Capital Dames by Cokie Roberts – A Book Review

Big book cover Capital DamesCapital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868 by Cokie Roberts tells the story of the Civil War through the eyes of the women living in Washington. Many of the names are familiar such as Mary Lincoln, Varina Davis, and Clara Barton, but many I was unfamiliar with, such as Sara Pryor, Lois Adams, and Elizabeth “Lizzie” Lee Blair. There were rivalries between women in Washington prior to the war, but also many friends who would be torn apart because of opposing views.

The social scene in Washington before the war was flourishing. Harriet Lane, niece of President James Buchanan, was stylish, cultured, well-liked, and an excellent White House hostess. Buchanan, however, was unable to prevent the move of the country toward disunion. Between the time Lincoln was elected in November of 1860 and the time he took office in March of 1861, the southern states had seceded and formed the Confederacy.

In describing the years between 1848 and 1860, Roberts lays the groundwork for understanding the changes that occurred in the city during the Civil War.

I found the rivalry between Kate Chase Sprague, daughter of Salmon P. Chase, and Mary Lincoln particularly interesting. Kate was very ambitious for her father. He had run against Lincoln in 1860, but took a position as Lincoln’s Secretary of Treasury. Kate was considered one of the most beautiful and intelligent women in Washington and had plenty of things to say about politics and about Mary Lincoln. Initially, much of the social life continued in the capital until resources became scarce, but Kate did her part for the men in the army camps as well.

But Kate wasn’t the only woman campaigning; Jessie Frémont was just as ambitious for her husband John C. Frémont. Jessie was an outspoken opponent of slavery and Lincoln was never radical enough for her. Of course, John had been the Republican candidate in 1856 and lost, was passed over for Lincoln in 1860 by the Republican party, and was dismissed from his position in the army for insubordination. None of these events endeared the Lincolns to Jessie.

Kate Chase Sprague c. 1860 by Matthew Brady (source)

Kate Chase Sprague c. 1860 by Matthew Brady (source)

The relationships weren’t all rivalries, however, many friends were separated because of opposing politics. Some of them kept in touch when they were able to get mail through the lines, or at least receive news of friends when people passed through the city. Life changed drastically, especially for southern women. Sara Agnes Pryor was the wife of Confederate General Roger A. Pryor. Roberts follows her as she leaves Washington and is forced to move from place to place because of fighting. She is forced to leave 2 of her 5 children with relatives, and with 3 little boys to care for gives birth in a “primitive house” abandoned by one of her brother-in-law’s workers.

While Richmond was still the capital there was a form of society with engagements, so Sara cut up her good clothes to make articles that she could sell to those who still had money. She made hats and lace collars, and gloves out of her husband’s good coat. All this to raise $1300 to buy a barrel of flour. Roger was taken captive and like many other women, she worked to have him released. After the war, Roger went to New York to try to earn a living, leaving Sara to care for the children. It was two long years before they were reunited. In the mean time, the Washington Evening Star reported that “Mrs. Roger A. Pryor comes up regularly to our commissary at Petersburg to draw rations designated for the poor of the city.”

Sara Agnes Pryor (source)

Sara Agnes Pryor (source)

Using newspaper articles, government records, letters and diaries, Roberts chronicles the changes that occur in the city itself. At the start of the war, the population was only about 40,000 people. This grew by over 60,000 as the town became a Union army camp with wounded soldiers and eventually newly freed slaves. The women were largely responsible for taking care of these people. They organized relief efforts, nursing, care of orphans, and “contraband camps” for freedmen. Some of the women who came to prominence in these efforts were Clara Barton, Dorothea Dix, and Elizabeth Keckley. She draws on Keckley’s autobiography for details of her story as well as for information about Mary Lincoln.

Above all, this is a book about the Civil War, the time leading up to it, and its aftermath. Focusing on one city and the individual women from there makes the war at once more complex and yet easier to understand. In her support of Memorial Day after the war, Sara Pryor said, “They died because their country could devise, in its wisdom, no better means of settling a family quarrel than by slaying her sons with the sword.”

Harriet Lane – The “Democratic Queen”


Harriet Lane c. 1860 (source)

Harriet Lane was one of a number of women who served as the official White House hostess without being married to the President. She was greatly admired and well-liked even though by the end of his term her uncle James Buchanan was almost universally disliked. Referred to as the “Democratic Queen” and the “first lady of the land,” Lane was a superb hostess with a self-confidence that allowed her to push the boundaries and set new trends. She was also a woman of great warmth and generosity whose legacy is still felt today.

Harriet Lane was born on March 9, 1830 to Elliot Tole Lane and Jane Ann Buchanan Lane. The youngest of four children, her mother died when she was 9 years old and her father died when she was 11. Her father was a successful merchant, leaving the children with adequate resources, but at 11 years old Harriet needed a guardian. Her brothers were old enough to make their own way and her sister was already in boarding school, but Harriet didn’t adjust well to boarding school, so she went to live with her bachelor uncle James Buchanan.

Harriet’s mother, Jane, was Buchanan’s favorite sister and he knew and loved her children. He gladly took Harriet into his home and tended to indulge her and her sister who came to him during holidays from school. Harriet did go to boarding school later at Charles Town, Virginia and at the Academy of the Visitation Convent in Washington, D.C. where she graduated with honors. She was an outgoing, friendly girl who enjoyed the social activities which went along with her uncle’s position as a senator and from 1845 to 1849 as Secretary of State in Polk’s administration. But her most advantageous experience was as Buchanan’s companion when he was appointed Ambassador to the Court of St. James in 1854.

Harriet was a great success in London. She served as her uncle’s hostess and they dined often with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The Queen even gave her the title of “Honorary Ambassadress” to the Court with the courtesies generally given to the wife of the Ambassador and called her “the dear Miss Lane.” London society was the perfect preparation for her time at the White House.

James Buchanan was elected President of the United States in 1856. Out of the country for the preceding 4 years, he was one of the few experienced politicians who had not become embroiled in the controversy over slavery in the territories. With experience as Ambassador to both Russia and England, many hoped that his diplomatic skills could prevent the breakup of the Union. This wasn’t the case. He became increasingly unpopular as his term went on and by the time Lincoln took office, the Confederate States had formed and elected Jefferson Davis as their President.


Harriet shocked society matrons by having her neckline lowered for the inaugural ball, but dressmakers all over the city soon began to get similar requests. (source)

In spite of her uncle’s unpopularity, Harriet Lane became one of the most well-liked First Ladies since Dolly Madison and brought elegance to the White House that wouldn’t be seen again until Jacqueline Kennedy. She gave new life to Washington society which had been very somber while Jane Pierce was First Lady. Ships and babies were named after her; she set fashion trends; and she established new customs for the White House.

As mistress of the house, Harriet dismissed all of the slaves on staff whose owners were receiving money for their service, and hired a new staff. She invited artists and musicians to the White House and set up large tents on the lawn for concerts and served refreshments for all who came. For State dinners, Harriet carefully determined seating arrangements to seat Northern and Southern guests at different tables and to separate guests who were on bad terms.

Only 26 when she went to the White House, Harriet possessed the self-confidence and grace of an older woman. She seemed equal to any social situation from soothing angry Congressmen, to entertaining members of the royal families of both Japan and England. But it would be a mistake to assume she was just an ornament to her uncle. While Harriet presided as White House she was determined to make a difference in people’s lives. Her three favorite causes were hospital reform, prison reform, and the needs of American Indians. The Chippewa called her “the Great Mother of the Indians” for her work in obtaining medical and educational services for them.

Once her time in the White House and the Civil War were over, Harriet could focus on herself. She had always had admirers, but none made a great impact until she met Henry Eliot Johnston. They were married in January of 1866 when Harriet was 35 years old. In spite of the death of James Buchanan, this was a happy time as Harriet and Henry had two sons born in November 1866 and 1870.

She spent her time being a wife and mother, and contributing to her causes, until tragedy struck Harriet’s life again. In March 1881, their oldest son James Buchanan Johnston died of rheumatic fever, followed in October 1882 by the loss of their second son Henry Eliot Johnston Jr. to the same disease.

As a memorial to their sons, the Johnston’s set up The Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children which eventually became the Teaching and Research Center of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Then in May of 1884, Harriet unexpectedly found herself alone when Henry died of pneumonia.

St Albans School

Harriet founder of St. Albans School for Boys

Harriet Lane’s life had always been active, taking care of her uncle and his guests, cantankerous Congressmen, visiting dignitaries and then her family. This part of her personality wouldn’t change. In 1886, Harriet sold their home in Baltimore, Wheatland which she had inherited from her uncle, and many of her possessions. She found a home in Washington, D.C. in the center of the action and resumed her life in society. Beginning with a dinner at the White House where she put the young First Lady, Frances Cleveland at ease, for the next  fifteen years no guest list would be complete without the name of Harriet Lane Johnston.

When Harriet was the First Lady she greatly impressed one visiting dignitary, the Prince of Wales. It only seems fitting that the last major event she attended was the coronation of the Prince when he became King Edward VII of England in August 1902. After she returned that fall she was diagnosed with cancer. She spent the next few months getting her affairs in order, then traveled to her summer home in Rhode Island where she wanted to spend her last days. Harriet Lane Johnston, America’s “Democratic Queen” died July 3, 1903.

Wheatland, James Buchanan home where Harriet grew up. (source)

Wheatland, James Buchanan home where Harriet grew up. (source)

First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama by Betty Caroli
First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power 1789 – 1961 by Carl Sferrazza Anthony
Harriet Lane, America’s First Lady by Milton Stern


Mary Ann Shadd Cary – Blazing the Trail for Women

Mary Ann Shadd, National Archives of Canada (source)

Mary Ann Shadd, National Archives of Canada (source)

Not very many people accomplish as much as Mary Ann Shadd Cary did in her life, much less blaze a trail to do it. She has many “firsts” to her credit: first African American woman publisher in North America, first woman publisher in Canada, first woman to enroll in Howard University, first woman to graduate from Howard with a law degree (sort of, more to come) and only the second African American woman to practice law in the United States, at 60 years old no less! She was even commissioned by the governor of Indiana to recruit black soldiers to the Union army, the only woman to hold this position.

Mary Ann Shadd was born free in Delaware on October 9, 1823, to Abraham and Harriet Parnell Shadd, the oldest of their 13 children. Her father was a prosperous boot manufacturer and her mother a woman who wanted her children to be educated. Delaware was a slave state and it was illegal to educate black children, so when Mary was 10, the family moved to West Chester, Pennsylvania where she enrolled in a Quaker school. After graduating at 16, Mary began a career in teaching. For ten years, she taught in schools in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and amazingly returned to Wilmington Delaware to open a school for black children. It was partly through her efforts that Wilmington began to make provisions for educating free black children in 1844.

During her childhood, her parents were actively involved with many prominent abolitionists. In the 1830s and 40s, her father helped lead a series of conventions led by black leaders, and when the time came they were also involved in the Underground Railroad. This was risky enough, but when the Fugitive Slave Law passed in 1850, it became even more dangerous. Even the northern non-slave states were no longer safe, and, it wasn’t only escaped slaves who were at risk. Freed slaves and free-born blacks were at risk as well. In a time where civil rights were non-existent for African-Americans, the law wasn’t much help, so many free blacks as well as escaped slaves moved to the safety of Canada. Mary Ann Shadd was one of these.

In 1851, Mary and one of her brothers moved to Windsor, Ontario, after meeting Henry Bibb and his wife at the Convention of Colored Freeman in Toronto. In Windsor, she opened a school for fugitive slaves with assistance from the American Missionary Association and eventually brought the rest of her family to join them. Mary became active in the community and began to write and promote Canada to other blacks in the United States, both slave and free. Her first published pamphlet was Notes on Canada West, and it described the virtues of Canadian living. Canada had abolished slavery in 1833 and had no agreement with the United States to extradite escaped slaves. In her book Homespun Heroines, Hallie Brown recounts an incident where a young boy, pursued by slave hunters, was captured and about to be carried off when Mary “tore the boy from the slave hunters, ran to the court-house and had the bell rung so violently that the whole town was soon aroused. Mrs. Cary with her commanding form, piercing eyes, and stirring voice soon had the people as indignant as herself–denouncing in no uncertain terms the outrage perpetrated under the British flag and demanded that these man-hunters be driven from their midst.”

She definitely was not shy. In fact, she had substantial disagreements with some of the other residents of Windsor, in particular Henry Bibb, the publisher of a newspaper called The Voice of the Fugitive. When Mary moved to Windsor, she established a racially integrated school. She believed that blacks must fight for equality and integration into society, and that self-segregation would hinder the fight. Not everyone agreed, and she came under attack by Henry Bibb in his newspaper. Rather than just defending herself, she started her own newspaper, The Provincial Freeman. She had the help of Samuel Ringgold Ward, a newspaper man in his own right, who agreed to be the editor, but it seems likely that he was editor primarily in name only and that Mary was the driving force and primary writer and editor for the paper. The Provincial Freeman gave Mary a way to get her message out about the advantages of moving to Canada, but also about other causes important to her such as women’s rights.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary House in Washington DC (source)

Mary Ann Shadd Cary House in Washington DC (source)

Financing was difficult, and they published the paper off and on between 1853 and 1859. Mary spent a good deal of time traveling back in the United States, distributing her pamphlets, extolling the virtues of Canada, and raising money to keep the paper going. This was a challenge, because in 1856 she married Thomas Cary. Thomas was a barber with three children, but it seemed to work well for them even though she was often away. She and Thomas were both still very involved in the abolitionist cause and in 1858 attended John Brown’s Constitutional Convention. They were friends with Osborne Perry Anderson, the only surviving African-American member of the raiding party, and Mary later helped him prepare his memoir, A Voice From Harper’s Ferry, for publication in 1861.

Mary and Thomas had two children Sarah and Linton, but Thomas died while Mary was pregnant with Linton and she found herself in a position of having to support two young children and three teenagers. She continued teaching, but wanting to be of service to the war effort, she returned to the United States. In 1863, President Lincoln called for volunteers and Mary as always wanted to be of service, so she was commissioned by Levi P. Morton, the governor of Indiana, to recruit black soldiers for the Union army.

At the end of the war, Mary had a decision to make. Although she considered life in Canada a good option, she decided to remain in the United States to help in the assimilation of the newly freed slaves. A strong believer in self-determination, and believing in the importance of education for this purpose, she obtained a US teacher’s certificate and relocated in 1868 to Washington, D. C. She eventually became a principal in the D.C. public schools and enrolled in Howard University.

There seem to be different accounts of her graduation and acceptance to the District of Columbia Bar, one stating that she was the first black woman to become a lawyer in the US and others say she was the second. Mary Ann Shadd Cary is on the roles of the senior class of 1870 at Howard; however, it appears that she was refused her law degree because she was a woman. In the meantime, Charlotte E. Ray graduated in 1872 and was admitted to the bar in Washington D.C. under the name C. E. Ray. (I’m sure the assumption was that C. E. Ray was a man!) So Charlotte Ray became the first black woman lawyer in the US and Mary was awarded her law degree in 1883.

Mary was a strong believer in self-determination whether black or white, male or female. So while her primary work was as an abolitionist and in education, she was also involved in the suffrage movement. During her years in Washington D. C. she continued writing, joined the National Woman Suffrage Association, working with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and testifying before the House Judiciary Committee. She also founded the Colored Women’s Progressive Franchise in 1880 to work toward equal rights for women.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary continued to speak and write as long as she was able. She died on June 5, 1893, having blazed a trail for women both black and white. As a teacher, writer, publisher, speaker, in the cause of abolition and equal rights for women she was truly an amazing woman!

Mary Anne Shadd Cary: Abolitionist by Adrienne Shadd
Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction ed. Hallie O. Brown