primary loyalty was to Georgia, not the Union, and he accepted his new role. As vice president of the Confederacy, Stephens got along poorly with Jefferson Davis and was very critical of the Confederate government for suspending habeas corpus and invoking a draft. Stephens spent most of the war in Milledgeville, Georgia, rather than in Richmond. He retained fond memories of Lincoln, although the two men differed in very important respects, especially African-American slavery, which Stephens considered essential to the welfare of the white race.

Despite their differences, Stephens and Lincoln fondly recalled their earlier friendship when peace commissioners from the North and South met in Hampton Roads in January 1865 in an unsuccessful effort to reach peace without further conflict. Stephens, prone to cold in all but the warmest weather, bundled up for the occasion. As Stephens peeled off “a voluminous floor-length overcoat fashioned from blanket-thick cloth, a long wool muffler, and several shawls wound round and round his waist and chest against the cold,” Lincoln realized his former colleague was still the tiny man (under one hundred pounds) he recalled from years earlier. “’Never have I seen so small a nubbin come out of so much husk,’ Lincoln said with a smile as they shook hands.” [Shelby Foote, Civil War: Red River to Appomattox, pp. 775-776 (First Vintage Books Edition 1986) (Copyright 1974 by Shelby Foote).

Although the peace commissioners were unable to agree to terms, largely because Lincoln insisted on union and an end to slavery while Davis insisted on separation and perpetuation of slavery, Lincoln granted Stephens a welcome personal accommodation, ordering the release of Stephens’s nephew from a Lake Erie prison camp. Lincoln welcomed the nephew at the White House and gave him a pass through Union lines.

For more information about Alexander Stephens, please refer to Foote’s three-volume opus on the Civil War, Bruce Catton’s three-volume opus on the Civil War, and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.

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Thomas Day – “A Free Person of Color”

In my novel New Garden, p. 140, I make a brief reference to Thomas Day:

Ellen McAllister had selected all of the home’s furnishings with the exception of those in her husband’s study. Some came from her childhood home in southside Virginia, but most were made by Thomas Day, a free African-American furniture maker who operated a shop in Milton, North Carolina.

Statue of Thomas Day

Statue of Thomas Day (Source: NCPedia.org)

Anyone familiar with the work of Thomas Day knows that antebellum wealthy citizens of North Carolina and Virginia, especially tobacco plantation owners in the Dan River Basin on the Virginia-North Carolina border, prized furniture manufactured by Day.

Day was born in 1801 in southern Virginia, the child of “free persons of color.” He learned his cabinet making skills from his father, who moved the family to Warren County in 1817. In 1825, Day moved to Milton in Caswell County on the Virginia border.

Day quickly acquired a reputation for excellence. Buyers sought not only his furniture, but also fireplace mantles, stair railings, and newel posts for their homes. His pieces were largely of the popular Empire style, but some details often deviated from the norm, giving them a unique sought-after Thomas Day touch. Demand grew to a point that by 1850, he operated the largest furniture factory in North Carolina. He used the latest tools of the period, including machinery powered by steam engines. His employees included slaves that he owned, who worked alongside white employees. In 1838, his white employees included five Moravians of German descent.

As was true in many other states in 1830, North Carolina law prohibited free blacks from migrating into the state. Day had fallen in love with a free black Virginian, Aquilla Wilson. Day’s reputation within North Carolina’s elite was such that 61 white citizens of Milton signed a petition to the state legislature asking that an exception to the law be made for Miss Wilson. The exception was granted, allowing Thomas and Aquilla Day to live together as man and wife.

Milton Presbyterian Church

Milton Presbyterian Church (Source: LearnNC.org)

Day straddled two worlds. He catered to the white elite while negotiating the laws that restricted the movements of persons of color. He sent his children to Wesleyan Academy in Massachusetts for their education. He attended at least one abolitionist meeting in New York City in 1850. On the other hand, his shop built the pews for Milton Presbyterian Church, where his family sat among the white parishioners while slaves and other free persons of color sat upstairs. By 1850, he also owned fourteen slaves, but they likely were slaves in name only, as North Carolina law placed severe restrictions on manumission of slaves. New Garden, p. 202.

Like most American businesses, Day’s enterprise suffered from the economic downturn brought on by the Panic of 1857. Day died in 1861, but he had left an indelible mark on the North Carolina economy, an example of what a free African American could accomplish if given only the slightest chance to succeed.

Thomas Day's workshop in Milton, NC

Thomas Day’s workshop in Milton, NC (Source: LearnNC.org)

For more about Thomas Day, go to the following sources:

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