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  • Writer's pictureLisa Sysun

Capital Dames, The Civil War and the Women of Washington 1848-1868

Updated: Jan 2, 2019

By Cokie Roberts

“…a riveting exploration of the ways in which the conflict transformed not only the lives of women in Washington, D.C., but also the city itself.”

I was captivated with Capital Dames from the beginning; reintroduced to women I’d seen on PBS and heard about in history class. Women like Varina Howell Davis, Elizabeth Blair Lee, and Clara Barton. Roberts weaves the stories of pre-war Washington, threading the lives and friendships of these formidable women from both the north and the south, through the turbulent war years and beyond.

Her book is well researched, drawing from multiple sources, many never before published. Roberts has an engaging way of storytelling, blending snippets from newspaper articles and diaries with the vast amount of material she investigated.

Each chapter showcases a group of different women. From Adele Cutts Douglas, Jesse Benton Frémont, Sojourner Truth, and Julia Dent Grant to Kate Chase Sprague, Mary Todd Lincoln and Dorothea Dix; I was drawn into the drama of their lives. The challenges and heartbreak along with the utter devastation, for a time, of the Union, pushed many of these women into new and demanding roles.

A few of my favorites

Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree), was born into slavery but escaped in 1826, but not before seeing two of her children sold away from her. Tall, deep voiced and in her sixties, she made a name for herself with a speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention that came to be known as “Ain’t I a woman?” Sojourner preached the abolitionist movement through Ohio, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas, adding woman’s rights in the mix along the way. When the Civil War broke out, she solicited supplies for the African-American regiments and ended up in Washington, working for the National Freedman’s Relief Association. Written about by the bestselling abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe, the illiterate woman made her living by selling her life story, Narrative of Sojourner Truth.

Jesse Benton Frémont trekked halfway around the world with children in tow, following her husband to San Francisco. Caught up in the gold rush of 1849, she survived disease and delay in Panama, and saw her husband, John, elected as the first U.S. Senator form California. She campaigned passionately and publicly for her husband’s republican nomination for president. Her enormous popularity couldn’t secure the presidency. John was ultimately defeated by James Buchanan.

Elizabeth Blair Lee chronicled wartime life in Washington. She was a favorite of President Andrew Jackson and lived for a time in the White House. As the daughter of Francis Preston Blair (a confidant of Abraham Lincoln) and the sister of Montgomery Blair (postmaster general during the civil war), she had a front row seat to the political maneuverings of Lincoln’s cabinet. Lizzie, as she was called, was married to Samuel Lee, a U.S. Navy Commander in the Union Army and a cousin to Robert E. Lee. A consummate letter-writer, she maintained friendships across enemy lines, particularly Varina Davis (wife of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States) and Harriet Lane (niece of James Buchanan.) Lizzie served for many years as a directress of the Washington City Orphan Asylum, caring for abandoned children.

Fighting the good fight, Dorothea Dix vigorously advocated for the mentally ill and created the first generation of American mental asylums. She was appointed Superintendent of Army Nurses by the Union Army and set guidelines for nurse candidates. Many male doctors and surgeons didn’t want female nurses in their hospitals, butthe crisis made it necessary to accept the female volunteers. Dorothea mandated that they be between 35-50 years old, plain-looking and wear unhooped black or brown dresses. Her army nurses cared equally for both the Union and Confederate wounded.

Rose Greenhow lived among Washington society and was a confederate spy. Fraternizing with Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson, the chairman of the Military Affairs Committee, and Secretary of State Seward, she was able to keep abreast of Union plans. Recruited by spymaster Captain Thomas Jordan, Rose assembled a network of southern spies, even as she entertained northern congressman and lobbied for a position for her son-in-law in the Union army. Quite the ruse. She was eventually arrested and relocated along with her daughter, also named Rose, to the Old Capitol Prison. Released without trial in May of 1862 on the condition she stay within Confederate boundaries, she eventually traveled to Europe. Returning to the Confederacy in 1864 aboard a British blockade runner, she ran aground at the mouth of the Cape Fear River near Wilmington, NC while being pursued by a Union gunboat. Fearing capture and reimprisonment, Rose fled by rowboat, which was swamped. She drowned, weighed down by $2,000 worth of gold sewn into her underclothes.

Kate Chase Sprague and Mary Todd Lincoln. One wanted what the other had. The other coveted what the one was. Katherine Chase, daughter of Salmon P. Chase, was a beautiful, educated, alluring and highly ambitious twenty year-old when Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860. Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, was a mother of four sons, frumpy, insecure, prone to jealousy, and twice as old as her rival in Washington society. Kate married William Sprague, Senator from Rhode Island and a millionaire industrialist, using his fortune to further her father’s relentless ambition to become president. Mary fought congress over her household budgets, buried two sons and eventually her husband. The rich seam to be mined here is deep indeed.

In closing, Robert’s book is a must-read for anyone interested in the stories of women who stepped softly and strode boldly through Washington during the twenty turbulent years covered in her book. Rest assured that several of these memorable women will find themselves written about in this blog.

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