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The undertold story of D.C.’s dames during the Civil War

Journalist and political commentator Cokie Roberts offers a different take on the Civil War era, focusing on the women who were involved in politics behind the scenes. Gwen Ifill talks to the author about her new book, “Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868” and how she tracked down resources.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Finally tonight: the newest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

  • It’s a different take on the Civil War era. ABC News and NPR political commentator Cokie Roberts’ latest book is “Capital Dames:

    The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868.”

    Earlier this week, Gwen sat down and talked with Cokie at Busboys and Poets here in the D.C. area.

    Cokie, thank you for joining us.

  • COKIE ROBERTS, Author, “Capital Dames”:

    Thank you for having me.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    This book, “Capital Dames,” is so interesting to me, because while we have been talking about the Civil War and the heroes of the Civil War, we know all these names, but we never hear women’s names. And you have gone back and found them.

  • COKIE ROBERTS:

    Well, that is pretty much throughout our history.

    One of the reasons I have been writing books about women in history is because other people haven’t been. And telling history without talking about one-half of the human race seems to be an inaccurate way of telling the story.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Some of the women you talk about in this case, we have vaguely heard of. We kind of know who Clara Barton was. Some women, we have never — a lot of them, we have never heard of at all.

  • COKIE ROBERTS:

    Many of them.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Who are your favorites? Who surprised you that you discovered?

  • COKIE ROBERTS:

    Well, one that just totally cracked me up was Abigail Brooks Adams, the wife of Charles Francis Adams, who was John Quincy Adams’ son.

    And he was in Congress for a term, but it was the term when the South seceded. And he then went to be the Union ambassador to England and kept England from siding with the South. But she, in the tradition of her grandmother-in-law and mother-in-law, was this outspoken Yankee women.

    And she would write home these letters that have never been published before about how President Buchanan is a toad, and one of her husband’s colleagues in the delegation was a pig. And she is writing these to Henry Adams, who became famous of course in his own right.

    And then she has one wonderful letter where she says, if any young woman wants to have a nice, quiet life, I advise her not to marry an Adams.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Which is true.

    But a lot of women, their surnames are the wives of famous women, except one interesting one, who is the niece of a famous man. President Buchanan’s niece was the first lady.

  • COKIE ROBERTS:

    She was.

    And she was actually the first person referred to as first lady in the press, Harriet Lane. And she had lived with him since she was a little girl. Her parents had died. And she had gotten to know the ways of Washington when he had been in the Cabinet. And then she went with him to England when he was ambassador to the Court of St. James, and became a great favorite of Queen Victoria.

    And she — we recently had a visit of the Prince of Wales. The Prince of Wales came when she was in the White House, and all the newspaper accounts said that when he went to Mount Vernon and they showed him the key to the Bastille, he was actually more interested in looking at Ms. Lane.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Varina Davis.

  • COKIE ROBERTS:

    I think she is one of the most interesting people in the book.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Tell us about her.

  • COKIE ROBERTS:

    I really like her a lot.

    She is Jefferson Davis’ wife. And she was always wildly skeptical of the Confederacy as a concept, knew that it could never really succeed. She also was always outspoken in interviews.

    When one of the belles, as they described themselves, of Washington, Adele Cutts, who was Dolly Madison’s great niece, married Stephen Douglas, Varina Davis writes this letter home to her mother and says, it’s horrible. He stinks. He smells bad.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And Stephen Douglas, of course, was of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

  • COKIE ROBERTS:

    Right. Absolutely. He beat Lincoln for the Senate and then ran for the presidency himself against Lincoln and two others.

    But she then after the war was over, and she and Jefferson Davis had a somewhat fraught relationship. And she had a fraught relationship with the South. Among other things, her grandfather was the governor of New Jersey and she was somewhat olive-complected. She wasn’t fair enough for a perfect Southern belle.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And she ended up moving to New York after the war.

  • COKIE ROBERTS:

    So, when she moved to New York, everybody in the South had a fit, the first lady of the Confederacy going to New York.

    And she wrote to her daughter and said, I’m free, brown, and 64. I can go wherever I want.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • COKIE ROBERTS:

    But, then, when she got to New York, she befriended Julia Grant, the wife of Ulysses S. Grant.

    And that was one of the things I found very interesting. These women affected reconciliation in a variety of ways.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    With each other, even though they were on other sides of the battle.

  • COKIE ROBERTS:

    But they understood that it was symbolic for the nation. So, she went to the dedication of the Grant Memorial and knew that would be written about in all of the newspapers.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    A lot of these women, you described them and they described themselves as belles. They were social beings.

  • COKIE ROBERTS:

    And political.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But that’s my point. They were also political in ways that probably the naked common eye wouldn’t have noticed.

  • COKIE ROBERTS:

    They were deeply political, very involved in their husbands’ careers or fathers or brothers, went to the debates in Congress all the time, helped their husbands with speeches and letters and all of that, and had their views. And, sometimes, they weren’t exactly the same as the men’s.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And how did you discover all of this? Because it is one thing to know it or to see their one line in the history book. It’s another thing to hear in these women’s own words or in the words of female reporters a lot of the time the way that this all unfolded.

  • COKIE ROBERTS:

    Right. Right.

    Well, you go searching for letters among the men’s letters. A few of them have letters that have been published in books, thank God, because that means they are actually transcribed.

    But then you beg historic societies or university libraries, who are actually quite cooperative now, to find what they can find. And with modern technology, they will scan these handwritten letters and send them to you. And then the challenge is being able to read them. And I had some help with that.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, I want to talk to you some more online about another woman you profile in this book, Elizabeth Keckley, who I thought was really important and interesting.

  • COKIE ROBERTS:

    Very important.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But she — from a different point of view.

    We will talk about that online.

    Cokie Roberts, thank you very much.

  • COKIE ROBERTS:

    Thank you, Gwen.

     

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