Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868

by Cokie Roberts

Paperback, 2016




Harper Perennial (2016), Edition: Reprint, 544 pages


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.… (more)


½ (45 ratings; 3.8)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Judiex
I'll be the first to admit this review is much too long. (You should see how much I cut!) But CAPITAL DAMES offers so much interesting material that I wanted to provide a really tempting preview as an appetizer.
There are countless books about the Civil War era. Most of them are very good and
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interesting. Why should someone want to read another one? Because in CAPITAL DAMES Cokie Roberts is not providing more history; she is offering herstory. And the different perspective adds a lot to the history. It is very well-researched, well-written, and worth reading.
Washington DC society has always been a personality-driven community. A person’s position was very obvious: Who was invited? Who showed up? Who was seated where?
The undisputed leader for many years was Dolley Madison, wife of President James Madison. She continued in that role even after his death but after her death, their was a void. Jane Pierce, the President’s wife, for several reasons, did not assume the dominant role.
Women were just as interested in politics as the men were and were very much involved in what was happening during the time leading up to the Civil War and during the war itself. They packed the balconies of Congress during the debates. They traveled to the battle sites to observe what was happening. “ As troops advanced upon Manassas, VA, accompanied by hundreds of civilians who thought the whole thing was a lark. They brought picnic baskets and watched the action through opera glasses. When battle ended, North firmly trounced, Union soldiers retreated to DC along with frightened congressmen and their friends who kept getting in the soldiers’ way. This increased the fear in the North that they would lose the war.
Before the war, the women from the South and North intermingled on a regular basis. Jefferson Davis’s wife, Varina, introduced Mary Lincoln to her dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, who was to play a very important role in Mrs. Lincoln’s life. (For more information on that subject, I highly recommend reading Mrs. Keckley’s book, BEHIND THE SCENES OR, THIRTY YEARS A SLAVE, AND FOUR YEARS IN THE WHITE HOUSE.) As the threat of war increased, people became afraid to discuss things because they didn’t know who might be a spy. To save her husband, Ellen Ewing Sherman warned Lincoln about his enemies among his generals and newspaper correspondents. She saved her husband, a key general.
While DC was free, it depended upon slave labor because it was convenient. Residents hired servants from their masters but would have been horrified at the idea of actually owning slaves.
The war brought changes in the role of women. Dorothea Dix used her influence to create a corps of female nurses. Previously, formal nurses was men’s work. Thousands applied but she ruled out Catholic nuns, young, good-looking women. Wanted “matronly persons of experience, good conduct or superior education and serious disposition” between ages of 35 through 50.
More government jobs opened to women as men left for the battlefield. Half the clerks at the headquarters of Montgomery Blair’s USPO were women. US Treasurer, General Francis Spinner, “saw wisdom of hiring women as a money saver, since he could pay them less than men and he thought they might actually do a better job.” Congress eventually capped salaries at $900 regardless of the work women were doing even as men doing lesser jobs made $1,200. Many women had to supplement their salaries with unsavory occupations because salary didn’t cover living expenses; rents increased, board $30/mo; regular room, as high as $20/mo. Spinner later called his role “introducing women to employment in the offices of government” more satisfying than “all the other deeds in my life.”
At outbreak of war, housing prices soared as masses of Northerners arrived in the city. Costs went up. Government contracts for military supplies were making people rich. Among the new arrivals were soldiers and prostitutes–four thousand one year. In an attempt to control the situation, General Hooker corralled most of the activity into an area near the Treasury Department. It was dubbed Hooker’s Division. One of wealthiest, Ann Hall, is buried in the Congressional Cemetery. Archeologists came upon the house in a trash heap when laying foundation for the National Museum of the American Indian. They found lots of expensive items, women’s items, and hundreds of champagne corks.
Rich men could buy their way out of serving for $300 or finding a substitute, if drafted. First draftees were living in New York Cit. On July 1, a mob destroyed the draft office then “took out their venom on any policeman or black person who had the misfortune to be in their path.” It burned an orphanage for African-American children and, for five days, sacked hundreds of stores including Brooks Brothers, who supplied Union uniforms. More than 1000 people died or were wounded.
The women of DC organized to raise funds to get food, clothes, and medicine. One raised $10,661.47. The table that brought the most was the Treasury Department. Second, with $756.95, was the Hebrew congregation.
One night soon after the end of the war, Lincoln dreamt he was lying in a coffin in the East Room. People were murmuring “The President is dead.” He went to the theater that night.
President Andrew Johnson’s reconstruction allowed southern states to reenter the Union without enacting any social or economic reforms or any provisions for freedmen suffrage. At the next election, he campaigned against the Republicans, against precedent, and gave haranguing, vituperative speeches, possibly while drunk. The result was disastrous. The GOP gained a veto proof majority. At his impeachment trial, only those with tickets could get in. Women held nearly all the tickets

Interesting comments:

1850s Bloomers: ballooning pants worn under skirts a a protest against the unwieldy hoops, to them a symbol of women’s oppression.
June 17: Seventeen young women killed in an explosion at the Washington Arsenal. More died over the next few days. Spontaneous combustion when sun hit star shells, fireworks to show enemies’s positions. Left out to dry by arsenal’s pyrotechnist. Many unidentifiable. Buried in mass grave in Congressional Cemetery, Tallest memorial there. Atop is a life-sized downcast maiden titled Grief. Paid for by citizens of DC. Dedicated 6.7.65.
Seventeen-year-old Lavinia “Vinnie” Rem worked in the dead letter office of the Post Office. When Lincoln learned she was a poor girl, he agreed to sit for her to make his sculpture. It was the first congressional commission to a female artist. The statue now stands in the grand Rotunda of the Capitol.
At the end of the last session of the Thirty-Eighth Congress, the Representatives churned out bills. One created the Freedman’s Bureau to assist former slaves. It was the first federal government social welfare agency.
Mary Lincoln bought 300 pairs of gloves on one shopping spree and had a terrible temper. (Was she bipolar?)
After surrender at Appomattox Court House in Virginia,Lincoln requested the military band play Dixie.
Phillip Lee grew wealthy in the Navy because his job involved intercepting ships trying to break the northern blockade. He was able to keep some of the bounty he confiscated.
Mary Surratt, owner of the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth fled, was the first woman executed by US government
Record keeping was atrocious. Clara Barton: Tried to identify the names of prisoners. Dorence Atwater, imprisoned at Andersonville, was assigned to record the name, rank, and cause of death of every soldier who died there. She copied the lists secretly and mapped where each man was buried. Because of her, they were able to place names on graves of 13,000 soldiers, only 400 unknown. She was, perhaps, the first woman to appear at a Congressional panel.
Sarah Pryor established Memorial Day: “They died because their country could devise, in its wisdom, no better means of settling a family quarrel than by slaying her son with the sword.”
The book includes a helpful cast of character listed by gender and their roles. There is some repetition.
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
This is a well researched book about women prominent in Washington during the Civil War era. It holds one's interest well till the war is over and then I thought the narrative became of less interest. I appreciated the incident where Cokie's grandson asked "Which side were we on?" and her daughter
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answered: "Well, everyone in our family fought for the South, but it was good for the country that the North won." Surely we can all agree with that.
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LibraryThing member meacoleman
I love to listen to Cokie Roberts on NPR. This book is well-researched, just like her radio pieces. Unfortunately it reads like a string of radio pieces or a term paper. I wish it told a more engaging story, rather than threading together one woman's writing after another.
LibraryThing member yukon92
Interesting look at the important women in DC and Richmond during the Civil War, but extremely dry writing style.
LibraryThing member nx74defiant
Starting before the Civil War it is the story of the women of Washington D.C. Their involvement in politics. Their competition with one another for position and power. Jealousy and gossip. The story of Kate Chase Sprague was new to me. She was extremely devoted to helping her father become
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President. She feels being first Lady with as her father as President was her rightful place.
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Physical description

544 p.; 5.31 inches


0062002775 / 9780062002778
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