Civil War Wives : The Lives and Times of Angelina Grimke Weld, Varina Howell Davis, and Julia Dent Grant
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 Grimk� 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.
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)
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September 06, 2009
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