Virginia Caroline Tunstall Clay-Clopton

of Nash County, NC and Alabama

[16 June 1825 – 23 June 1915]

Researched and Written by:  Earl P. Bell, Jr.

Posted:  22 June 2010

Virginia Caroline Tunstall was born on 16 June 1825 in Nash County, NC.  Her parents were Dr. Peyton Randolph Tunstall and Ann Arrington.  She was the granddaughter of General William Arrington and Mary Williams as well as William Tunstall and Elizabeth Barker.  Her mother, Ann Arrington Tunstall, died at twenty years old, when Virginia was only three, and her sister, Mary Ann, died a short time later.

At five years old she moved from Nash County, near Hilliardston, to Alabama, with her father.   He decided that it was best for his daughter if she grew up with her maternal relatives who lived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  She first lived with an aunt, the half sister of her mother and the wife of Henry Watkins Collier, who later became the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and the governor of the state.  Her second home was with an Uncle, Alfred Battle, who was a wealthy planter.  Her guardian was a bachelor Uncle Thomas Battle Tunstall, who became Secretary of State of Alabama.  Of these maternal relatives, he seems to have had the most influence on Virginia inspiring in her a love of literature and developing in her great pride in their shared English-Welsh ancestors.  Her father, who lived in Mt. Vernon, Alabama on the Alabama River, was a frequent visitor to see her and influenced her upbringing as well by taking her to Mobile with him where she learned the social graces from Madam Le Vert.  Her schooling occurred in a private school and she graduated from the Nashville [TN] Female Academy in 1840.

After graduating, she returned to Tuscaloosa and met her first husband Clement Claiborne Clay, Jr., who had just been elected to the Alabama Senate.  After courting for only a month, they married on 1 February 1843 in the home of her Uncle Henry Watkins Collier.  Her new husband called himself C. C. Clay, to avoid confusion with his wealthy and powerful father, also, a former governor of Alabama from 1835 to 1837.  In 1853, C. C. Clay was elected as a United States Senator from Alabama and they moved to Washington, DC.  In the next seven years, Virginia became one of the most important women in the elite social life of the nation’s capitol.  In the 1850s, their circle of friends included President Franklin Pierce, James and Mary Chestnut and, most importantly, Jefferson and Varina Davis.  Their friendship with the Davises proved lasting and continued in Montgomery and Richmond after the Southern states withdrew from the Union.  During the Washington years, of the 1850s, one author describes Virginia as a “surrogate mother” for her female relatives and offered that she “orchestrated their entrance into the elite society of Washington.”  During this time Virginia gave birth to her only child, who was stillborn.

When Alabama withdrew from the Union, C.C. resigned from the United States Senate, and with Virginia, they left Washington in January, 1861.  Virginia, in her autobiography describes, in powerful prose, the departure of Southerners, during this time, from the halls of power in Washington, DC.  They traveled to the new capitol of the Confederacy, Montgomery, and then to Richmond, when it was moved.  In April, 1862, the Union army occupied Huntsville leaving the Clays without a home.   C. C. refused President Davis’ offer as Confederate Secretary of War, however, he was elected to the Confederate Senate.  He held this post until 1863, when he was not re-elected because he had voted against an increase in pay for Confederate soldiers.  C.C.’s political future in the Confederacy was still promising because he was one of the closest and most trusted friends of President Davis.  C. C. was appointed by Davis as a military judge in North Alabama, a place of strong Union sympathies making it a very tough post indeed.  His credentials as a strong supporter of the Confederacy flowed, in part, from his early, well-known and powerfully expressed views on the need for the Southern states to withdraw from the Union.  Davis viewed him as the right man to sit in judgment of men, from North Alabama, who retained their loyalties to the Union.

