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

by Carol Berkin, Knopf

What could the wives of three famous men from the Civil War era teach us? Plenty, it turns out, when analyzed by as skillful a storyteller as historian Carol Berkin. To begin with, she has chosen her subjects well. Angelina Grimké Weld, who became a celebrated opponent of slavery following a childhood in a privileged, slaveholding family, married leading abolitionist Theodore Weld. Varina Howell Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis and first lady of the Confederacy, mixed a sharp mind with a remarkable if culture-bound inability to see slavery as anything other than benign. Julia Dent Grant, cheerful and uneducated, born to a Confederate sympathizer, is not at all the person one might expect to spend a life of mutual devotion with Union General and President Ulysses S. Grant. Berkin makes good use of details culled from diaries, letters and memoirs. But it’s the juxtaposition of three different life narratives that make this book fresh.

Grimké was a brilliant thinker and speaker who recognized the link between racial equality and women’s rights early on. In 1838 she became the first woman to testify in front of an elected assembly in America when she spoke against slavery before the Massachusetts legislature. After she married, Grimké retired from public life, and Berkin explores her domestic life during a tense period when forces for and against slavery were clashing in the new American territories.

If Grimké is a heroine in modern eyes, Varina Davis is an easy target because of her unflagging support for slavery. Yet Berkin creates a nuanced portrait of a woman who became a refugee and prisoner of war, fought to free her husband from jail, endured the deaths of most of her children, and ended up in New York, where she hosted a lively salon for artists, actors, playwrights and journalists.

In Julia Dent Grant, Berkin has a character that is both joyful and astoundingly ignorant. At one point, when talking to Confederate women who argued that Lincoln’s actions were unconstitutional, Grant confesses, “I did not know a thing about this dreadful Constitution and told them so. They seemed much astonished.”

Berkin’s foreshadowing techniques turn ham-handed at the end, and her story loses momentum. But when she is at her best, we are at the characters’ elbows, knowing the stakes are high.

 

Originally published in the December 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.