Civil War Wives

By CAROL BERKIN

Whether thanks to Scarlett and her hoop skirts or to our own unhealed national scars, there’s something endlessly fascinating about lives rent apart by the Civil War. Nineteenth-century American womanhood, with its mixture of ambition and limitation in essentially bonded lives, also continues to feel both resonant and haunting.  In Carol Berkin’s hand, this triptych of three women — one abolitionist and the two “first wives” of the Confederacy and the Union, respectively – provides a fascinating lens through which to view struggle and belonging during the tumultuous generation surrounding the Civil War. Oddly, all three women are southerners. Each comes from a slaveholding background. Each tries to fathom her role as the wife of a powerful man, as well as the limits of her own power in the face of chaos, destruction, and changing social norms. Angelina Grimke, too sharp-tongued to be a southern belle, renounces her plantation upbringing, eventually finding her voice as one of the first women abolitionists. Her life as a public speaker challenges not only racial bias but also the gender conventions of the day. Varina Davis, wife of Confederate president Jefferson by Davis, attempts good public relations and is also challenged as the watchful power behind the throne. By contrast, Julia Grant, wife of the general and president, seems as if she’d have been a content not to have the sphere of her femininity challenged by the whole mess, either of politics or war. Though deeply grounded in fact, these microhistories of individual women’s lives read as linked novellas, capturing three women apprehending differently the unraveling of their Union, and its difficult implications for their lives.