Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868
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In this engrossing and informative companion to her New York Times bestsellers Founding Mothers and Ladies of Liberty, Cokie Roberts marks the sesquicentennial of the Civil War by offering a riveting look at Washington, D.C. and the experiences, influence, and contributions of its women during this momentous period of American history.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, the small, social Southern town of Washington, D.C. found itself caught between warring sides in a four-year battle that would determine the future of the United States.
After the declaration of secession, many fascinating Southern women left the city, leaving their friends—such as Adele Cutts Douglas and Elizabeth Blair Lee—to grapple with questions of safety and sanitation as the capital was transformed into an immense Union army camp and later a hospital. With their husbands, brothers, and fathers marching off to war, either on the battlefield or in the halls of Congress, the women of Washington joined the cause as well. And more women went to the Capital City to enlist as nurses, supply organizers, relief workers, and journalists. Many risked their lives making munitions in a highly flammable arsenal, toiled at the Treasury Department printing greenbacks to finance the war, and plied their needlework skills at The Navy Yard—once the sole province of men—to sew canvas gunpowder bags for the troops.
Cokie Roberts chronicles these women's increasing independence, their political empowerment, their indispensable role in keeping the Union unified through the war, and in helping heal it once the fighting was done. She concludes that the war not only changed Washington, it also forever changed the place of women.
Sifting through newspaper articles, government records, and private letters and diaries—many never before published—Roberts brings the war-torn capital into focus through the lives of its formidable women.
Infantry from joining the line along the route, the soldiers smartly took a place instead at the front, leading the other mourners of their emancipator, Abraham Lincoln. Lizzie Lee stayed with Mary Lincoln all that day until the Lincoln sons came home from the Capitol. “I was so weary from 24 hours of unflagging watching that I undressed & went to bed,” she sighed. As exhausted as she was, she felt obliged to give her hectoring husband an account of the family finances. Phillips Lee had grown
formed here . . . to establish a ‘National Gallery of the Fine Arts,’” Mary Jane Windle was able to tell her readers that spring. And Harriet Lane turned out to be a trendsetter in fashion. Reporting on an evening at “the President’s,” Varina Davis knew her mother would want to know exactly what she wore: “the old gold coloured silk with a width of black velvet let in the sides, and black lace each side, also a black bertha of lace and lemon colored bows.” Harriet had introduced the “bertha”—a
January 1, 1863, the Papers of William Henry Seward, microfilm set in Department of Rare Books and Special Collections Reels, University of Rochester Library, quoted in Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 498. 198 “Chases had the roughest set”: Lee to Samuel Phillips Lee, January 1, 1863, in Wartime Washington: The Civil War Letters of Elizabeth Blair Lee, ed. Virginia Jeans Laas (Urbana and Chicago: University of
with patriotism, and already red with blood” sobered even more the nervous Louisa, who wasn’t sure whether she would end this adventure “alive or dead.” As soon as she arrived in Georgetown, after a brief night’s sleep she “began my new life by seeing a poor man die at dawn.” It was the start of a taxing but fascinating few weeks that would help propel Louisa May Alcott to the extraordinary literary success she achieved. Her journal gives a fairly matter-of-fact account of those tough days and
overpowering the ability of social welfare societies to aid them and adding to the likelihood of proliferating epidemics requiring the full-time services of the Sisters of Mercy. But the war brought great wealth as well. Supplies for the soldiers required shipping and storing, so warehouses bulged and wharves burst with goods. Railroads carried tons of freight in and out of the city and real estate prices catapulted to new heights as northern businessmen arrived to take advantage of all the