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Civil War Wives

The lives of three prominent Civil War-era women illustrate the drama that took place off the battlefield.

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The three women whose lives are explored in Carol Berkin’s latest book, Civil War Wives, came from Southern, socially elite slaveholding families. Through marriage to prominent men, they gained access to power, but had none themselves. They were autonomous – to a point. Although they differed temperamentally and as to how they negotiated 19th-century ideals of “proper” conduct, each experienced privileges, sacrifices, and restrictions that few others could imagine.

And unlike many notable wives who had access to generals and statesmen, Angelina Grimke Weld, Varina Howell Davis and Julia Dent Grant left behind an abundance of direct, unfiltered source material – letters, essays, memoirs, and diaries—making them ideal biographical subjects, as Berkin notes, and allowing us “to glimpse aspects of the nineteenth century that might otherwise be lost in the roar of cannon and heated debate.”

“I did not want to reconstruct a lunar landscape, filled with women who could be known only in the reflected light of their husband’s commentary,” Berkin writes, citing as an example Mary Anna Lee, Robert E. Lee’s wife, who was also in the public eye but left a scant record told in her own voice.

In contrast, the accounts by Weld (wife of an abolitionist), Davis (wife of a Confederate president Jefferson Davis), and Grant (wife of Ulysses S. Grant) illuminate their lives in rich detail, and offer insight into how women wrestled with the demands made upon them.

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