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Why It's Time to Write Wives into the Story of the Civil War

Perhaps no subject captures the imagination of Americans as much as the Civil War. Every year, thousands of families make their pilgrimage to the battlefields on which young men in blue and gray made war against one another in the name of union or confederacy. Markers line the highways and byways of states like Mississippi, Virginia, and Georgia, reminding Southerners – and Northerners—that Dixie is still remembered. School children memorize the stirring words of Abraham Lincoln and college students ponder the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation. Statues preserve the images of the era’s orators,  abolitionists, politicians and generals and bookshelves creak from the weight of books detailing the lives of men like Abraham Lincoln, John C. Calhoun, Stephen A. Douglas, Theodore Weld, Frederick Douglass, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman. Although the men of this critical era, famous and anonymous, are long dead, these reminders of them make us feel a familiarity that seems to defy the passage of time.

Thus the story of the civil war era comes down to us as a masculine portrait, its canvass filled with both powerful and ordinary men, free and slave, black and white.Yet, many of the Americans who endured the crises of secession, the brutalities and tragedies of warfare,  the joy of success and the sorrow of defeat were wives, mothers, and daughters. For them, these experiences were not the same as for their husbands, fathers and brothers. If we are to understand the significance of the Civil War, if we are to measure its impact on the American psyche and its social landscape, we must listen to the voices of women as well as those of men. We must reconstruct the world of 19th century women with the same care and attention that we have reconstructed the world of men.

Civil War Wives is part of a growing effort to tell women’s stories and reconstruct women’s lives. It focuses on a unique group of three women whose marriages carried them to the centers of power but whose gender prevented them from wielding any of that power themselves. They had intimate knowledge of the men who dominated the era and who, because of the gender ideology of their race and class, were able to dominate their wives’ personal lives as well. The book asks basic yet too rarely considered questions: how did such women understand the cataclysmic events of their day? What challenges did they face—and how did well did they cope with these challenges? To what degree did they accept, or resist, the limits imposed on them during the crisis years by the genteel definitions of masculine and feminine—and what were the consequences of their choices? What can they tell us about the private lives of orators, reformers, political leaders and generals that we could not have suspected from the public personas adopted by these men? Most importantly, how does our understanding of the era change when the canvas is occupied by women as well as men?

In telling the stories of Angelina Grimke Weld, Varina Howell Davis, and Julia Dent Grant I have chosen three women who left behind rich records of their experiences and their thoughts. There were many other wives of famous men whose lives might reveal answers to the questions posed above, but few of them left the letters, diaries, memoirs and public statements that allow us to reconstruct their stories in their own words, without their husbands or fathers as intermediaries. That there are strikingly few such women is in itself an important commentary on our past.  .

Through her diary, we can follow Angelina Grimke Weld as she struggles with a slave system that insured her luxury in her native South Carolina; through her published essays and letters, we can see her radical views on gender equality and racial equality emerge; and through her private correspondence, we can share her growing intimacy with Theodore Weld, her complex and often debilitating relationship with her sister, and her struggle to retain her moral compass while others, inside as well as outside the anti-slavery movement, sought to silence her. From Angelina we learn the limits of the abolitionist vision, for few of the movement’s leaders shared her conviction that ending slavery was only a first step toward a greater goal of racial equality. In the post war years, she proved the strength and endurance of her convictions, recognizing as nephews the mulatto sons of her brother and financing their educations.

Varina Howell Davis’s letters to her family and friends show us the difficulties that faced a Southern woman whose brilliance could not be submerged and whose wit could not be contained. Neither her husband, Jefferson Davis, nor most of the Southern matrons of her social class appreciated Varina’s independent mind and outspoken commentary on the public and private circles she inhabited. Her memoirs give us striking insight into the personal foibles and failings as well as the unexpected acts of kindness of congressmen, presidents, and generals, and her recollections of her own suffering and the suffering of others during both the siege of Richmond vividly brings home to us the experience of defeat and dislocation in civil war. In her letters to prison doctors, former abolitionists, newspaper editors, philanthropists, generals, and political leaders, we can follow her dogged campaign to free her husband from prison after the war. Her husband’s approval of her aggressive – and thus, in his view, unfeminine—behavior in this instance provides an ironic commentary on when the rules that govern women’s lives could be broken. Only in widowhood and old age did Varina come into her own: she abandoned the South for New York City, became a writer for the Hearst papers, and reveled in the company of authors, playwrights, artists and academics, all of whom admired her intelligence and wit.

Every record left behind by Julia Dent Grant captures the contentment and self-confidence of a woman who never challenged the social norms that ruled a woman’s life in 19th century America. Her naivete and her lack of curiosity about the larger world around her come through in the memoirs she wrote in old age and in the recollections of all those who knew her well. Alone among these three women, Julia neither attempted to make history nor to understand it; she negotiated the war by reducing it meaning to its impact on her husband, Ulysses S. Grant, her children, and her friends. For Julia, the war was not a constitutional crisis, but a welcome opportunity for her husband to shine; the emancipation of the slaves was not a social revolution or an act of moral conscience but a domestic inconvenience that meant replacing the servants she owned with servants she must pay. Similarly, the scandals that plagued her husband’s presidential administrations were not threats to the nation’s stability but attacks upon her husband’s honor. Yet understanding Julia is important, for she was surely not alone in her response to the crises of her era; like millions of other Americans who did not control, and could not fully comprehend the cataclysmic events they were caught up in, she domesticated the history happening around her.

Angelina, Varina and Julia responded differently to their historical moment and to the norms and values of their race, class, and gender. Each, however, offers us a new perspective on a national narrative most often told in a masculine voice and from a masculine point of view. No matter how intimately their lives were intertwined with those of their husbands, these women narrate the events of their lifetime with a different cadence, and in a different tempo, from these men. And their stories, taken together, help us reconstruct the era of the Civil War with greater depth and complexity.