“Youth and Beauty” in the Confederate White House: Margaret Graham (“Maggie”) Howell
Confederate “First Lady” Varina Howell Davis and her circle of friends were not the only upper-class women to grace the White House of the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Although young by First Lady standards (Varina was 35 when she moved into the Richmond executive mansion), she was no “belle.” And, as novelist Thomas Nelson Page observed after the war, “the key” of antebellum southern social life was set to young women.
“Mrs. Davis’s ladies are not young, are not pretty,” observed her friend and confidante, diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut in 1861. “We must put Maggie Howell and Mary Hammy [Mary Whitaker Boykin] in the foreground, as youth and beauty are in request.”
Margaret Graham Howell (1842-1930) was Varina Howell’s younger sister, the 9th of 11 siblings in that family. Varina essentially adopted her at a young age, arranged for her formal and informal education, and introduced her to Society in Washington, D.C., in the 1850s when she was a young teenager. Maggie spent much of the war years living with the Davises in Richmond, contributing more than her fair share of the “youth and beauty” that Mary Chesnut prescribed – along with more than a dash of spice to complement the requisite sugar.
In his gossipy chronicles of the Confederacy’s social life, Four Years in Rebel Capitals and Belles, Beaux, and Brains of the ‘60s, Thomas C. DeLeon listed scores of young women – local girls, refugees from occupied territories, and the daughters of government officials – who made Richmond a heaven for well-born officers and soldiers on furlough.
Among those soldiers were brothers William Miller Owen and Edward Owen of the elite Washington Artillery of New Orleans. Passing through Richmond often from hospitals or prison camps, Edward Owen at various times called upon the Misses Semmes, Gertie, Mary, Miss Giles, Miss Davis, Miss Enders, Miss Pollard, and the ever-popular “Trux” (Mary Truxton Johnston). “Expect Miss Maggie H. tomorrow,” Owen wrote in his diary in May 1863, “so I shall remain over to see her.” He subsequently spent two extended furloughs with “Miss M.H.,” taking “a long and agreeable walk” with her, taking ‘a ride on horseback,” a “cruise down the James” with her and others, accompanying her to church, and dining with her at the President’s house. Brother William Miller Owen similarly surveyed the eligible young women in Richmond; first on his list was “the fascinating Miss H., – at the White House.”
“Fascinating” was not the word that every man in Richmond applied to Maggie Howell. Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory shared a table with the Davis family at Richmond’s Spotswood Hotel on July 10, 1861 before the executive mansion was ready for the First Family. Varina Davis, Mallory hissed in his diary, “is ill-bred & underbred, & her training of her sister Maggie is making her like herself. – Mag seems to be constantly in an ill-humor & morose. – I cannot share in her ridicule of persons with whom I daily associate, & am condemned almost to silence at the table. She annoys the Prest terribly by her indiscreet, ill-timed & tart remarks, & he conducts himself under it admirably.”
The stories of Maggie’s “ill-timed & tart remarks” were legendary in Richmond. “Her sense of humor was quite as keen and even more dominant than her elder’s,” recalled Thomas DeLeon in his postwar assessment of Maggie. “Less restrained, she bubbled into bon mot and epigram that went from court to camp. Sometimes these were caustic enough to sting momentarily, but their aptitude and humor salved the prick of their point….I am not posing as Miss Maggie Howell’s Boswell, even in recalling the pleasant hours when we were ‘out together,’ but the memory of all Richmond would indorse her naming as quite the most original and one of the most brilliant women in that bright and unique society.”
Maggie fled with Varina and the Davis children southward from Richmond in late March 1865, and was captured with them and the president near Irwinville, Georgia, on May 10, 1865. As the former Confederate president languished at Fort Monroe, Maggie was under “house arrest” with her sister’s family in Savannah, Georgia. Newspapers reported that she “delighted all with her magnificent voice….She sang from several operas, in Italian and German,...thrilling the audience to the utmost.” She subsequently accompanied Varina’s children to Canada, where they lived until Jefferson Davis was freed from captivity and allowed to travel in 1868.
The tumultuous months after the Confederacy’s collapse were also traumatic ones for Maggie Howell. She was engaged to be married, then broke the engagement. Varina Davis’s recent biographer, Dr. Joan E. Cashin, discovered that Maggie became pregnant and gave birth to a son in June 1866. The boy’s parentage remained a carefully guarded family secret (and the identify of his father is still unknown). When Maggie married in 1870 to an Alsatian-born Liverpool merchant 20 years her senior, Carl de Wechmar Stoess, the couple raised the boy (named Philip Carl) as their own.
Widowed by 1894, Maggie struggled financially and moved around the United States and Canada, but remained attractive and vivacious into her old age. She kept in touch with the Owen brothers and others from her life as a wartime belle before dying in Long Beach, California, in 1930.