- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 15, 2001

Those of us in the autumn of our years remember a quiz show from the 1950s, "You Bet Your Life" with Groucho Marx. If, at the conclusion of the show, a hapless contestant had failed to answer any of the questions, the host would waggle his bushy eyebrows and ask the same consolation question: "Who is buried in Grant's Tomb?" One enterprising contestant, recovering some of his dignity, answered correctly: Mrs. Grant. The long companionship Ulysses and Julia Grant enjoyed in life indeed was honored in death.

Carol Bleser, professor of history emeritus at Clemson University, and Lesley Gordon, associate professor of history at the University of Akron, have gathered a collection of essays on the marriages of six Confederate and six Union commanders in an effort to show that the matrimonial bond was the most important relationship in the men's lives, one that shaped, and was shaped by, their military experience in the Civil War.

While the collection offers some intriguing insights and little-known facts about the men who waged war from 1860 to 1865, it fails to add to the literature of our great struggle. It also flirts with "what if" history. For example, Emory Thomas, in his contribution on the marriage of Robert and Mary Custis Lee, raises the question of whether Lee would have resigned his Army commission and gone South had Mary not had such a strong commitment to the Confederate cause.

Or, as John Simon suggests in his piece on the Grant marriage, had Mary Lincoln not been so rude to Julia Grant, might the Grants have accepted the Lincolns' invitation to join them at Ford's Theatre that fateful April evening in 1865? History is full of such "what ifs," and little is gained by considering the possibilities.

The collection also purports to examine the wives' influence on decision-making without offering convincing proof any existed. Though it is true that knowing whether the spouse left behind on the home front was well provided for or at risk might have affected the husband's focus on matters immediately at hand, there is no evidence of this.

Also, while it likewise is true that Confederate President Jefferson Davis' wife, Varina, played a role similar to that of Edith Bolling Wilson, wife of President Woodrow Wilson, essentially assuming the presidency during her husband's illness, no evidence is provided to suggest that Mrs. Davis did anything that was not consistent with her husband's wishes.

The book loses its focus when it strays into discussions of the broader issues of war and marriage, including the impact on traditional sexual roles, private and public identity, and the balance of power within the relationship. To impose a modern sociological overlay onto 19th-century marriages is inappropriate. How, for example, were the stresses upon military marriages during the Civil War any different from the strains caused by other 19th-century career-imposed separations, such as while men were soldiering in Mexico against Santa Anna or chasing Comanches on the frontier?

"Intimate Strategies" also suffers because the timing of its release is so close to that of David McCullough's biography of John Adams. If you want to understand the past and the relationship between men and women in a marriage bond that shaped history the paradigm is the union of John and Abigail Adams.

The essays in the book are well-researched and well-written. The question, however, is whether they are useful in enhancing an understanding of the political and sociological impact of the Civil War upon American history. Does the collection shed much light on the war's management or its outcome? It does not. It will be of interest to those who seek more and more about less and less. For the rest of us, it sits at the margins.

The critical point to remember is that the American Civil War was the foreseeable result of the pact made with the devil by the nation's founders. To ensure that the Southern states joined in the forming of this "more perfect Union," leaders of Northern states kept quiet about the issue of slavery, knowing full well that it must be resolved at some future date.

A nation founded upon the radical idea that "all men are created equal" could not long ignore the contradiction. By 1860, the resolution was necessary if the "last best hope of earth" was to survive. Contributions to the literature on the Civil War should help us better understand what was at stake lest they trivialize this dramatic and shaping event.

Richard V. Anderson is a writer living in Lexington, Va., and a former Marine Corps officer.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide