Monday, April 13, 2020

Capital Dames by Cokie Roberts

Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington 1848-1868 by Cokie Roberts
Read by the author
Published April 2006 by HarperCollins Publishers
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
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.

My Thoughts:
It's Cokie Roberts so that's a selling point right off the bat. Then it was recommended to me by someone I know would never steer me wrong. Well, that's not entirely true; we have vastly different opinions about Outlander. But on this book, we absolutely agree. If you read the full title above, you'll also have noticed that this book is about a period of time I grew up immersed in and now love to read about.

Roberts reads the book. I had forgotten how much I loved her voice and her way of telling a story. It's a big selling point for the book. But this is another one of those books that sort of demands that you pay attention to while you're listening to it which might not make it an ideal for book to listen to for everyone. There are a lot of "characters" to keep track of and a lot of relationships to pay attention to here.

Jessie Fremont,
Elizabeth Lee,
Kate Sprague,
Julia Grant
For anyone who's read very much about the Civil War and the women in the spotlight at that time, there will be a lot of familiar names here: Mary Todd Lincoln, Varina Davis, Clara Barton, Louisa May Alcott. But there are a lot of less famous women who played equally important roles:

  • Jessie Benton Fremont: daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton and wife of military officer, explorer, and politician John C. Fremont. Jessie was a highly vocal proponent of her husband and often butted heads in Washington. 
  • Elizabeth Blair Lee: daughter of Francis Blair (journalist and newspaper editor), sister of Francis Preston Blair (politician and soldier), wife of Samuel Lee (Rear Admiral of the Navy). The Blairs' home became part of what is now known as Blair House, the guest home of visiting dignitaries. The Blairs and the Chases were fierce opponents. 
  • Kate Chase Sprague: daughter of Treasury Secretary (later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) Salmon P. Chase and wife of Rhode Island governor William Sprague. Kate was determined to be First Lady and spent years pushing the idea of her father for President. 
  • Julie Grant: wife of U.S. General U. S. Grant. Julia has been snubbed by Mary Lincoln and was probably more than a little happy to find herself a far more popular First Lady than Mary Lincoln had ever been. 

Other women Roberts covers are women I've met in other books, both nonfiction and fiction: Rose Greenhow, Elizabeth Keckley, Dorothea Dix.

In focusing on these women, Roberts explores the influence women had over the events of the war and the ways that the war changed the role of women. For example, prior to the war, nursing was the purvue of men; since that war, it's a profession that became almost exclusively one for women. Women began working in factories at this time and were the primary drivers of fundraising for increased sanitation in the country.

This book is a hit for me on so many levels: political, gender roles, interesting women (and their men), and the details of war. I only wish I had a physical copy to pass along to my parents. I know my mom, in particular, would love it!


  1. I am so looking forward to listening to this book. I enjoy reading about the Civil War and have encountered most of the women you listed before, but Cokie Roberts will bring them to life in such a powerful, fresh way.

  2. This looks like a great history book on so many key women in U.S. history. Right up my alley! I'll have to add it.

    1. It was really interesting but you do need to keep track of who's who as you're reading!