The Irish Nanny in the (Other) White House

The fundamental purpose of the Irish in the American Civil War site is to engage people with the history of Irish-America, principally through the stories of those who experienced life around the middle of the nineteenth century. I am always delighted to get opportunities to feature guest posts on the blog, which often provide different perspectives on this history. I was recently approached by Frank Burns with the story of the Irish nanny who served the Confederate White House. Frank kindly agreed to share his research on this Irish emigrant, who for the most part stood on the edge of history. Unfortunately for her and the Davis family, in 1864 she would find herself at centre stage- as tragedy unfolded in the Confederate White House. Frank takes up the story:

During the American Civil War there were two Presidents, and two White Houses. The Executive Mansion chosen by the Confederacy was a white, three-storey house in Richmond, Virginia. Not surprisingly, it became known as the White House. When Jefferson Davis moved into the Richmond White House in August 1861 with his second wife Varina, they had three young children, two boys and a girl. They had already lost their first-born, Samuel, who died before his second birthday. A fourth son would be born later that year.

Amongst the twenty White House staff were at least two Irish immigrants. One was Mrs. Mary O’Melia (née Larkin), a widow from Galway. She was the housekeeper for the young First Lady. How she ended up working in the White House is a sad tale. She had left her children at home in Baltimore to visit Richmond in 1861. But she found herself trapped there by the Civil War. She was engaged by the Davises as housekeeper. In time she became a loyal friend to them, and a confidante of Varina. She would live a long, and by all accounts, successful life. After the war, she was re-united with her children in Baltimore where she operated Boarding Houses. Remarkably, a photo of her has recently been discovered. She died in 1907. (1)

The White House of the Confederacy in 1865 (Library of Congress)

The White House of the Confederacy in 1865 (Library of Congress)

But there is less known about the second Irish woman; she shares the fate of so many of her fellow emigrants, absorbed in her new country and forgotten to her native land. Not even her second name in known. She is simply known as Catherine, the Irish nanny. She worked for the Davises from at least 1862 when Varina temporarily re-located to Raleigh, North Carolina, with the children. Never too popular as a First Lady, this was regarded by some as deserting her husband. Catherine Edmondston, in her diary, is scornful of Varina’s Yankee influences and Northern ways- she even employs a nanny who is white! But by all accounts the Irish nanny was a cherished employee, loved by the family. She slept in the nursery with the children, and clearly formed a close loving bond with them. Doubtlessly, she was proud of her position as nanny to the Presidential family, and although the Civil War raged about her, her life must have been relatively comfortable. But the war and defeat were edging closer and closer. (2)

Then tragedy struck the household. Joseph, the second youngest Davis child had just celebrated his fifth birthday when on April 30th, 1864 he fell to his death from a third floor balcony. Little Joe was regarded as the most beautiful, brightest and best behaved of the children. While playing, he apparently climbed out on the balcony. But mystery surrounds the tragedy. There are discrepancies in reports, as if half-hearted attempts were made to cover up aspects to protect the family. Was he in fact pushed by his older brother, Jeff? It happened when both parents were out of the house; but Varina attempts to give the impression that she was present, presumably to avoid any hints of a neglectful parent (she was in fact a devoted mother). And its not clear how long it took to discover Joe- was medical attention fatally delayed? The parents arrived at the scene just in time to hold their dying son. Catherine was utterly distraught. While brother Jeff prays and tries to revive Joe, she is described as lying prone on the floor next to the body, weeping and wailing ‘as only and Irishwoman can.’ (3)

But there is no avoiding the fact that the tragedy occurred while both parents were out so Catherine was responsible for the children at the time. And Joe should not have been playing on the balcony. It seems Catherine left the employment following the tragedy, but why is unclear. Was she simply unable to continue, blaming herself for the event? Or did she suffer some form of breakdown from sheer anguish and, perhaps, guilt? Or was she dismissed by parents who blamed her for the death of their son?

