- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 13, 2002

A curious fact of the Civil War is that the leading ladies on both sides of the conflict were Southern. Mary Todd Lincoln of Kentucky, Varina Howell Davis of Mississippi, Mary Custis Lee of Virginia and Julia Dent Grant of Missouri were all raised according to Southern customs.

The offspring of prominent parents, these women were well-educated and reared in affluence. All were members of slaveholding families, but they differed in their views about the "peculiar institution." Varina Howell and Julia Dent thought it benefited both owner and slave, and both women kept slaves during the war. Mary Todd became an ardent abolitionist, while the aristocratic Mary Custis ambiguously voiced dislike for the institution but opposed the abolitionist movement.

All four women married men of their choosing despite family resistance.

Mary Custis' protective father yielded to his daughter, allowing her to marry West Point graduate Robert E. Lee in 1831. Lee was a promising young officer whose prominent and once prosperous family had fallen on hard times. In contrast, Mary, a descendant of George and Martha Washington's and a rich heiress from a slave-dependent society, was slow to adapt to the rigors of Army life.

Despite concerns about her suitability to be the wife of an Army officer, Julia Dent's father gave his daughter away in 1848 to Lt. Ulysses S. Grant, who, like Lee, was a graduate of West Point.

Mary Todd's family looked askance at the backwoods demeanor of young lawyer Abraham Lincoln. Varina Howell's mother thought the widowed and melancholy Jefferson Davis was too old at 36 to marry her 18-year-old daughter. Despite these objections, Mary and Varina followed their own counsel and married Lincoln and Davis.

Varina Davis and Mary Lincoln, both cultured and articulate, were rarely overshadowed in any gathering. An acquaintance called Mary "the very creature of excitement," and a biographer wrote of Varina's "abounding vitality." Both women were attractive, witty and, at times, undiplomatically candid. This trait occasionally would prove detrimental in their later lives as political wives, especially for Mary, who also had a mercurial temperament.

Julia Grant was willful but charming and thrived on social interaction. In contrast, Mary Lee was intelligent, introspective and a devout Christian who preferred her intimate circle of family and friends. Reluctant to give up her style of life, she often returned to her parents' beautiful Arlington plantation in Virginia while her husband remained at his Army post.

Mary Lee suffered from a variety of afflictions, and her health deteriorated further when her husband accepted career-enhancing but unaccompanied assignments. On his home leaves, he fathered several children with Mary but then returned to distant posts. In his absence, her parents and their slaves looked after Mary and helped care for the children at Arlington.

Unlike Lee, Julia Grant's husband resigned his Army commission in 1854 because of lengthy separations from his family. Julia supported his quest for a new career, but Grant would not find success in life until he returned to the Army after the outbreak of the Civil War.

Mary Lincoln and Varina Davis had mixed experiences en route to becoming first ladies. They liked to entertain and to participate in their husbands' election campaigns. When Lincoln traveled the Illinois judicial circuit each year providing legal services, Mary became disconsolate while alone in Springfield caring for their children. Varina rebelled, then reluctantly relented, when Davis decided to leave his seat in the House of Representatives in 1846 and go off to the Mexican War. Still, when the U.S. and Confederate presidencies beckoned their husbands, Mary Lincoln and Varina Davis were eager to assume the role of first lady.

Mary Lee did not see her husband for more than a year after he resigned from the Army to join the Confederacy when war came in 1861. As Union forces prepared to march into the South, she fled Arlington and wandered through Virginia and North Carolina, staying with family and friends to avoid the advancing Yankees.

Julia Grant also experienced loneliness when her husband returned to the Army in 1861. She eventually joined him in Memphis, Tenn., and followed him as he moved south through Mississippi as commander of Union forces in that area.

During the war, the Southern political leanings of some members of Mary Lincoln's family led to suspicion about her allegiance to the Union. A reflection of her loyalty can be seen, however, in her reaction to the fall of the Southern capital of Richmond in 1865. "This is almost too much happiness ," she wrote to a friend.

There were similar doubts in the North about Julia Grant's loyalty because of her family's support for the Confederacy. Despite her Southern cultural disposition, she was devoted to her husband and the Union cause for which he fought. This seemingly paradoxical situation was not uncommon during the war that pitted "brother against brother."

Noted diarist Mary Chestnut admired Varina Davis as "clever and considerate," but Varina had to contend with criticism from other Southerners who berated her for being extravagant and for meddling in political affairs. The "meddling" charge was not without merit. Varina assertively lobbied her husband on behalf of petitioners for government favors. Mary Lincoln also aggressively promoted her preferences with her husband.

Given the norm of women's subordination in 19th-century relationships, Mary Lincoln, Varina Davis, Julia Grant and Mary Lee often tested marital harmony by striving for independence. They also safeguarded their marriages, however; they were their husbands' greatest champions.

The competence of these leading ladies is seen in their writings. Mary Lincoln wrote many letters that reflect her intelligence and education. Varina Davis produced a study about Jefferson Davis' presidency. Julia Grant authored a personal memoir. Mary Lee compiled and published her father's remembrances of his foster father, George Washington.

Of these four women, Mary Lee alone maintained an unrelenting Southern allegiance. Sadly, the devastation of war changed her from anti-secessionist to embittered states' rights advocate. Despite her repugnance for the abolitionist movement, in 1862 she and her husband freed the slaves she had inherited from her father, in accordance with his will. Nonetheless, Mary always required servants, whether slave or free, to tend her needs.

Shortly before her death in 1873, Mary sentimentally visited her beloved Arlington for the first time since her departure in 1861. Upon observing thousands of Union graves on the grounds that surrounded her former home (now Arlington National Cemetery), she declined to enter the mansion.

Unfortunately, America's recollection of Mary Lincoln is primarily that she was a troubled person. Near war's end, Mary, in a jealous rage, created an infamous scene when she publicly berated a general's wife for riding alongside Lincoln. Such outbursts were symptomatic of her state of mind, and her erratic behavior caused Julia Grant to refuse her invitation to Ford's Theatre the night John Wilkes Booth assassinated the president. Her decision may have saved the life of her husband, whose scheduled attendance at the theater with Lincoln had been announced prematurely.

After Grant had served two terms in the White House, a failed business venture left him and his wife nearly destitute. The success of his memoirs, however, published just before his death in 1885, provided sufficient income for Julia to live comfortably in her declining years.

Following Jefferson Davis' passing in 1889, his wife caused a hue and cry among Southern traditionalists by pursuing a writing career in New York City. She demonstrated loyalty to the South, however, in lucid arguments for states' rights while acting as an adviser on a biography of her husband. Her collaborator in that venture noted that Varina Davis had "the instincts of a sensitive woman and the judgment of the strongest man."

Later in life, the widows Grant and Davis became friends while living in New York. In a magnanimous gesture, Varina Davis attended the dedication of Grant's tomb in 1897 with Julia Grant. Their presence together symbolized the gradual healing of the rift between North and South.


Thomas J. Ryan is a member of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table and lives in Bethany Beach, Del. The South Coastal Library and the Third Tuesday Writer's Group provided research and editorial assistance.


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