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Vol. 10

Book Review – Civil War Wives, by Carol Berkin, Reviewed By Mark Dunkelman

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 10, Number 4

Angelina Grimke, Varina Howell, and Julia Dent came from similar backgrounds — daughters of prosperous slaveholders in the antebellum South. All three married men who became prominent and powerful figures of their era. Although publicly famous, the women’s influence was largely limited by 19th-century conventions to the private world of their families. Despite their similarities, the trio met with vastly different fates.  

Angelina Grimke left her South Carolina family on a spiritual quest, following her older sister Sarah to the North and converting to Quakerism. Embracing abolitionism, the two became influential speakers on behalf of the cause, with Angelina outshining Sarah as an inspiring orator. Then the sisters shocked standard sensibilities by advocating a feminism radical for its time. But after Angelina married the renowned abolitionist Theodore Weld, she generally traded her life as an activist for one of domesticity.

Varina Howell was a teenager when she wed widower Jefferson Davis and became mistress of his Mississippi plantation. She spent years in Washington as an opinionated and outspoken observer while her husband served as a congressman, senator, and secretary of war, interrupted by his Mexican War service. Then came the secession crisis and the war years in Richmond as first lady of the Confederacy.

With defeat came Jefferson’s imprisonment and Varina’s untiring efforts to have him freed. The reunited couple eventually settled on an admirer’s coastal Mississippi plantation, where Jefferson penned his memoirs. On his death, Southerners were appalled when Varina moved to New York City, where she spent her final years writing for Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper.

Julia Dent left behind her pampered life on a Missouri plantation to marry Capt. Ulysses S. Grant. She stuck with him through good times and bad as he floundered through civilian life, rose to supreme command in the Civil War, served two terms as president, lost his fortune and died impoverished, having just completed his memoirs — the sales of which left his widow a comfortable living. Affable and sweet, Julia was content to devote her energies to her family without pondering deeply the manly affairs of politics and war.

All three women wrote, offering Carol Berkin plentiful sources, which she uses deftly. Her book is a fine introduction to a trio of notable 19th-century American women and a poignant reminder of the limitations they faced in their era.

Mark Dunkelman has done exhaustive research on the 154th NY Volunteer Regiment since learning as a youth that his great-grandfather, Corporal John Langhans, had been a member of the regiment’s Company H. His research has lead to prolific writing about the regiment. He produced, with co-author, Michael J. Winey of the U. S. Army Military History Institute, the book The Hardtack Regiment. His next book concerned Sgt. Amos Humiston of the regiment whose body was found with nothing to identify him but a picture of his three children, which eventually led to his identity and the book Gettysburg’s Unknown Soldier — The Life and Death and Celebrity of Amos Humiston. His other books of 154th New York history include Brothers One and All (2004) and War's Relentless Hand (2006). You can find more information on the 154th at www.hardtackregiment.com.

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