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Civil War Wives

The lives of three prominent Civil War-era women illustrate the drama that took place off the battlefield.

By Carmela Ciararu / September 29, 2009



The three women whose lives are explored in Carol Berkin’s latest book, Civil War Wives, came from Southern, socially elite slaveholding families. Through marriage to prominent men, they gained access to power, but had none themselves. They were autonomous – to a point. Although they differed temperamentally and as to how they negotiated 19th-century ideals of “proper” conduct, each experienced privileges, sacrifices, and restrictions that few others could imagine.

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And unlike many notable wives who had access to generals and statesmen, Angelina Grimke Weld, Varina Howell Davis and Julia Dent Grant left behind an abundance of direct, unfiltered source material – letters, essays, memoirs, and diaries—making them ideal biographical subjects, as Berkin notes, and allowing us “to glimpse aspects of the nineteenth century that might otherwise be lost in the roar of cannon and heated debate.”

“I did not want to reconstruct a lunar landscape, filled with women who could be known only in the reflected light of their husband’s commentary,” Berkin writes, citing as an example Mary Anna Lee, Robert E. Lee’s wife, who was also in the public eye but left a scant record told in her own voice.

In contrast, the accounts by Weld (wife of an abolitionist), Davis (wife of a Confederate president Jefferson Davis), and Grant (wife of Ulysses S. Grant) illuminate their lives in rich detail, and offer insight into how women wrestled with the demands made upon them.

Angelina Grimke is arguably the most compelling character – and, as one of the preeminent antislavery orators of the 1830s – the most transgressive. Early on, she rejected her family’s genteel life in South Carolina. Along with her sister, Sarah, she became an impassioned abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, writing to a friend that “it is not the cause of the slave only which we plead, but the cause of woman as a responsible moral being.”

She also took part in the nation’s first public debate between a man and a woman, a radical act that made her seem “unladylike” and stirred condemnation and harassment. (A group of ministers declared that when a woman “assumes the place & tone of a man as a public reformer, her character becomes unnatural.”) When Grimke married fellow abolitionist and education reformer Theodore Weld in 1838, she reluctantly abandoned her high-profile activism to tend to the domestic realm, a role to which she proved ill-suited.

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