What a powerful story Heath Lee has to tell in Winnie Davis: Daughter of the Lost Cause (Potomac: 2014). Even in 1864 as Yankee gunfire pounded Richmond, the birth of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ daughter Winnie was hailed as a good omen. On her tiny frame a desperate South hung its hope that the noble cause would prevail. That she would embody the four ideals of Southern womanhood: Piety, Purity, Submissiveness, and Domesticity.
Well, the South did not prevail, and there ensued a tense psychological drama for the soul of one very fragile young lady. In the end, Winnie, for reasons only a biographer’s empathy could untangle, sidestepped her best hope for happiness and died at age 33, in the words of Robert Penn Warren, “The Last Casualty of the Lost Cause.” It took a poet to coin that apt phrase, but a biographer to piece together on the page how such stark tragic irony could come about.
The suffering of the Davis family during and after the war was immense. Varina Davis, Winnie’s mother, fled with the children, and Jefferson Davis was reviled and imprisoned. Most of their property, in Mississippi family plantations, was lost. The family was together briefly after the war, long enough for Winnie to learn to love her adoring father and submit to her domineering mother. But very soon she was sent away to boarding school in Germany, an expense the family could ill afford yet undertook so that her character might be “properly shaped,” particularly in “submissiveness.” It was.
Winnie returned an intellectual though not a belle, with a predisposition to worry herself sick, completely unprepared to withstand the powerful forces that would be unleashed upon her. An embittered south, its ex-soldiers determined to elevate Southern womanhood to the height handed down from their chivalric ancestors, anointed Winnie Davis, virginal and dressed always in white, the “Daughter of the Confederacy,” projecting onto her their Lost Cause nostalgia and the hope that, through union with a fine son of, perhaps, a Confederate general, Southern nobility’s finest bloodline would flow into the future, surviving outward defeat.. . Lovely, smiling graciously to all, she would ennoble Confederate events with her very presence. The dream would thus continue.
The search for a suitable husband began, aided by the fabulously wealthy Joseph Pulitzers, who provided introductions to, of all places, New York society. There were many suitors, but Winnie found herself in love with one Fred Wilkinson, a handsome, eligible lawyer from Syracuse NY. Winnie said nothing to her parents, who were shocked to receive his visit asking for her hand
But wait. Unbeknownst to her (but later to be discovered), he just happened to be the grandson of a noted “Abominable Abolitionist!” As yet unaware of that, nonetheless he was a Northerner. So when a stranger from the North arrived at the Davis plantation in coastal Mississippi seeking their permission to marry their daughter, the Davis’s were not sympathetic, to say the least. Nonetheless, after many ups and downs, Varina announced the engagement. The press waded into it. All hell broke loose. Fred received death threats from Confederates. He would be “lain in the dust,” shot with a thousand [musket] balls. Varina began questioning his financial prospects. Winnie’s health declined.
Fred had tolerated the extended engagement, especially given the family’s grief over Jefferson Davis’s death in 1889. But finally he travelled back to Beauvoir, the Mississippi estate given to Jefferson by a female admirer. Varina received him but declared that she was terminating the engagement for Winnie’s sake. Winnie, in truth, had given him up for Varina’s sake. Varina had been the one to insist the engagement end. Winnie and Fred parted; then he left. Their goodbyes were tender and very sad, but she was wasting away and melancholic; she “could never love anyone else.” And so, she caved in. She gave him up because her mother insisted. Writes Lee, “Duty, family ties, they all bound her up more tightly than true love ever could. She could not break from the familiar, even if it made her miserable. She lived in a gilded cage of sentimental memories crafted by her family, Confederate veterans, and Lost Cause supporters.” Fred returned to Syracuse broken hearted. Winnie, 8 years later, died in New York City, where she had been living with her mother and having some success with her novels. Only through her fictional characters was she able to express her increasingly cynical views of Victorian domestic and social life.
Decades later, Heath Lee, gazing at Winnie’s portrait in various Richmond clubs and museums, from a similar family with similar values, determined to unravel Winnie’s mystery. “Working on her life story was like seeing what my life could have been if I had been raised in the late nineteenth century South,” she writes.
Raised in the North by aYankee mother most definitely not to be submissive, after finishing the book, I went in search of the reaction of a real Southerner. My friend loved the book. It could have been her story too. She’d married a Northerner, come to live in Maine, and promptly begun receiving condolence cards from her mother.
But good news! She escaped! And so did Heath Lee!