“Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868”
by Cokie Roberts
544 pp., Harper Perennial
Reviewed by Faye Moskowitz
Professor of English, Emeritus – George Washington University
Americans have always had an understandable fascination with the Civil War, the aftershocks of which still rattle the nation. Fiction writers from Stephen Crane, “Red Badge of Courage” (1895), to Margaret Mitchell, “Gone With the Wind” (1936), and E.L. Doctorow, “The March” (2005), plus countless others, have embodied that war with their own creative interpretations.
Now comes Cokie Roberts, an award-winning political commentator for ABC News and NPR, who uses her formidable journalistic skills to give us “Capital Dames,” a nonfiction account of the Civil War, focused primarily on the years 1848-1868 and illuminating the relatively neglected political part played by the women of Washington.
If Roberts had named her richly anecdotal “Capital Dames” after a quilt pattern, she might have called it “sunshine and shadow.” This is a story whose broad outlines are now familiar to us. We know the horrific scene in Ford’s Theater is coming in spite of the sunny word-pictures of gala balls and women in the galleries of the Capitol cheering on their husbands, fathers, and other male acquaintances who might be friends or admirers.
These women, mainly socialites, worked their wiles in the only way they could — behind the scenes. They were relegated to supporting roles in the drama of their country’s agony. But the shadows obliterated the sunny days, and with the Confederate bombing of Fort Sumter, SC, the bloodiest war in the history of the United States began.
Roberts quotes from Virginia Clopton-Clay’s “A Belle of the Fifties: Covering Social and Political Life in Washington and the South, 1853-66,” “When belles met they no longer discussed furbelows and flounces, but talked of forts and fusillades.”
Robert’s story arc is predetermined by history. She hasn’t the luxury of creating her own characters, and her scenes are evoked by meticulous research. Sometimes the detail s and the sheer number of references can overwhelm the reader, but Roberts assists by helpfully dividing the women on whom she focuses into categories: political, literary and activist.
Mary Todd Lincoln, for example, comes to life as a difficult, mercurial woman, roundly condemned by many for her insistent extravagance and profoundly shaken by the death of her young son. Her “modiste,” Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who paid for her own freedom, is portrayed as the entrepreneurial business woman she was, faithful to Mary Lincoln even after the president’s death when her employer moves back home to Chicago.
We read of Sojourner Truth and her abolitionist battles — Louisa May Alcott became a nurse at a Georgetown military hospital, Dorothea Dix volunteered her services to the Surgeon General and the War Department.
At the end of the war, Clara Barton declared that life had changed for women in America. She later declared that “… woman was at least fifty years in advance of the normal position which continued peace … would have assigned her.”
Still, as Roberts points out, it wasn’t until Aug. 18, 1920, that the 19th Amendment finally gave women the right to come out of the shadows, to vote and hold political office.
Faye Moskowitz taught creative writing and American Literature at George Washington University for thirty years. She also co-founded “Jewish Literature, Live!” Learn more about Faye Moskowitz here.