Civil War Wives

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

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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.

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.

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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.

Born in 1826, Varina Howell supported her family’s slaveholding rights, her Southern roots, and eventually her role as First Lady of the Confederacy after marrying Jefferson Davis. She had a powerful intellect, but casually regarded slavery as “a benign institution.” Although marriage had silenced Weld’s voice as an activist, it ignited Davis’s willful streak, and her husband’s family criticized her “unfeminine insistence on independent judgment.”

Her husband demanded obedience, yet Davis resisted the suppression of her will; she secretly kept her own money, for instance, and offered her husband unsolicited advice on political matters. And it was her brave and relentless fight that ultimately won his post-war prison release. As Berkin writes, her story illustrates how “women’s ingenuity, determination, and talents were, and often continue to be, viewed as latent resources, to be restrained in times of stability and called upon in times of crisis and exigency.”

Julia Dent was born the same year as Varina, and similarly accepted slavery as “too much a part of the natural order to be questioned.” She had little interest in education and was the most conservative of the three women, wholly embracing her marriage to Union General (and later ignominious US President) Ulysses S. Grant. To her, the notion that men and women ought to occupy separate realms was comforting. Yet her boldness took the form of marrying a man with no wealth (frowned upon for a woman of her class), and remaining a serene, loving wife and mother even as she endured severe tumult – including her husband’s bouts of spectacular financial ruin. After becoming a widow, Julia found her voice (and assertiveness) as a memoirist, although her book remained unpublished until 1975.

It’s true that Weld and Davis were far more introspective, ambivalent, and even defiant in their domestic roles than Grant (who actually befriended Davis late in life). Yet Berkin’s sympathetic portraits of all three women, living in the midst of tremendous political and social upheaval, offer not only a window into the past, but a mirror held up to contemporary society: even in our so-called post-feminist era, the notion of womanhood can seem every bit as complex and contradictory as it was in the 19th century.

A fascinating and lively narrative, informed by rigorous scholarship, “Civil War Wives” reminds us that even as the epic war was fought on the battlefield, these women often waged interior battles that proved no less gripping and painful.

Carmela Ciuraru is the author of several anthologies, including “Poems for America.” She is writing a nonfiction book for HarperCollins.

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