Saturday, May 16, 2015

Varina Davis's Butterfly Quilt Part II

Detail of Varina Davis's Butterfly quilt
in the Museum of the Confederacy
See last week's post on its making:

Varina Howell Davis suffered a good deal of loss in her life. She outlived all four of her sons. In 1872, while living in Memphis, her youngest boy Billy died at 10 of diptheria, a common deadly childhood illness.

William Davis at about 6 years old

Varina's 1931 biographer Eron Rowland wrote that Varina sought solace in working for her church, St. Lazarus Episcopal.

The Davis's lived on Court Street in Memphis.
The historic house was demolished in the 1930s.

"It was during her stay in Memphis [1869- 1878]  that she began her famous quilt that became the wonder and admiration of so many of her friends." This is probably Varina's Butterfly quilt now in the collection of the Museum of the Confederacy.

That quilt was actually begun in 1865 right after the Confederate surrender. The lavishly embroidered blocks obviously took some time to complete.

Jefferson and Varina Davis about 1868

Varina seems to have donated that quilt to the church in 1872 or 1873 for a fundraiser. She had organized a fund to purchase silver communion pieces to replace the old pewter. Perhaps the silk quilt went for that cause. Rowland quotes a letter from family friend Ambrose Dudley Mann living in Paris in June, 1873, who offered to buy the quilt rather than see it raffled off.

Diplomat A. Dudley Mann (1801-1899)
"I beg you to frankly write me how large an amount is expected to be realized from the Raffle (I abominate that word.)"
The letter, writes Rowland, gives the "impression that [the embroidered silken memento of the Confederacy] might have been purchased by the author."

The Butterfly quilt then might be dated 1865-1873. Mann might have purchased it. Somehow the quilt wound up in the possession of Varina's granddaughter who donated it to the Museum of the Confederacy fifty years later.

Virginia Tunstall Clay (1825-1915)

There is one more written reference to the silk quilt. After the Civil War Varina's husband fell in love with Virginia Clay, a younger, married woman. A friend of the family, Virginia exchanged romantic letters with Jefferson Davis, who told her she was one of the few to whom he shared his"secret thoughts." What kind of a relationship this close friendship was, and what Varina thought of it, we cannot tell. The Davises spent much of their  marriage living apart and the years when Jefferson Davis was enthralled with Mrs. Clay were no exception.

One day Mrs. Clay paid a visit to Mrs. Davis in Memphis. In an April 1, 1872 letter to Virginia Clay, Jefferson Davis wrote:
"Mrs. Davis told me of your pleasant social visit to her...told of your kind offer of material to finish the quilt and asks me to write to you that there would be time enough to use it, but that is is unnecessary."

The editors of Jefferson Davis's letters from this period, ‎Lynda Lasswell Crist and ‎Suzanne Scott Gibbs, speculate the quilt discussed is the Butterfly Quilt. Apparently the quilt was almost finished, and Varina declined Virginia's offer of more fabric. Or perhaps Varina did not care to include fabric from Virginia Clay in her memento of better times.

Jefferson Davis, Junior, 1857-1878

Memphis must have had many sad memories. Varina's last surviving son Jefferson Davis, Jr. died during a yellow fever epidemic there in 1878. He was 21 years old. Varina left Memphis soon after.

Obituary portrait of Varina Davis (1826-1906)

Varina Howell Davis led a fascinating American life. 

Publicity about the 1931 biography of Varina

This biography casts her in the familiar role of wife.

Joan E. Cashin's recent First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis's Civil War looks closer at Varina as an individual.


Suzanne A said...

The book about Varina certainly did not leave me with a favorable impression of Jefferson Davis.

PaulaB quilts said...

It is exciting to see all these references to the quilt and be able to date and know its history more accurately. Fortunately for us, she was a well known woman who was very skilled with her needle. Thanks for the info. It makes the quilt come alive.