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Virginia Clay-Clopton, 1825-1915
A Belle of the Fifties: Memoirs of Mrs. Clay, of Alabama, Covering Social and Political Life in Washington and the South, 1853-66
New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1905, c1904.


Virginia Tunstall Clay-Clopton (1825-1915) was born in Nash County, North Carolina, but she spent much of her childhood in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Her mother died when she was three years old, and her father left her upbringing to his wife's family. She was educated at the Female Academy in Nashville, Tennessee and graduated in 1840. In 1843, she married Clement Claiborne Clay, and the couple lived in Huntsville, Alabama until Mr. Clay was elected to serve in the United States Senate in 1853. In Washington, Mrs. Clay kept close company with several prominent southern politicians, including Mr. and Mrs. Jefferson Davis. When Alabama seceded in 1861, her husband resigned from the Senate and was elected to the Confederate Legislature. During the war, Virginia sought refuge in Georgia and Alabama, but she often joined her husband in Richmond, where she enjoyed participating in Mrs. Jefferson Davis's elite social circle. In 1865, Mr. Clay and Jefferson Davis were arrested and held in Fort Monroe, Virginia, on suspicion of involvement in the plot to assassinate President Lincoln. Virginia wrote many letters and appeals for her husband's release, but President Johnson did not release Mr. Clay until April of 1866. After his release, the Clays returned to Huntsville, Alabama, where Mr. Clay worked as a farmer and businessman. Following her husband's death in 1882, Virginia Clay married David Clopton in 1887. Widowed again in 1892, Clay-Clopton devoted her attention to fighting for women's suffrage from the 1890's until her death in 1915.

Virginia Clay-Clopton's memoir, A Belle in the Fifties, was published in 1904 with assistance from New York journalist Ada Sterling (1870-1939). She includes the history of her family and tells of growing up, marrying, and moving to Washington. She describes being a socialite in Washington and paints a dramatic picture of the southern contingent's exodus from the capital in 1861. She recounts her memories of the war years, which she spent both in Richmond and as a refugee in Macon, Georgia. The narrative continues with a detailed description of Clay-Clopton's life in a crumbling South and concludes with her struggles to free her husband from Fort Monroe, Virginia.

Works Consulted: Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999; James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard, 1971.

Harris Henderson

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