Civil War Wives
by Carol Berkin


Alfred A Knopf, 2009. ISBN 978-1-400-04466-7.
Reviewed by Jennifer Melville
Posted on 01/12/2010

Nonfiction: History; Nonfiction: American Women in Their Cultural/Historical Context

Have you ever wondered what it was like to be a woman during the Civil War, especially one who wanted rights and freedom at a time when women were second class citizens? Carol Berkin delves into these questions in her well researched book Civil War Wives: The Lives & Times of Angela Grimke Weld, Virginia Howell Davis, and Julia Dent Grant. These women led vastly different lives, yet they all had one thing in common. They were strong and opinionated women who challenged their society's view of a women's place and made a big difference in their communities.

The woman who stood out the most to me was Varina Howell Davis, the wife of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis fell in love with Varina for her sparky personality, but disproved of her behavior once they married. Why couldn't she just be a good, obedient wife? She had opinions about politics and vocally opposed some of her husband's political moves. Jefferson Davis was so unhappy with his wife's opposition that he declared she was a "difficult person to grow fond of" and concluded that her behavior must be caused by pregnancy hormones. Despite her husband's resistance, Varina continued to develop her personal political beliefs and became an expert political lobbyist for her husband's eventual release from prison.

This book is full of interesting facts, amusing stories, and detailed research. It's an interesting read for anyone who loves Civil War history. I found it rather tedious to read through and read it in short intervals. However, it is definitely worth the effort. Weld, Davis, and Grant's stories will touch your heart and leave you a more informed person than you were before this book fell into your hands.


Carol Berkin has an A.B. from Barnard College and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University. She taught at Baruch College from 1972 to 2008 and has taught at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York since 1983. She is currently Baruch Presidential Professor of History and has published numerous books about American history.

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