July 6, 2010
When we learn about history, we learn mostly about men. This is something on the question of time. The curriculum in grade school and high school – and even in college for those who aren’t history majors – skims the surface. With respect to many epochs, that means leaving women out of the story, precisely because women were precluded from participating in what went on on the surface. Oh, we got an occasional glimpse of the other half of the population: Cleopatra, Catherine the Great, Queen Victoria, Betsy Ross, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Madame Curie, but the story overall was badly skewed.
This phenomenon is addressed in “Civil War Wives” by Carol Berkin, a book published last year. I read this book because I got it as a Father’s Day gift from one of my daughters — all of whom, by the way, are special women in their own rights, and that has a lot to do with their mother.
Carol Berkin writes about three women who lived through the Civil War period and were directly affected by the war itself and the events and conditions surrounding it. These women were Angelina Grimke Weld, an abolitionist and feminist; Varina Howell Davis, who was married to Confederate President Jefferson Davis; and Julia Dent Grant, who was married to Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War general and postwar president.
I had some knowledge of Varina Davis and Julia Grant before I read this book, but I had not heard of Angelina Grimke Weld, who was an independent thinker from childhood. She was the daughter of a slave-holding plantation owner and judge in South Carolina, but she never accepted the precepts by which her parents lived — including human slavery, self-indulgence, and the notion that women should be happily subordinate to men.
Berkin recounts the process through which Angelina and her sister Sarah moved north and engaged in a prolific campaign against slavery and for women’s rights. Angelina Grimke in the 1830s was arguing for full citizenship for women — up to and including election to the presidency of the United States. (How impatient it must make her, wherever she reposes, to know that the nation still hasn’t chosen a female president.) She was making that argument at a time in which her public appearances, usually with Sarah, were regarded by many people as inappropriate for a woman – particularly when the sisters spoke to audiences of mixed gender and even of mixed race. Angelina married the abolitionist Theodore Weld, and Berkin reports that abolitionist organizations leaned on the husband — who bent a little — to discourage his wife from distracting from the antislavery message by arguing for women’s rights.
When Varina Davis first became engaged to Jefferson Davis, she was 17 years old and he was about twice her age. He had been married many years before, but his first wife died shortly after the wedding, and he may never have fully recovered from that loss. Varina Davis was loyal to her husband while they and their larger family were buffeted by illness, death, financial crises, infidelity, and the many shocks associated with the Civil War. However, theirs was hardly an ideal marriage. Varina was also the daughter of a southern slaveholder, but she was an independent thinker and her thoughts were not always in concert with those of her family or her husband. Jefferson Davis did not admire this trait in his wife, and he admonished her throughout their lives together about her penchant for expressing herself on public matters.
For Varina Davis, one of the most painful episodes of a life full of painful episodes must have been the imprisonment of her husband for two years at Fort Monroe in Phoebus, Virginia. She tirelessly but fruitlessly campaigned to get President Andrew Johnson to intercede on Jefferson Davis’s behalf. She persisted, however, and eventually succeeded not only in getting improved conditions for the prisoner but in getting permission to move into an apartment at the prison herself so that she could visit him regularly.
After the death of Jefferson Davis, Varina shocked southern society by moving north and associating with folks who were anathema in the former Confederacy. One of them was Julia Dent Grant, whose husband had taken compassion on Varina and intervened for the imprisoned Jefferson Davis. Varina also took up a career as a newspaper journalist for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.
Julia Grant was like the other two subjects of this book in that she was also the daughter of a slave-holding planter, but she was quite a different personality. She was a homely girl – and had a crossed eye to boot, but she was never allowed to think of herself as anything but a princess, thanks to a doting father. She was raised in leisure, and she celebrated that fact for the rest of her life. She did exhibit independence with respect to one, critical, point in her life. She persisted in her determination to marry Ulysses S. Grant over the objections of parents who didn’t think the soldier could provide the kind of life Julia wanted and deserved. Ulysses did leave the military after the marriage, but he was not cut out to be a businessman, and he failed repeatedly. His return to arms, of course, led to his greatest successes in life — all of them on the battlefield — and also led to his election to two terms as president, terms that were ridden with scandal, thanks to Grant’s friends and even, in one instance, his brother-in-law.
Julia Grant was spoiled, but she was not petulant, and she weathered the changes in her life brought on by marriage to both an unsuccessful businessman and to a soldier. She reveled in her role as First Lady, and got generally good reviews for her performance as the social leader of the capital. She was not well informed about public affairs, and her occasional attempts to remedy that were not encouraged by her husband, who liked to think of her more as a loving spouse than as a helpmate. One thing was certain, as Berkin emphasizes: Julia and her “Uly” were in love — as much so on the day he died of throat cancer as on the day they were engaged.
Julia Grant, as a widow, was at West Point when she learned that Varina Davis was staying nearby. Julia went to Varina’s room and introduced herself, and the two became friends. It was a suitable gesture for Julia to make, both because Varina had never forgotten the general’s help for her imprisoned husband and because Grant — once the scourge of the South — had left instructions that his casket be carried to its tomb by equal numbers of Union and Confederate generals.