In 1864, President Davis needed C. C. to take on an even more challenging post as a member of a Confederate “diplomatic team” that, on the surface at least, had instructions to open peace negotiations with the president and government of the United States.  C. C. went to Canada and Virginia continued her moving about in the South living with relatives in Macon, Georgia, Alabama and, one source also suggests, South Carolina (do they refer to some of her Battle, Arrington and Tunstall relatives in Nash County, North Carolina?  You know how confused Yankees can get when talking about North and South Carolina). As long as it was possible she would visit her husband in Richmond.  If she traveled overland from Georgia to Richmond the trip would have required her to travel on the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad.  Such a trip would have brought her back to Nash County near the place where she was born and lived the first five years of her life.  We do not know if she stopped to visit with relatives still living in the county.

It seems that C. C. also had instructions, while in Canada, to facilitate the development of threats to New England, so that the Union, would have to worry about another front in the war.  One of the few successes from this intriguing was the robbery of three banks in Vermont.  As far as the Clays are concerned, C. C.’s time in Canada become a huge problem with the death of President Lincoln.

After Confederate surrender and the stacking of rifles at Appomattox on 9 April 1865, C. C. returned from Canada to Richmond as they are dismantling the government and fleeing south.  He traveled, with the Presidential party, to Danville, VA when they received news that Lincoln had been assassinated.  He decided that it was best for him to flee to Mexico.  His fears proved well placed.  When President Davis was captured and charged with complicity in the death of Lincoln, a warrant, plus a reward, were issued for the capture of C. C.  He surrendered to Union authorities and, in May, 1865, he was imprisoned with Davis at Ft. Monroe, VA.  The charges against him centered on him as a co-conspirator in the President’s assassination, due to his activities in Canada.

Immediately, Virginia begins to write letters to influential men that had been and were her friends, North and South, to secure C. C.’s release.  President Johnson seems to have harbored his own suspicions about C. C.’s guilt.   During the time that C. C. was in Canada so was John Wilkes Booth.  While there has never been any proof that C. C. met with Booth, or planned anything with him, there is little doubt that C. C. knew about most of the plotting, going on in Canada, to assassinate President Lincoln.  Virginia was finally successful in getting C. C.’s release, by order of President Andrew Johnson, in April, 1866, with some special help from General U. S. Grant.  Obviously, Virginia’s influence reached far beyond just Southern connections.

C. C. and Virginia returned to Huntsville, with most of their wealth destroyed by the war.  He tried selling insurance, farming and other ways to recover financially but mostly they survived on the generosity of Virginia’s wealthy friends and relatives. During the 1870s, as C. C. traveled in Alabama and Mississippi trying to jump start their economic recovery, she ran their plantation and developed new ways of working with laborers on their land.  C. C. Clay, Jr. died on 3 January 1882 a broken man who, it seems, never fully recovered from the devastating effects on his family and himself that adhered from losing the war.

A dynamic woman like Virginia Tunstall Clay was to demonstrate, again, she still possessed exceptional talents and almost a bottomless capacity to survive and prosper. For the next few years, she lived in her home, called “Wildwood,” near Huntsville, with two of her nieces.   In 1884, she traveled in Europe.  In 1886, she returned to Washington to relive her glory days in the 1850s when she was simply, “the hostess with the mostest!”  At the age of 62, on 29 November 1887, she married David Clopton, a justice on the Alabama Supreme Court.  They lived in Montgomery until his death on 5 February 1892.  Then she returned to Wildwood, for retirement?  Not Virginia!

During this time, she discovered an issue worthy of her talents and became a pioneer advocate for the rights of women in Alabama.  The 1890s were a time of tough resistance in Alabama to expanding the rights of women.   Virginia was unimpressed and put all of her considerable energy as well as prestige into the fight.  From 1896 to 1900, she was the President of the Alabama Equal Rights Association.  In the state, it all came to a head at the Alabama Constitutional Convention of 1901.  The Convention received a petition, bearing the signature of Virginia Clay-Clopton as well as those of other Alabama women who demanded the ballot.   They reasoned that they were taxpayers and land owners thus it constituted an injustice for them not to have the right to vote.  Further, Virginia believed that women possessed exceptional talents for politics and emphasized that they, individually, could only be free if they achieved financial independence.  Obviously, she must have read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s WOMAN AND ECONOMICS [1898] advocating, in the most powerful way, this view.  In response to their petition, the men at the Convention voted overwhelmingly NOT to include in the new state constitution the right to vote for Alabama women.  They would have to wait nearly two more decades before that right would be assured by the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution.

