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.”

Nellie Taft, Eliza Scidmore, and Japanese Cherry Trees

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The Washington Monument with cherry trees in bloom (source)

Helen Herron Taft, Nellie, was the most well-traveled First Lady that the United States had seen when she entered the White House with her husband President William Howard Taft in 1909. She had seen more of the world than most Presidents much less First Ladies. So after settling in to the routines at the White House and hosting her first few events, Nellie was bored. For so many years, her husband and his career had been her purpose and now that her ultimate goal had been achieved, she needed a project.

Nellie had heard of plans to beautify the city during the time she was a Cabinet wife. She loved the idea and decided to look for a place that she could develop. She had in mind something like Luneta Park in Manila, her favorite place in the Philippines. Luneta Park was a large open space with two bandstands at opposite ends of the park overlooking the bay. Concerts were held there and it was frequented by people of all races and classes. She wanted to do something similar for the people of Washington, so at the beginning of April she went driving alone and found the perfect place along the Tidal Basin with a “road” leading to it that people had begun to race their cars on. She imagined the “Speedway” as it was called lined with beautiful Japanese Cherry trees leading down to the bandstand.

The original idea of planting cherry trees in the nation’s capitol belongs to Eliza Scidmore, an author and inveterate traveler. She published numerous books based on her travels and joined the National Geographic Society in 1890. She became a regular correspondent and later the Society’s first female trustee.

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Eliza Scidmore (source)

On Eliza’s return from the Far East in 1885, she proposed the idea of the cherry trees to Washington officials, but there was little interest at the time. Her proposal was to the US Army Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds. After the first rejection, she continued to propose the idea to each new Superintendent over the next 24 years.

Around 1906, another person became interested in the trees. Dr. David Fairchild, an official at the US Department of Agriculture, imported close to 100 trees to plant on his property to test their hardiness for the region. They did very well and in 1908 he gave trees to each District of Columbia school to plant for Arbor Day. During his speech he expressed a wish that the Tidal Basin could be transformed into a “Field of Cherries.”

Eliza Scidmore was in the audience that day and decided to try to raise the money herself to plant the trees. Either as a courtesy, or because she knew a First Lady could get things done, she sent a note to Nellie Taft to tell her about her plans for a field of cherry trees. This was just what Nellie was looking for and she quickly responded.

April 7, 1909

Thank you very much for your suggestion about the cherry trees. I have taken the matter up and am promised the trees, but I thought perhaps it would be best to make an avenue of them, extending down to the turn in the road, as the other part is still too rough to do any planting. Of course, they could not reflect in the water, but the effect would be very lovely of the long avenue. Let me know what you think about this.

Sincerely yours,
Helen H. Taft

First Lady Helen Taft

First Lady Helen Taft (source)

Never shy about taking charge, Nellie took it upon herself. As soon as the First Lady made the request, the Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, Colonel Spencer Cosby, initiated the purchase of the first Japanese Cherry trees. Around the same time, Dr. Jokichi Takamine, a Japanese chemist, was visiting Washington with the Japanese consul, Mr. Midzuno. The good doctor asked if Nellie would accept a gift of another 2000 trees, given in the name of the City of Tokyo and she accepted them.

Unfortunately, the 95 trees ordered by the Superintendent of Grounds turned out to be the wrong variety, but the worst blow was to come. The next January when the 2000 trees arrived from Japan it was discovered that they were diseased. Infested with insects and nematodes, they had to be burned to protect American growers.

Because of the nature of the gift, President Taft had to give approval for the destruction of the trees and the State Department expressed regret to the Japanese Ambassador. They understood the problem, in fact the mayor of Tokyo, Mr. Yukio Ozaki, suggested that another gift be sent. The Tokyo City Counsel approved the donation of 3020 more trees and the scions to be grafted were taken from the famous collection along the bank of the Arakawa River in Adachi Ward, a suburb of Tokyo.

After grafting and preparing the trees, on March 27, 1912, Washington DC’s first Cherry Tree celebration was held when First Lady Helen Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador, planted two cherry trees on the banks of the Tidal Basin. These original trees still stand with a plaque located near by to commemorate the occasion.

Over the next seven years the Cherry trees were planted around the Tidal Basin and in East Potomac Park. Over the next two decades, the first official Cherry Blossom Festival was held, a pageant was started, and they came to symbolize something important to the citizens of Washington. In 1938, a group of women chained themselves to some of the trees to prevent their destruction for the building of the Jefferson Memorial. A compromise was reached and the trees were moved and more were planted to frame the memorial.

Cherry Blossom Grove on the National Mall

Cherry Blossom Grove on the National Mall (source)

The trees have continued to connect the Japanese and American people. During WWII, a few were vandalized and the trees were referred to as Oriental Cherry trees instead of Japanese Cherry trees. But after the war Japan’s trees needed help. The trees along the bank of the Arakawa River in Adachi Ward, where the Washington stock originally came from, were badly damaged during the war. The city of Washington DC was able to give new stock to the city of Tokyo to replace the very trees from which they had come.

In 1965, there was another First Lady who would be known for her beautification projects. The Japanese Government gave another gift of 3,800 trees and Lady Bird Johnson with Mrs. Ryuji Takeuchi, wife of Japan’s Ambassador, reenacted the original planting ceremony of 1912.

Lady Bird Johnson planting a cherry tree in 1965

Lady Bird Johnson planting a cherry tree in 1965 (source)

The National Cherry Blossom Festival is held for two weeks each year beginning on the last Saturday of March.

Resources
Nellie Taft: The Unconventional First Lady of the Ragtime Era by Carl Sferrazza Anthony
History of the Cherry Trees