Southern Belle and Wife of Confederate Senator Clement Clay
Virginia Tunstall was born in 1825 in Nash County, North Carolina, the daughter of a doctor. Her mother died when she was very young, and her father left her upbringing to his wife’s family in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Virginia graduated from the Female Academy at Nashville, Tennessee in 1840.
Image: Virginia Clay before the Civil War
In 1843, she returned to Tuscaloosa, where she met a newly-elected member of the Alabama Senate, Clement Clay, Jr. Virginia married Clement Clay after courting for only a month, and moved with Clay to his home in Huntsville, Alabama. Virginia gave birth to their only child in 1853, and it died in infancy.
Clay was elected to the United States Senate in 1853, and the couple moved to Washington, DC, where they socialized with several prominent southern politicians, including Jefferson and Varina Davis. Virginia’s social skills were unsurpassed in antebellum Washington, and she assisted Clay materially in his career.
After Alabama seceded from the Union in 1861, Clement Clay resigned from the U.S. Senate. The Clays traveled to Montgomery, Alabama – the first capitol of the Confederacy – and then to Richmond. During the war, Virginia sought refuge in Georgia and Alabama, but she often returned to Richmond to be with her husband.
Clay refused the appointment of Confederate Secretary of War, and was elected to the Confederate Senate. Clay’s loyalty to Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his vote against a pay increase for Confederate soldiers helped defeat him for reelection. His term expired in February 1864.
Shortly thereafter, Davis sent Clay with two others on a diplomatic mission to Canada, whose objective initially was to open peace negotiations with the federal government. President Abraham Lincoln, however, refused to meet with the Confederate peace delegation.
While in Canada Clay also directed the Confederacy’s largely ineffective campaign of sabotage and insurrection in the North. While it has not been proved that Clay met John Wilkes Booth in Canada, a charge he always denied, it is highly likely that he knew of a plot aimed at Lincoln.
Clay left Canada in January 1865, and reported to Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin and President Davis in Richmond on April 2, 1865, as the Confederate government was evacuating the capital. He traveled as far as Danville, Virginia, with the presidential party and headed for Mexico after learning of President Lincoln’s death.
As he moved west across Georgia, Clay heard of a warrant for his arrest and that of other Confederates as conspirators in the Lincoln assassination. Clay rode 150 miles from La Grange to Macon, Georgia, to surrender himself. With Davis and other officials, Clement Clay was imprisoned at Fortress Monroe, Virginia.
Virginia Clay wrote many letters and appeals for her husband’s release, and eventually won his freedom with the help of Ulysses S. Grant and other northern politicians who had known Clay before the war. President Andrew Johnson finally ordered Clay’s release in April 1866, and he was pardoned by Congress in 1880.
The Clays’ return to Huntsville was sad as well as joyous. They lost much of their property, and had a very difficult time during the Reconstruction era. In the early 1870s, Clement Clay traveled through Alabama and Mississippi, trying to establish an insurance business. During these years, Virginia managed the plantation, worked their land and tried to develop new labor relations with her workers.
Clement Claiborne Clay was never able to cope with the new life after the war. He died a broken man in 1882. Virginia tried to come to terms with the loss of her husband and her ever-increasing debts, but it was difficult. She lived for several years in her rustic home, Wildwood, with two of her nieces.
In 1887, Virginia married Judge David Clopton of the Alabama Supreme Court, and they lived in Montgomery, Alabama. Judge Clopton died in 1892, and thereafter Virginia devoted her attention to fighting for equal rights for women until her death. She was also an active member and Honorary Life President of the Alabama Daughters of the Confederacy which was organized in 1894.
In 1904, Virginia published her memoirs, A Belle in the Fifties, covering her life from girlhood through her fight for her husband’s freedom. She wrote of the history of her family, becoming a socialite in Washington, and the dramatic tale of leaving the capital in 1861.
On January 16, 1915, the city of Huntsville celebrated her ninetieth birthday, her last social event. Virginia Clay died six months later. She is buried at Maple Hill Cemetery in Huntsville, Alabama.