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In the life stories of three “accidental heroes”—women whose marriages provided them with position and perspective they would not otherwise have had—Carol Berkin, one of the nation’s premier historians, offers a unique understanding of the tumultuous social and political landscape of their time.
Drawing on private and public records, Berkin shows us how Angelina Grimké Weld bravely renounced her Southern family’s values, embracing the anti-slavery movement, only to find her voice silenced by marriage to fellow reformer Theodore Weld. In Varina Howell Davis, we see an independent mind and spirit that incurred the disapproval of her husband, Jefferson Davis, and made her ill-suited for her role as First Lady of the Confederacy, but served her well when she was lobbying for her husband’s release from prison. The wife of Ulysses S. Grant, Julia Dent Grant, was a model of genteel domesticity, content with the restrictions of motherhood and with the alternating fame and disgrace, wealth and poverty, that her marriage entailed, until late in life when she glimpsed the price of dependency.
Bringing these three remarkable women vividly alive, Berkin captures the tensions and animosities of the prewar era and the disruptions and anxieties generated by the war and its aftermath, and connects us to our national past with rare immediacy and verve.
“A fascinating and lively narrative, informed by rigorous scholarship, Civil War Wives reminds us that even as the epic war was fought on the battlefield, these women often waged interior battles that proved no less gripping and painful.” —Carmela Ciuraru, The Christian Science Monitor
“Berkin’s approach is feminist but hardly doctrinaire — her portraits of the three women in Civil War Wives are deeply researched and place them thoughtfully in the rich context of their times. . . . Using letters, books and other historical documents, Berkin paints a lively and empathetic picture of these women’s lives.” —St. Petersburg Times
“Berkin has found rich ground in the wives of famous men during the Civil War and mines it for wonderfully readable stories. Her new book, Civil War Wives is interesting for the women’s stories and for the contrast among the three. It also offers insight into the lives of 19th-century women. . . . Berkin is a great storyteller, her writing is colorful, her subjects multilayered and their times and trials fascinating.” —Associated Press
“An absorbing and wrenching book, Civil War Wives takes a fresh look at America’s most deadly struggle through the lives of three distinctive women: Angelina Grimké Weld, the charismatic abolitionist and feminist; Varina Howell Davis, the ‘Queen’ of the Confederacy; and Julia Dent Grant, the First Lady of the United States. Brilliantly told, this is the story both of the tragedies and triumphs of family life in the midst of war, and of how much nineteenth century women of talent surrendered when they married.” —Rosalind Rosenberg, author of Divided Lives and Changing the Subject
“From firebrand abolitionists to slaveholders’ daughters, Civil War Wives illuminates three extraordinary American wives during our country's most divided and dramatic years. Carol Berkin’s fluid and absorbing portraits move beyond her emblematic trio to offer captivating insights on sex and marriage, on partnerships and war during this tumultuous era.” —Catherine Clinton, author of Mrs. Lincoln: A Life
“Civil War Wives is an engaging, deftly balanced study of three remarkable women. As always, Carol Berkin combines exhaustive research with a unique narrative voice to produce an innovative interpretation of the past that will keep readers riveted.” —Douglas R. Egerton, author of Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America
“Carol Berkin, author of the superb work Revolutionary Mothers, now masterfully turns her eye to the Civil War. With Berkin’s customary flair, Civil War Wives is gracefully penned, rendered with nuance, and utterly fresh. It is, too, by turns sensitive, poignant , and thoroughly fascinating, and belongs on the bookshelf of all Civil War enthusiasts, right next to the biographies of Ulysses S. Grant, Jefferson Davis and Mary Lincoln. Bravo!” —Jay Winik, author of April 1865 and The Great Upheaval
“With the engaging style and command of the sources that readers have become accustomed to, Carol Berkin brings to life three significant but little-known figures of 19th century America and in so doing illuminates the complicated ways in which that society both opened and closed doors of opportunity for American women.” —Eric Foner, author of Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World
“Professor Berkin, writing in a lively style, approaches the Civil War era from a feminist perspective, focusing on three women who married powerful men. . . . This finely nuanced, absorbing account makes an important contribution to both Civil War literature and the history of American women.” —Brad Hooper, Booklist (starred review)
“[A] probing sociological portrait. . . . Berkin once again provides a fresh perspective on women in American history.” —Kirkus
“Carol Berkin combines the analytical insight and research acumen of a skillful historian with the vivid, engaging, graceful prose of a fine novelist. In this book, her three historical protagonists seem to walk right off the page and into the room with us. It is a very impressive achievement.” —Bruce Levine, author of Half Slave and Half Free