In 1900, she completed writing about her life from 1853 to 1866 with the assistance of a journalist named Ada Sterling.  It was published under the title of A BELLE OF THE FIFTIES: MEMOIRS OF MRS. CLAY OF ALABAMA [Garden City, NY: Doubleday Page and Company, 1905].  It contains moving descriptions of: Washington, DC from 1853 to 1860; the strange feel of Southerners departing from Washington, in mass, during secession in 1860 and 1861; and the haunting experience of her husband’s imprisonment at Ft. Monroe, VA.

After being active in the Alabama Daughters of the Confederacy, in 1902, Virginia Clay-Clopton was elected Honorary Life President of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  Also, in tribute to her service, they created the Virginia Clay-Clopton Chapter #1107 of the United Daughters.

The second phase of the suffrage fight began in 1911, when Alabama women were resurgent under the leadership of Pattie Huffman Jacobs.  Virginia Clay-Clopton, in her eighties, came out to play as she headed the Huntsville chapter of the state association.

In her ninetieth year, on 16 January of 1915, the City of Huntsville celebrated her birthday.  It was her last public, social event.  On 23 June 1915, Virginia Caroline Tunstall Clay-Clopton died in her home in Gurley, Alabama.  At the time she was a member of the Protestant Episcopal Church.  She is buried at the Maple Hill Cemetery in Huntsville, Alabama.

During these tumultuous times, Virginia Tunstall responded to an amazing array of nearly insurmountable challenges.  These difficulties often threatened to overwhelm her family as well as her personally.  She never, ever gave in to defeat.  She responded with intelligence, good judgment, faith, flexibility, creativity and a powerful will to live a good life while helping others less fortunate than herself.  Without doubt her Nash County blood kin: the Arringtons, the Battles and the Tunstalls, in particular, would have been very proud of her.  While she did not live to vote in 1920 with many of the women with whom she had worked in the Alabama Equal Rights Association, it is certain, that on that day, many of them felt her presence, with much appreciation, as they cast their first vote for the country’s next president.  Once they felt the unique joy of voting for the first time, after such a long, hard fight by their sisters who came before them, it seems likely that many of them said, with no shortage of tears: “Oh, if only Virginia could be here to experience this with us!”

[click on photo to enlarge]

from Virginia’s autobiography THE BELLE OF THE FIFTIES [1904], pages 148 and 149:

As the country fell a part in the late 1850s, when all hope vanished and the deep southern states began to withdraw, the Southern senators, including Virginia’s husband C. C., agreed to leave the Senate together on 21 January 1861.  On that day, the Senate gallery, which held about one thousand people, was packed, mostly with women and relatives.  As each Southern senator made his speech of departure, there were cheers for each man from the gallery and the chamber’s security did not bother to enforce the usual decorum.

When C. C. and Virginia arrived back at their residence, with a mixture of joy and sadness, there was a letter waiting for them from a New Hampshire minister.  She opened it and read it.  It said:

“I am utterly appalled at this projected dissolution of our Government.  To lose, to throw away our place and name among the nations of the earth seems not merely like the madness of suicide, but like the blackness of annihilation.  If this thing shall be accomplished, it will be, to my view, the crime of the nineteeth century; the partition of Poland will be nothing in comparison.  .   .   .

Born and educated as we are at the North, sensible men at the South cannot wonder at the views we entertain; nor do sensible men in the North think it strange that, born and educated as the Southerner is, [that] he should feel very differently from the Northerners in some things; but, why should not all these difficulties sink before our common love for our common country?”

Henry E. Parker