Jefferson and Varina Davis (Wikipedia)

Jefferson and Varina Davis (Wikipedia)

It is not clear what the Davises reaction towards Catherine was. Mary Chesnut, the diarist, was a close friend (‘inseparable’) of Varina’s, and was at hand to console the grieving parents. Her attitude was clear-cut and harsh; she blamed Catherine. She is scornful of Catherine’s ‘Irish howl’ – cheap, she calls it. She goes on to ask; where was Catherine when it all happened? ‘Her place was to have been with the child’ – she then chillingly adds; ‘Whom will they kill next of that devoted household?’ Was Mary Chesnut’s reaction simply reflecting that of Varina? (4)

But there are hints in the Jefferson Davis papers that the Davises remained on good terms with Catherine, and in fact regarded here as one of the loyal friends who stood my them in the horrors that awaited them in defeat. In a letter from prison to his wife, written in September 1865, Davis speaks of Ellen (a ‘mulatto’ maid-servant) and Catherine (and surely this is the Irish nanny!) and their ‘truth and faithfulness.’ He goes on to reflect that not for the first time they fine ‘…our humblest friends, the truest when no longer selfishly prompted.’ There are elsewhere hints that Catherine lived in Baltimore after the war and a tantalising suggestion that she and Mrs. O’Melia remained friends. Perhaps Catherine went to stay with Mrs. O’Melia and maybe even worked for here; it would be nice to think so, but that remains just speculation. (5)

But Catherine is far from forgotten, if you take a tour of the Richmond White House, you won’t see the balcony; Davis had it torn down after the tragedy. But you will see the nursery complete with bed where Catherine slept. And the guide will mention her name and say a few words about her- Catherine, the Irish nanny. And so that will be her memorial.

Postscript. By a strange twist of fate, Lincoln in the other White House would also lose a beloved son during the war. Despite the enmity, both Presidents exchanged heart-felt condolences with each other. The remaining two Davis boys would die young, so the ill-fated Davis’s buried all four of their sons.

Two months after the loss of Joe, Varina gave birth to her final child, Varina Anne, known as Winnie. Catherine and Winnie possibly never met, but Winnie was to go on to write a biography of Robert Emmet, and play a major role in promoting Emmet’s legacy in the U.S. (6)

About Frank: I’m retired with a special interest in the American Civil War. I visit Virginia when I can. I stumbled on the Irish nanny reading Mary Chesnut’s diaries. I knew nothing of the story, but Chesnut’s decrial of the Irish nurse seemed to me unduly harsh- cruel in fact. It stuck in my mind unit I did the White House tour in Richmond. Standing in the little nursery, seeing the bed, imagining the horrors Catherine would have endured so far from home, was a moving experience; heart-breaking in fact. 

Memorial to Winnie Davis, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond (Library of Congress)

Memorial to Winnie Davis, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond (Library of Congress)

References

(1) Irish Central 21st July 2014. Photo found of Irish housekeeper Confederate White HouseI have relied mainly on this article (which includes the photo) for details of Mrs. O’Melia.

(2) Journal of a Secesh Lady: The Diary of Catherine Ann Devereux Edmonston 1860-1866. Varina and children stayed in Yarborough House, North Carolina during the spring and summer of 1862. Edmonston also lived in North Carolina. Her diary entry for May 20th 1862 reads: ‘Mrs. Davis is, I hear, a Philadelphia woman! That accounts for her white nurse and her flight from Richmond. I fear she is not worthy of her husband, for I learn that she is neither neat or ladylike in her dress, travels in old finery with bare arms covered with bracelets. Would that our President, God bless him, had a truehearted Southern woman for a wife. She would never have deserted him!’

