One of the many peculiarities of the Civil War is a black women and former slave who worked for both Varina Howell Davis, the wife of the Confederate president, and Mary Todd Lincoln, the Northern president’s wife. This unusual situation occurred as a result of sheer determination.
According to her memoir, “Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House,” written in 1868, slave parents gave birth to Elizabeth Keckley in Dinwiddie Court House, Va. As a child, she experienced the tragedy of having her father sold off and separated from Elizabeth and her mother, never to see each other again.
Surviving the cruelty of slavery, including multiple beatings and continual labor, in August 1855, at age 37, Elizabeth managed to purchase her freedom with the support of white friends and acquaintances, and headed to Baltimore and Washington, D.C. She brought with her a 16-year-old “almost white” son fathered by a man who had forced himself upon her repeatedly in her younger days, and sad memories of a later marriage to a lazy, unmotivated black man she left behind.
In Washington, Elizabeth learned that Varina Davis, the wife of Sen. Jefferson Davis, was in need of a dressmaker, and went to work for her in November 1860 — a few months before the outbreak of our four-year long national trauma. Because war with the North was imminent, Mrs. Davis offered to take Elizabeth back into the South with her, but with unspeakable experiences as a slave still fresh in her mind, she wisely declined.
A woman she worked for in Washington recommended Elizabeth to Mary Lincoln, whose husband was about to be inaugurated as the 16th president of the United States. During the interview with Mrs. Lincoln, Elizabeth learned that hiring her as a dressmaker depended on her prices because, Mary confessed, “We are just from the West, and are poor.”
They agreed to terms, and Elizabeth made a beautiful rose-colored moire-antique dress for Mary to wear to the Inaugural Ball. Despite malicious reports in opposition newspapers of Mary Lincoln’s “low life, ignorance and vulgarity,” Elizabeth remembered, “No queen, accustomed to the usages of royalty all her life, could not have comported herself with more calmness and dignity than did the wife of the president.”
As Mary Lincoln’s modiste or dressmaker, Elizabeth witnessed the lives of the Lincoln family in the White House up close. This included the sad passing of beloved son Willie Lincoln, who succumbed to typhoid fever at age 11, causing Mary considerable mental anguish.
Observing the large numbers of destitute freedmen flocking to Washington from Maryland and Virginia, Elizabeth helped organize fundraisers to ease their burden and transition from slavery. The Contraband Relief Association evolved from these efforts, and Mary Lincoln contributed to the cause.
As the war drew to a close and assassination of the President Lincoln brought loyal countrymen to their knees in grief, Mary Lincoln sent for Elizabeth to come to the White House. While there, Elizabeth viewed the president’s body as it lay in state in the Guest’s Room, as members of the Cabinet and high-ranking military officers were on the scene.
Elizabeth went to live with Mary Lincoln in Chicago in 1865, where a crowd gathered at a charity fair to observe a wax figure of Confederate President Jefferson Davis portrayed with a “dress” over his other garments when captured in Georgia while attempting to escape. Elizabeth claimed the dress was a “chintz wrapper” she had once made for Varina Davis.
Elizabeth published her memoirs describing her life in good times and in bad, and how she became Varina Davis’ dressmaker and Mary Lincoln’s confidante. Her friendship with Mary soured, however, when she revealed aspects of the Lincolns’ private lives.
Through innate talent and determination, a slave of a Southern family had endured the privations and cruelty of servitude, and managed to gain her freedom. Her cordial manner and skill as a dressmaker led to the unusual relationship with the wives of two Civil War presidents.
Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Lee is Trapped, and Must Be Taken: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863,” and “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign: How the Critical Role of Intelligence Impacted the Outcome of Lee’s Invasion of the North, June-July 1863,” both available at Bethany Beach Books, Browseabout Books in Rehoboth and Cardsmart in Milford, and on Amazon.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point