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.
shopkeeper’s pavement, or put in coal, or do anything that I could do just as well as they. And so because I was a girl there seemed to be nothing but starvation or beggary before me!” Mrs. Southworth hadn’t yet joined forces with the women who had met at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, but she found other ways to make the point! Another sign of progress: the major expansion of the Capitol building, under the direction of Montgomery Meigs with the combined support of strange bedfellows
politicians for the nomination. Ohio governor Salmon P. Chase knew the city well; he had been there as a young man studying law and returned as senator a decade earlier, when he had fought against the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Now he was back as “the rebel candidate for the presidency,” in the view of Mrs. Adams. She threw a small dinner for him one night and he joined her and a lively group at the Blairs’ another night, along with his nineteen-year-old daughter. It would not be long before Kate Chase
and north. Frémont went north and staved off that advance; General Nathaniel Lyon went south with too few soldiers and lost his life. As southwest Missouri fell to the enemy, Jessie’s letters became more agitated: “By dint of begging and bullying some guns & money are being gotten in, but every useful thing is being concentrated around Washington.” The hounding missives didn’t stop at the Cabinet level. Jessie went right to the top, protesting to President Lincoln: “The State is being occupied by
entirely along party lines on any legislation that touched on slavery. But without southern members to block them in the legislature, other major bills sailed through that changed the face of the country: the Homestead Act, giving anyone willing to settle the West 160 acres; the Morrill Act, establishing land grant colleges to provide higher education in agriculture, mechanical skills, and military training; the Pacific Railroad Act, appropriating funds to build a transcontinental railroad; plus
businessman, and was free to go where she wanted. Having been told that there was no point in taking her case to the top because “Mr. Lincoln will hang nobody,” she went with some trepidation to a reception at the Executive Mansion, where Mrs. Lincoln was entertaining again after her year of mourning for Willie. Mrs. Swisshelm believed that Lincoln “had proved an obstructionist instead of an abolitionist, and I felt no respect for him; while his wife was everywhere spoken of as a Southern woman