(3) Richmond Sentinel 2nd May 1864. Melancholy Accident- A Child of President Davis Killed by a Fall. The full report reads: ‘Saturday evening the Presidential mansion in this city was the scene of a most melancholy occurrence. At 5 o’clock that evening one of the servants discovered President Davis’s third child, a little boy five years old, named Joseph, lying in an insensible condition on the ground, in year [sic.] of the back porch, with blood oozing from his mouth and nose and one of his thighs broken. The child had evidently fallen over the railing of the porch, a distance of, perhaps, twenty feet. None of the President’s family being in the house at the time, the ladies of the neighborhood were called in and medical aid sent for. Every effort was made to revive the little sufferer but without success. – The child continued to sink, and expired at a few moments before seven o’clock, having lived about two hours after the discovery of the accident. How long after the accident before it was discovered is not known.’ This press report appeared two days after the accident, and contains a number of discrepancies in detail with other contemporary accounts. Another account is available from The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Rice University which you can access here.; Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut. A Diary from Dixie: 1823-1886. Chesnut’s descriptions of events are included at May 8th and May 27th. Chesnut was very close to Varina, and stayed with the family on the night of the tragedy. She writes with great emotion about the event, and her account is probably accurate and reliable. Incidentally, she quotes the words that first informed her of the tragedy: ‘Little Joe! he has killed himself’ - a strange phraseology to describe the accident!; The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Rice University (click here): ‘Rumors persist that he was pushed by older brother Jeff Jr., but there is no evidence to support this story.’; Kimberly J. Largent. The Life of Varina Howell Davis: First Lady of the ConfederacyThis contains a quote from Varina’s memoirs with her description of the tragic day: ‘I left my children quite well, playing in my room, and had just uncovered my basket in [Jefferson's] office when a servant came in for me. The most beautiful and brightest of my children, Joseph Emory [sic. Joe's second name was Evan- Joseph Emory was JD's older brother]. Joseph had in play climbed over the connecting angle of the banister and fallen to the brick pavement below. He died a few minutes after we reached his side. This child was Mr. Davis’s hope and greatest joy in life.’; Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut. A Diary from Dixie: 1823-1886, entry of May 8th 1864.

(4) Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut. A Diary from Dixie: 1823-1886. Entry of May 27th, 1864. These words were written four weeks after the tragedy. Chesnut has no sympathy for Catherine; in fact, she seems to be accusing her of hypocrisy. Maybe she believed that Catherine’s tears were from guilt rather than from grief. Did Varina share this harsh judgement? I don’t think so, but it is possible that Chesnut is reflecting Varina’s private thoughts as confided to her close friend.

(5) The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Vol. 12, Jefferson Davis to Varina Davis, September 26th 1865: Davis rejoices in ‘the truth and faithfulness’ of Ellen and Catherine, ‘these humble friends…It was similar manifestation on the part of negroes at home that has caused me to feel so anxious for their welfare…This is not the first time that we have found our humblest friends, the truest when no longer selfishly prompted.’The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Vol. 12, Varina Davis to Jefferson Davis, March 25th 1867: ‘Mrs. O’Melia has been to see me, Catherines old friend with whom she stayed has been also…’

(6) Varina Ann Davis 1888. An Irish Knight of the Nineteenth Century. New York- John W. Lovell Company.

*There are few if any books of direct relevance to Catherine’s story. She survives to history by way of the odd fortuitous mention in others’ stories. Every word I read for this article was from free on-line resources. Both diaries referred to (Chesnut and Edmondston) are available free of charge on-line; both great reads. There is of course plenty of material dealing with Jefferson and Varina Davis, and plenty available via that wonderful on-line resource- Gutenberg. I will just mention one Gutenburg book by J.B. Jones ‘A Rebel War Clerk’s Diary at the Confederate States Capital‘. It has just a one-liner on the death of Joe, but its real strength lies in giving an idea of what Jefferson Davis had to deal with day by day- not just the war but running a country also. And in the midst of all that, this tragedy strikes…

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Categories: Galway, Guest Post, Virginia

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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5 Comments on “The Irish Nanny in the (Other) White House”

  1. harvestmuse
    August 7, 2014 at 11:27 pm #

    Reblogged this on Tales of Love and Light and commented:
    Thank you, for these Tales of ‘love and light’.

  2. August 8, 2014 at 12:08 am #

    Thank you for the story. I just moved to Richmond to take in all of it’s history. The Confederate White House in on my list. Your story will add a new dimension to my visit.

    • August 11, 2014 at 12:16 pm #

      Hi Bill,

      I am glad you enjoyed it!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  3. August 16, 2014 at 3:13 pm #

    Hi I visited the Rebel white house and found it fascinating as well as the very extensive biography of Verina Davis that I found in the gift shop. Seems there was a lot more tragedy in this family and only one child lived to adulthood but not for long. She too died in her 20s if I am not mistaken.I believe Verina’s Irish roots go back to the Revolution or before. .Thank you for this lovely post on the family. Brighid O’Sullivan of celticthoughts.com.

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