Civil War First Ladies


The Civil War (1861-65) is the most tumultuous period in U.S. history. The nation was divided into two sides, and each side had its own president and First Lady.

Lincoln and Davis

During the U.S. Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was president of the North, or Union, and resided in the White House in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, Mississippian Jefferson Davis was leader of the South, or Confederacy. The Confederate capitol was located in Richmond, Virginia.

Mary and Varina

Just as Lincoln and Davis were two very colorful men, their wives were highly unique as well. Both women were politically active– Mary (Todd) Lincoln became an enthusiastic supporter of the Republican Party, and Varina (Howell) Davis started out as a member of the Whig Party and eventually became a Democrat. They had similar privileged upbringings and educations. They were also each Congressional wives.

Another similarity is that Mary and Varina both dealt with being social outcasts. Mary was ostracized by Washington society on account of her Southern roots. By the same token, Varina was looked down upon in many Richmond social circles because her family had ties to the North.

Aftermath of National Tragedies

The Civil War took its toll on both First Families. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865 by John Wilkes Booth, a Southern sympathizer. This event– combined with the loss of three out of four of her children– contributed to Mary becoming mentally ill. As for Varina, her husband was arrested and jailed at the end of the war. The Davis children were sent to Canada to live with Varina’s mother. Varina herself was legally required to stay in Georgia, where her husband was serving his sentence.

Final Years

In 1875, Mary Lincoln was declared legally insane and spent time in an institution in Batavia, Illinois. After her release, she traveled abroad. Worries over her safety and finances prevented her from ever finding true peace and happiness. For example, she would run down hotel corridors, claiming that someone was trying to murder her. (Many of Mary’s loved ones were sympathetic towards her, given the fact she had watched her husband be shot to death.) She died on July 16, 1882, in Springfield, Illinois.

Varina Davis, on the other hand, was able to put the past behind her. She and Jefferson lived in virtual poverty after the war, but a friend helped them buy a Mississippi plantation called Beauvoir, and that became their retirement home. Jefferson died in 1889, and Beauvoir was converted into a Confederate veterans’ home. Varina moved to New York and supported herself by writing magazine articles until her own death in 1905.


  1. Harris, Bill. The First Ladies Fact Book: The Stories of the Women of the White House from Martha Washington to Laura Bush. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc., 2005.