Carol Berkin is the author of Civil War Wives: The Lives and Times of Angelina Grimke Weld, Varina Howell Davis, and Julia Dent Grant.
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.
Complete text is at History News Network, October 19, 2009