Book Talk

Three Notable Lives of Civil War Wives

The three dauntless wives as depicted on book cover are, from left, Anglina Grimké Welk, Varina Howell Davis and Julia Dent Grant.

Three fascinating 19th century women with famous husbands are the focus of Carol Berkin's new Civil War Wives: The Lives and Times of Angelina Grimké Weld, Varina Howell Davis & Julia Dent Grant (Knopf). And the best part of it is that the most tiresome and over-discussed Civil War wife - Mary Todd Lincoln - makes just one tiny (but nasty) appearance in Berkin's pages: snubbing Julia, the wife of Ulysses S. Grant, on his triumphant entry into Washington after Appomattox.

Berkin has taught for more than a quarter-century at the Graduate Center and at Baruch College, where she is now Presidential Professor of History. Civil War Wives is an obvious pendant to two of her several prior books, First Generations: Women in Colonial America and Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence.

Berkin's three novella-length biographies of these women - the wives, respectively, of Theodore Weld (a leading abolitionist orator), Jefferson Davis (first and last president of the Confederacy), and Grant (Union general and two-term president) - shed new light on the rousing history that unfolded around them. They are a decidedly unmatched set, as Berkin sums up in her preface: "Angelina's bravery won my respect, Varina's brilliance won my admiration, and Julia's contentment won my envy." Though they were all born into slave-holding families and ended up residing in the abolitionist Northeast (Julia is entombed next to her husband on the Upper West Side), their personalities are rich in contrasts.

Easily the most courageous and iron-willed is Angelina (1805-1879), the 14th child in an upper-crust planter family in Charleston. Deeply repelled by the slave culture of South Carolina, she, along with her like-minded older sister Sarah, headed for environs of Quaker Philadelphia, where she soon became an ardent abolitionist. She met her future husband at a training session of the N.Y. Anti-Slavery Association. The marriage was decidedly one of like-minded activists. Weld wrote to Angelina, "We marry . . . not merely or mainly . . . to enjoy, but together to do and to dare, together to toil and to testify." (They also had three children.)

By the mid-1830s Angelina was also getting in on the ground floor of the push for women's rights, "a contest for the rights of woman as a moral, intelligent and responsible being," she wrote. Amid the political jockeying when her two reform movements collided, Angelina became a deft and articulate public speaker. In 1838 she and Sarah became the first women to address a U.S. law-making body when the Massachusetts Legislature invited them to speak about slavery.

Her pertinacious advocacy attracted barbs from enemies, Angelina becoming "Devilina" and Miss Grimké "Miss Grimalkin." The two sisters became ferocious researchers, reading thousands of newspaper accounts of slavery around the nation. The result was Theodore Weld's Slavery as It Is, which appeared in 1839 and sold 100,000 copies. A decade later Harriet Beecher Stowe depended heavily on it as she wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin.

After the war, both sisters pressed on indefatigably (Sarah lived with the Welds all these years). And all three became teachers in Massachusetts. Angelina taught the history of slavery, while raising funds for the emancipated. A few years after the sisters were buried (next to each other; they died six years apart), an 1885 book with this title honored them: The Grimké Sisters. . . the First American Women Advocates of Abolition and Women's Rights.

Varina Howell (1826-1906) married Davis, at 37 twice her age, when he was a Mississippi planter, slaveholder and embryonic politician. Berkin makes it clear Davis was no spousal bargain, a man of "characteristic self-centeredness" who combined "fierce pride" with "thin skin." But Varina was a heroically devoted and proud wife throughout their long marriage - and even after: As a widow she composed a massive two-volume 1890 memoir of Davis glowing with admiration.

Born into Natchez aristocracy and by no means a deep thinker, the beautiful Varina had a large, uncomplicated personality hard to resist, even if it led enemies to call her Queen Varina. She would probably have been happy to have lived out her marriage on her husband's plantation, Brierfield (decimated in the war), but Davis' participation in the Mexican War made him a hero and fueled his political rise. Varina followed him four times to Washington when he was first a congressman, then senator, then secretary of war, then senator again. Along the way she became a sharp-witted, satiric observer of homo politicus.

Still, the main motif of Varina's life is one of heart-wrenching calamity. Both spouses had constant health problems, the husband's worsened by depression. Six childbirths were especially hard on her, as was the death at young ages of all four of her sons. "Nineteenth-century American graveyards were filled with tiny coffins," Berkin notes.

The collapse of her four-year stint as first lady in Richmond was particularly dreadful, she fleeing with four children southward in mud and misery (shades of Marie Antoinette), then being put under house arrest in Georgia. Union soldiers amused themselves teaching her 3-year-old son the song "We'll Hang Jeff Davis on a Sour Apple Tree." Her husband was declared an accomplice to Lincoln's murder and after capture was imprisoned for two years at Ft. Monroe in Virginia. Months of relentless and articulate badgering of everyone up to President Johnson finally got him free. Then followed a dismal decade of nomadism in search of a job to support his wife and children.

After his death in 1889 Varina dusted herself off and spunkily turned a new leaf, infuriating unreconstructed southerners by moving to New York City, establishing a lively salon and becoming a journalist for Pulitzer. Berkin calls this "merry widow" period Varina's "years of independence." Her bluff deathbed advice to her daughter was firmly in character: "Don't wear black. It is bad for your health, and will depress your husband."

Julia Dent Grant (1826-1902) enjoyed a much more comfortable, less driven life devoted to wifely support and motherhood (her four children all survived to adulthood). As Berkin sums up wryly, "She sat calmly in the maelstrom of history, a model of genteel domesticity - and a reminder of the rewards of the unexamined life."

Julia's youth was idyllic and coddled, being the favorite daughter of a "Colonel" Dent who made his fortune as a merchant in St. Louis and retired early to an 800-acre plantation complete with slaves. It was named, with absolutely no irony, White Haven. But marriage to Grant was quite a letdown: Ten years into it, in 1858, her husband was in his mid-30s, he had no prospects (having resigned from the army), and their fourth child had just arrived. Grant's sudden return to the military and rise to command is well-known, but the story Berkin tells of his efforts to keep his wife near for support during the war is not.

Once ensconced as first lady, Julia thrived on being the hostess with the mostest and seeing that White House staff was impeccable (was she reliving the plantation life of her youth?). She liked the entertaining life so much that, after a grand 18-month round-the-world tour with Ulysses, she egged him to run for a third term. "Julia, I am amazed at you," was his final squelch.

Julia's 17-year widowhood was quieter than Varina's, but Berkin does tell of their poignant happenstance meeting at a Hudson Valley resort in 1893, which was very cordial. Pulitzer's Sunday World headline hailed the report of their shaking hands as another sign of a healed nation: "Eternal Peace Now."


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Endpapers

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