We had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Carol Berkin on her book Civil War Wives. Her book 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 Grimke Weld, Varina Howell Davis, and Julia Dent Grant.
FT: You indicated in choosing your subjects you needed those who left sources to tell their stories, either by diary, letters, speeches, etc. Was there anyone you would like to have included had the necessary resources been available?
CB: There were many women I would have liked to write about — for example, Mrs Robert E Lee, Helen Pitts Douglass [Frederick Douglass’s second wife]– but the criteria I set was that I be able to tell the woman’s story in her own words, through her letters, diary, memoirs, and very very few married women of that era left such records.
FT: In your research did you find anything that surprised you about these women?
CB: Many things. I was surprised– and delighted- to see Angelina Grimke slowly grow into a true humanist, concerned about the lives of African Americans as real people not as symbolic figures or a vague collective of oppressed people. In her early years, she was, as many abolitionists remained, more concerned about the souls of slave masters than about the enslaved; over a decade she came to be concerned about the slaves themselves.
Ultimately she was one of the very few abolitionists who set as her goal racial equality not simply the end of slavery. I was amazed at how witty and perceptive Varina was– I knew she was beautiful and I assumed, wrongly, that she was a typical southern belle. She proved to be brilliant, insightful, witty. I think she is the historical figure I liked most of all the people I have written about. And, Julia— well, she sometimes kept me in stitches with her naiveté.
FT: If you could sit down and have a conversation with Mrs. Grant, Mrs. Davis, or Mrs. Weld, which one would you choose and why?
CB: Oh, I think Varina Howell Davis. As a relatively bright and very curious about the world southern girl myself, I guess I empathized with how much of a misfit she was in the world she grew up in and was required to remain in by her marriage. I would have liked to sit down with her and tell her how glad I was she — like me– made it to NYC!
FT: Your description of Mrs. Grant’s visit to Richmond was very moving. Was it common after the fall of Richmond for wives such as Mrs. Grant to tour the city?
CB: When the city surrendered, most of the Washington dignitaries went to Richmond to ride through in triumph. Only General Grant refused, saying he had humiliated them enough and would not add to their sorrow by, as we would say today, rubbing it in.
FT: Knowing what you’ve learned about these three women, what do you think they would think of today’s women?
CB: Oh, this is not the kind of question historians feel comfortable answering. They were products of another century– with views and assumptions we can only try to understand. How they would understand our moment in time– who knows?
About the Author of Civil War Wives
Dr. Carol Berkin received her B.A. from Barnard College and her M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University where she won the Bancroft Dissertation Award. She is Presidential Professor of History at Baruch College and a member of the history faculty of the Graduate Center of CUNY. She teaches early American and women’s history.