Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Cassandra's Circle #6: Varina Howell Davis's Briar Rose

Cassandra's Circle, Block# 6, Briar Rose by Becky Brown

The rose with thorns remembers one of Mary Chesnut's closest friends during and after the Civil War, Varina Howell Davis, married to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Varina Banks Howell Davis (1826-1906)
Collection of the Libraries at Louisiana State University
Her brooch pictures a dog. See another view below.
"Mrs. Davis was as nice as the luncheon. When she is in the mood, I do not know so pleasant a person. She is awfully clever, always." Mary Chesnut
Mary's husband James Chesnut spent time as President Davis's assistant in the Confederate capitol of Richmond. They had known each other when Chesnut and Davis were U.S. Senators in Washington representing South Carolina and Mississippi. Jefferson Davis had long been a spokesman for slavery and secession.

 Davis was a "Secessionist Square," Secretary of War in
President Franklin Pierce's cabinet, according to an 1853 newspaper
article comparing the cabinet to a quilt with Free Soil and Secessionist
Squares but no Union blocks.

There was infighting in 1861 when they all arrived first in Montgomery and then Richmond to begin their experiment in Confederate government.
"I think it provokes Mrs. [Davis] that such men praise me so. What a place this is; how every one hates each other...Mrs. Davis & Jeff Davis proving themselves any thing but [well bred by their talk.]" Mary Chesnut, July 3, 1861.
"The reason Mrs. Davis don't like me that I take up with the Wigfalls----& besides that, wherever I sit I am some how in the way! The president was excessively complimentary." Fourth of July, 1861.
Portraits of the Davises attributed to Jesse H. Whitehurst, Washington.
 John O’Brien collection
The Davises were an important part of Cassandra's Circle.

Varina may have been jealous or just irritated with the way Mary attracted a crowd of men to her conversation, creating bottlenecks at receptions. Another problem was Mary's friendship with Charlotte Wigfall, whose volatile husband despised Davis. (See last month's block.) Charlotte was reported by Mary to have called Varina "a coarse Western woman" --- Natchez, Mississippi being the West.

Briar Rose by Pat Styring
(with a few more berries)

 Mary wasn't any too fond of Jefferson Davis at first. His cool aloofness made her anxious.

But: "Mrs. Davis & I had a touching reconciliation."
"She was so kind!" Mary added later to that July 4th entry. And the Davises became close friends.

Varina with her namesake and 
youngest child born in June, 1864
After the war: "One perfect bliss have I. The baby..."

The women had much in common. They were of the same class, close in age, Varina three years younger. Both had been educated at French boarding schools (Varina's in Philadelphia, Mary's in Charleston); both were bright and rebellious and they might have amused each other with tales they'd heard about relatives greeting George Washington at the bridge in Trenton in 1779. Varina's Grandmother Keziah Burr Howell and her aunt Sarah Howell Agnew were among the New Jersey socialites dressed in white with Mary's mother-in-law Mary Cox Chesnut. (See Block #1 Washington's Plume.)

The Briars, 1904, Library of Congress
Varina grew up at The Briars in Natchez, her family supported by relatives

Varina's father William Burr Howell was son of Keziah and husband Richard Howell, Governor of New Jersey from 1793-1801. William sought his elusive fortune in Mississippi and found it in Margaret Kempe, heir to 2,000 Mississippi acres and sixty slaves, assets that disappeared over her marriage as her husband went bankrupt.

Margaret Kempe Howell (1806-1867)
At times Varina's mother took in sewing to support her family.

Varina's wedding photo, 1845
Altered versions of this photo float around the internet.
Don't believe everything you see there.

The Kempes and the Howells were friends with the Davis family. After visiting the Mississippi planters 18-year-old Varina married the widowed Jefferson Davis, twice her age.

The 1860 census shows the Davises with their three children
in Mississippi at their Brierfield plantation

"Dined at President Davis's...Mrs. Davis so witty." Mary Chesnut, May, 1861

1849 miniature on ivory of Varina Davis by
 New Yorker John Wood Dodge. 
National Portrait Gallery
Note the dog brooch.

Painter Dodge and his mother Margaret collaborated on some Union quilts during the war.

Mary Chesnut and Varina agreed on many things but Varina never shared South Carolina optimism about the Confederacy's eventual success and did not hesitate to show her feelings. The First Lady scandalized the South by abruptly leaving her husband's inaugural ceremony, a scene she later described as watching Davis as "a willing victim going to his funeral pyre."

In exile in Canada four years after defeat

Yet Mary defended both Davises for life.
"I will not sit still and hear Jeff Davis abused....And would think to hear them he found her yesterday in a Mississippi swamp."
Shortly after defeat refugee Varina visited Mary in Chester, South Carolina:
"She left here at five o'clock. My heart was like lead, but we did not give way. She was as calm and smiling as dear Mrs. Davis...under altered skies."
The Block

Briar Rose

A rose with thorns symbolizes Varina's girlhood home "The Briars" and certainly her thorny experiences as Mrs. Jefferson Davis, the less than enthusiastic First Lady of the South. Varina recalled that she and her husband were gardening among their roses at the Mississippi plantation Brierfield when a messenger arrived with the news that Davis had been elected president of a provisional Confederacy.

Detail of a four-block rose by Susan Stayman made in Illinois in the 1850s,
 in the collection of the Helen F. Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas.

Briar Rose is drawn from this impressive quilt called Moss Rose by the family. Several similar four-block quilts exist so the pattern must have been passed around.

Briar Rose by Susannah Pangelinan

Applique to an 18-1/2" square or cut it larger and trim later. Susannah's finishes to 12".

The Patterns
One Way to print these JPGS:

· Create or a new empty JPG file that is 8-1/2" x 11" or a word file.
· Click on the image above.
· Right click on it and save it to your file.
· Print that file out 8-1/2" x 11". Note the inch square block for reference.
· Adjust the printed page size if necessary. Do not use tools like "Fit to page."
· Make templates.
. Add seams when cutting fabric.

A little fussy cutting in the rosebud by Becky

My 9" block. I had to squeeze the pieces up
to fit. And that's regular old applique in the green smiley shapes.

But reverse applique is the traditional method.

Pat Styring's Blocks 1-6
Almost half done.

Extra Reading

Joan Cashin's First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis's Civil War. 

See more about the four-block Moss Rose quilts here: