Civil War Wives: The Lives and Times of Angelina Grimke Weld, Varina Howell Davis, and Julia Dent Grant

Civil War Wives: The Lives and Times of Angelina Grimke Weld, Varina Howell Davis, and Julia Dent Grant

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by Carol Berkin

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Here are the life stories of three women who connect us to our national past and provide windows onto a social and political landscape that is strangely familiar yet shockingly foreign.

Berkin focuses on three “accidental heroes” who left behind sufficient records to allow their voices to be heard clearly and to allow us to see the world as they did.


Here are the life stories of three women who connect us to our national past and provide windows onto a social and political landscape that is strangely familiar yet shockingly foreign.

Berkin focuses on three “accidental heroes” who left behind sufficient records to allow their voices to be heard clearly and to allow us to see the world as they did. Though they held no political power themselves, all three had access to power and unique perspectives on events of their time.

Angelina Grimké Weld, after a painful internal dialogue, renounced the values of her Southern family’s way of life and embraced the antislavery movement, but found her voice silenced by marriage to fellow reformer Theodore Weld. Varina Howell Davis had an independent mind and spirit but incurred the disapproval of her husband, Jefferson Davis, when she would not behave as an obedient wife. Though ill-prepared and ill-suited for her role as First Lady of the Confederacy, she became an expert political lobbyist for her husband’s release from prison. Julia Dent Grant, the wife of Ulysses S. Grant, was a model of genteel domesticity who seemed content with the restrictions of marriage and motherhood, even though they led to alternating periods of fame and disgrace, wealth and poverty. Only late in life did she glimpse the price of dependency.

Throughout, Berkin captures the tensions and animosities of the antebellum era and the disruptions, anxieties, and dislocations generated by the war and its aftermath.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A Fascinating and lively narrative"— The Christian Science Monitor
"Thoroughly fascinating. . . . belongs on the bookshelf of all Civil War enthusiasts, right next to the biographies of Ulysses S. Grant, Jefferson Davis, and Mary Lincoln."— Jay Winik, author of April 1865 and The Great Upheaval 
"Using letters, books and other historical documents, Berkin paints a lively and empathetic picture of these women's lives."— St. Petersburg Times
"A well written, highly accessible exploration of marriage and the cult of true womanhood as it played out in the lives of three southern women. Berkin's fascinating case studies . . . reveal the complex interplay out in the lives of southern women of the Civil War era."— Civil War Book Review 

Publishers Weekly
The wives of abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld, Confederacy president Jefferson Davis and Union commander Ulysses S. Grant don't fit comfortably between one book's covers. Though they lived during roughly the same period, they differed in disposition, situation aspiration and gifts. But Baruch College and CUNY Graduate Center historian Berkin (Revolutionary Mothers) isn't out to create a group portrait. Instead, she wants to catch the realities of three “privileged, yet restricted” women and thus to reveal how even the most fortunate of wives—at least fortunate in the importance and celebrity of their husbands—struggled, not always successfully, to face down the difficulties of their sex. In this, Berkin is entirely successful. Her engaging prose and sympathetic posture bring the three women vividly to life. Weld, Davis and Grant were unrepresentative in their marriages but typical in their struggles to use their sharp minds to break free of the era's restrictions on married women. Even if they weren't, contrary to Berkin's hackneyed word, “heroes,” they pointed the way to what women's lives might—and eventually did—become. 6 photos. (Sept. 9)
Library Journal
This book examines how three women with very public lives grappled with the ideology of their separate spheres in an era of immense political and social upheaval. Angelina Grimke (1805–79), daughter of a Southern slaveholding family, defied her family to become the public voice of abolitionism during the 1830s, but retired from public life after her marriage to antislavery orator Theodore Weld. Varina Howell Davis (1826–1906), wife of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, struggled to meet her husband's expectations for a dutiful wife, but later drew on her independent spirit to survive defeat and disgrace. Meanwhile, Julia Dent Grant (1826–1902), wife of General and President Ulysses S. Grant, cheerfully embraced her role as wife and mother, striving to enhance her husband's life and legacy. Drawing primarily on memoirs and letters, Berkin (history, Baruch Coll. & CUNY Graduate Ctr.; Revolutionary Mothers) succeeds in presenting the unique personality of each woman along with the momentous challenges each faced socially and personally. There are other works about these women separately, such as Joan E. Cashin's First Lady of the Confederacy, and Gerda Lerner's classic, The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina, while Ishbel Ross's The General's Wife, written 50 years ago, is no longer in print. VERDICT Undergraduates will find Berkin's book a succinct source of reliable, scholarly information while general readers will enjoy the engaging stories.—Linda V. Carlisle, Ph.D., Southern Illinois Univ., Edwardsville
Kirkus Reviews
Biography of three important women from the Civil War era. The author of multiple books about women in colonial America, Berkin (History/Baruch Coll.; Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence, 2005, etc.) jumps ahead to the Civil War to investigate how these women's marriages to prominent men shaped their lives. Angelina Grimke Weld, who married abolitionist agitator Theodore Weld, was an outspoken proponent of abolition, racial equality and women's rights; Varina Howell Davis had a sharp mind and an independent streak that helped her fight for the freedom of her husband, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, after his postwar imprisonment; Julia Dent Grant found contentment in her domestic role as wife to Ulysses S. Grant and mother to four children. Any one of these women would make for an engaging biography, but Berkin uses their stories-reconstructed from their letters, diaries and speeches-to serve a larger theme: the female experience in the late 1800s. It often meant sublimation and compromise. Though Angelina Weld was an early star in the abolitionist movement, she submitted to quiet domesticity after her marriage. Varina Davis was often criticized by her husband for her lack of passivity, even though he said he treasured her "fine mind." Julia Grant so fully embraced the ideal of domestic life that she only found her voice, as a memoirist, in the last few years of her life. Indeed, as Berkin emphasizes in this probing sociological portrait, all three women "had access to the seats of power but no power themselves."Berkin once again provides a fresh perspective on women in American history. Author tour to Atlanta, Boston, New York, Washington, D.C.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt



America at the Crossroads in the 1830s

"it was the best of times. It was the worst of times." When Charles Dickens penned these now familiar words of contradiction, he was not speaking of the United States in 1830. Yet the contradiction surely applied, for during this turbulent decade Americans agreed that their country was changing rapidly. But whether the changes they witnessed were for the good or bad, they sharply disagreed.

No one could deny that the nation was growing, both physically and in population. Eight new states had come into the Union since the century began and two more would join before the decade ended. The nation's population had soared, growing from under four million in 1790 to almost thirteen million by 1830. Although the great wave of German and Irish immigration lay ahead in the 1840s, roughly a hundred thousand new Americans would arrive in the United States before the decade was over. Yet if the nation was growing larger, there was a sense that it was also becoming more intimate, for a revolution in transportation and communication

was in full swing. Toll roads crisscrossed the country, creating a transportation network unimagined in the eighteenth century. The heavily traveled National Road had snaked its way through the Appalachian Mountains since the 1820s, and by 1830 it reached as far as the Ohio River. Construction on a state-of-the-art highway soon followed, and by 1838 it carried people and produce as far as Illinois. A system of canals, including the famous Erie Canal, now linked the western countryside to the cities of the Northeast. Americans were already growing accustomed to the marvels of new technology, for since the late eighteenth century, steamboats with fanciful names such as Car of Neptune, Firefly, and Vesuvius could be seen on the Hudson, Delaware, and Savannah rivers. But an even faster, if noisier, form of transportation was beginning to appear on the landscape: the railroad. Americans who had seen Peter Cooper's "Tom Thumb" steam locomotive make its first run in 1830 knew they had been given a glimpse of the future.

Cheaper printing technology and improved mail service were creating a more intimate America as well. Letters posted in Buffalo, New York, sped south in the holds of canal boats, reaching New York City in a remarkable six days. The same letter could reach New Orleans in only two weeks. Affordable books, pamphlets, and newspapers now reached homes that had once boasted of nothing but a family Bible. The statistics were dazzling: in 1790, 92 newspapers were published in the United States, with a circulation of four million; by 1835, there were 1,258 newspapers reaching ninety million readers. By 1836, instant communication seemed possible, as Samuel F. B. Morse perfected his electric telegraph.

Changes in the American economy were no less dramatic. In the North, production had begun to move out of the household and into shops and factories, while in the South, King Cotton claimed its throne. The signs of prosperity were everywhere: not only in urban mansions and Southern plantation homes but also in the luxuries that graced the tables of the nation's middle class. Signs of expanding democracy were just as obvious, at least for the white male population. The older notion that only men of property should enjoy full citizenship had given way to the demand for wider participation in choosing those who made the laws and set the policies for the nation. The "era of the common man" was in full swing by the 1830s, and as the number of voters swelled, a new breed of professional politicians emerged to woo their support and to offer policies that served their interests.

Along with these changes came a new national ethos. The brash nationalism that had followed the War of 1812 produced a cultural revolution. Young American artists turned their backs on Old World subjects, preferring to capture on their canvases the natural beauty of their country's mountains and rivers. The romance with the American landscape, embodied in the Hudson River school of artists, had its literary counterpart in the works of writers such as James Fenimore Cooper, who created characters and plots drawn from local myths and local history. Americans even had their own dictionary, thanks to Noah Webster-another sign, if one was needed, of independence from their English past.

At the same time that American artists were discovering the aesthetic soul of the nation, American religious leaders were discovering the democratization of the human soul. A religious revival swept the nation in the early nineteenth century, carrying the message that everyone was capable of attaining salvation, that heaven's doors opened to the penitent sinner, and that there was room for all in paradise. This Second Great Awakening, as historians came to call it, declared that men and women could shape their own destiny if they embraced Christ. And if salvation was within the reach of everyone, surely life on earth could also be improved. Missionary societies took up the task of converting those they called heathens at home and abroad. Utopian communities sprang up, each an experiment in new social arrangements that might guide the way to a perfect society. Reformers organized campaigns against alcoholism, sexual immorality, the abuse of the insane, the handicapped, and the criminal. By the 1830s, Americans could speak of a "benevolent empire" of devoted men and women, eager to eradicate all social ills and imperfections.

And yet there was a darker side to all this change. The expansion of the South's Cotton Kingdom also meant the expansion of slavery. If many of the framers of the Constitution had quietly hoped African American slavery would vanish from their republic, the soaring profits enjoyed by Southern planters destroyed that dream. The westward movement of the white population, made possible by improved transportation and fueled by the insatiable thirst for land, was already setting slave master against small farmer in the territories. The West was becoming, in the minds of both political leaders and ordinary citizens, a competitive battleground between the systems of slave and free labor. The decade had begun with an attempt to control the tensions, but few were convinced that the political bandage known as the Missouri Compromise would stop the spread of sectional tensions.

Americans also discovered there was a price to pay for rapid economic growth and expansion when the boom economy of the early 1830s

morphed into the bust economy of its later years. In 1837, panic and widespread depression wiped out rich men's fortunes and destroyed poor men's dreams. Banks that had swung their doors wide closed them tightly soon afterward, leaving farmers and small merchants to mourn the loss of their life savings. Debtors' prisons overflowed and businessmen learned that social mobility was a ladder that could carry them down as well as up.

A new anxiety about rapid change rippled beneath the surface of this age of optimism and belief in progress. By the mid-thirties, a disturbing question began to be raised: where was America headed? Many feared that the land of Jefferson's Protestant yeoman farmer was becoming the land of speculators, bankers, African American slaves, and Catholic immigrants. A belief in conspiracies began to take hold, prompting the rise of the Know-Nothing Party, which accused American Freemasons of dangerous secret rituals, undue influence in business and politics, and even murder. Northern reformers spoke ominously, and often, of the "slaveocracy," a conspiratorial coalition of Southern planters and their Northern business allies. Even the consumer revolution that brought luxuries such as ice cream

to day laborers and fashionable gowns to the wives of clerks proved troubling. The eager embrace of goods seemed to spell a victory for Mammon over God.

Other Americans wondered what traditional values were being lost in the race to modernity. They viewed the lure of the city with alarm, for urban opportunities drew young men and young women away from the watchful eyes of parents and ministers. The city's anonymity-and its decadence-were destroying the morality of their sons and daughters. Certainly those who read the headlines in 1836, detailing the brutal and mysterious death of a young New York prostitute, had reason to fear that vice, violence, and moral corruption were dangers lurking on every city street.

Still others asked who controlled politics in this new age of interest groups and professional officeholders. The expansion of suffrage to all adult white males in most states had unexpected political consequences. Political parties were developing efficient vote-garnering machinery, their candidates willing to make promises to the common man they could not (and never intended to) keep while selling their votes to powerful interests such as the planters, manufacturers, and merchants whose bidding they were more than eager to do.

Everywhere some Americans looked they saw greed, exploitation, sin, and excess-and, just as their more optimistic neighbors were doing, they mounted a determined crusade to improve the world around them. But their reform was harder-edged: if the promise of perfectability resonated with them as it did with their counterparts, the stakes for these reformers were higher. Unless Americans fought the temptations of their changing world, God's wrath would be felt and the nation would be punished. The focus of the energies of a small but determined group soon became the abolition of slavery, for it would carry with it the end to the political and economic power of Southern slave masters and their Northern commercial allies. Abolition would guarantee the fulfillment of the promise of the Revolution: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.

Over the next two decades, these abolitionists waged a dogged battle against what they considered the unholy alliances of cotton magnates and Northern merchants, Southern and Northern politicians, slave owners and those in the free states who closed their eyes to the evils of the "peculiar institution." Although they were always a small minority, their crusade moved the nation closer to both civil war and emancipation. One of the most remarkable of these crusaders was Angelina Grimké, who began

life as a pampered and self-absorbed child of privilege and ended it as a woman dedicated not only to abolition but also to racial equality.

Meet the Author

Carol Berkin received her A.B. from Barnard College and her M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University. She taught at Baruch College from 1972 to 2008 and has taught at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York since 1983. She is currently Baruch Presidential Professor of History. Berkin is the author of Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, Jonathan Sewall: Odyssey of an American Loyalist, First Generations: Women in Colonial America, and numerous articles and reviews. She lives in New York City and Guilford, Connecticut.

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Civil War Wives: The Lives and Times of Angelina Grimke Weld, Varina Howell Davis, and Julia Dent Grant 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Kt_Mamma More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed Civil War Wives! I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the woman's perspective during the Civil War era. I thought it was very interesting how these three women's lives intersected with each other. It was well written. My only complaint is that there were several descriptors that she used that I had to pull out the dictionary to find the meaning. I may not have as good a vocabulary as some, however my husband didn't know what she was talking about either.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Civil War Wives does a great job in engaging and entertaining the reader, something very hard to find in history books. The author is able to bring the stories from these three women to life and doesn't ignore the small details that give them a personality. It's refreshing to read history from a women's point of view.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago