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.”

Eleanor Roosevelt – A Late Bloomer

There are many biographies about Eleanor Roosevelt, multi-volume biographies, as well as biographies about her husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt which of necessity include her. I am certainly not an expert on her and there are people out there who are; people who have a better understanding of what motivated her to achieve the things she did. And she did achieve amazing things. But part of what I wanted to do when I started this blog was to write about women who inspire me. That doesn’t mean I always agree with them, but that I see something in their lives that I believe is of value and worth talking about. With Eleanor Roosevelt, I happen to agree with much of what she did and stood for.

Eleanor Roosevelt inspires me in many ways, and there are many lessons that we can learn from her life I’m sure, but one thing that I love about her is that she in some respects was a late bloomer, coming into her own power if you will after marriage and motherhood. She was a shy child born to parents who were a hit in society and the talk of the town. Her mother was a celebrated beauty and her father was the life of the party, but she wasn’t either of these things.

Eleanor’s father, Elliot Bulloch Roosevelt, was the younger brother of President Theodore Roosevelt. Both Roosevelt brothers, as well as their oldest sister, had health problems when they were young. Theodore is famous for pushing himself to overcome his problems, but Elliot’s were not as easily understood. He suffered from spells when the blood would rush to his head and he would have incredible pain; he also took “nerve medication.” These spells seemed to be worse when he was under stress and better when he was away from the family, or school, traveling. Despite his problems, the family was a loving one, full of fun and joy. Elliot embodied this with the force of his charming personality.

Eleanor’s mother, Anna Hall, was from a very different type of family. Her father was very religious and had little respect for his wife intellectually. He required submission and restricted the activities of the women, even to the point of having dresses brought to the house for them to try rather than allowing them to go out to buy their own clothes. He died when the children were all still at home, leaving Anna’s mother ill-equipped to deal with much in her life. Anna received little in the way of education that was not necessary for her to be successful in society. She was the oldest of six children and a celebrated beauty, but was reserved and somewhat cold.

At a young age Eleanor was aware that her mother was beautiful and that she was not. (Although, I think she is very pretty in the photo above.) She also believed that her mother tried so hard to instill in her good manners to compensate for her lack of beauty. A serious, shy, insecure girl, her mother called her “granny” because she said Eleanor was “old fashioned.” Her father on the other hand, was the light of her life. Unfortunately, he was away a good bit, either on alcoholic binges or in a sanitarium. This wasn’t the only grief in her life. Her mother died when Eleanor was eight and her father died when she was ten. She and her brother Hall went to live with their grandmother Hall and her aunts who were still at home. They were a family of society belles and Eleanor didn’t fit in well there either.

Elliot Roosevelt with Eleanor and her two brothers Hall and Elliot Jr. Elliot Jr. died in 1893.

Eleanor’s life began to change at age 15 when she went abroad to the Allenswood Academy run by Marie Souvestre, a noted feminist who taught her charges to think independently. Allenswood was a finishing school and Eleanor gained confidence, but I think this is also where she began to learn lessons that would serve her later in life about her own worth and ability. When she returned she “came out” with all the society parties that coming out entailed, and soon met Franklin. He was charismatic and outgoing, the life of the party in a way similar to her father.

Franklin brought with him, however, a mother with very fixed ideas about things. Sara Delano Roosevelt was a second wife, born the same year as Franklin’s older half brother. When Franklin’s father died, he was all Sara had left and she invested all her energies in him. She was not in favor of the marriage, but Franklin had his way and he and Eleanor married when she was 20 and he 23. But to give you a taste of how it would be, while they were in Europe on their honeymoon, Sara bought them a house. It was a townhouse in New York City and might not have been so bad except that she owned the one next to it and there were sliding doors on every floor connecting the two.

Eleanor and Sara 1908

The relationship between Sara and Eleanor is complicated and debated among historians. Eleanor had six children between 1906 and 1916, and had little experience with children or running a household so in many ways Sara was a tremendous help to Eleanor, but it must have reinforced her feelings of inadequacy.

There are several things that helped Eleanor begin her transformation. In 1910, Franklin was elected to the New York State Senate. This took them to Albany away from Sara, and exposed Eleanor to more of the political life that she would later be so involved in. The second thing, in 1918, Eleanor discovered letters written to Franklin by Lucy Mercer, her personal secretary, exposing an ongoing affair between Lucy and Franklin. Although Eleanor had probably never had the emotionally intimate relationship she wanted with Franklin, this was devastating. She gave him the choice of a divorce, or ending the affair for good. He chose to stay in the marriage, but what intimacy they had in their marriage was gone.

Women so often just do what has to be done. They find the strength within themselves to go on. Eleanor did this after the affair and I’m sure there were many reasons for it – for the sake of the children, Franklin’s career, etc. But what I think inspires me the most is that she didn’t just carry on the status quo. When Franklin was stricken with polio in 1921 (although there is doubt now that it was polio), Eleanor rose to the occasion in a way that was truly above and beyond the call of duty. As might be expected she stood by him as he dealt with the disease both in the initial stages and over the years as he searched for a cure. But more than that, she worked tirelessly to keep his name in front of the public. Louis Howe, the man that had coached Franklin in the ways of politics, took on Eleanor and together they refused to let him be forgotten. She began to speak publicly and get involved in Democratic women’s organizations. She began to write and network. And it worked. Although Franklin remained marginally involved, he didn’t fully enter politics again until he was elected Governor of New York in 1929. And the rest as they say, is history.

In doing this work for Franklin, Eleanor came into her own. From this point on she would be involved in many ways, both as a helper to Franklin and in the name of causes which had become important to her over the years. She may have been a late bloomer, but she truly became a force to be reckoned with.

Many of you may know more about Eleanor than I do, or have a different perspective on her life. Please comment. I would love to hear your thoughts on this remarkable woman.

Eleanor and Franklin: The Story of Their Relationship Based on Eleanor Roosevelt’s Private Papers by Joseph P. Lash
TR: The Last Romantic by H. W. Brands
Presidential Wives: An Anecdotal History by Paul F. Boller Jr.
Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume I, 1884 – 1933 by Blanche Wiesen Cook
Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume II, 1933 – 1938 by Blanche Wiesen Cook