Political commentator and bestselling author Roberts (Ladies of Liberty: The Women who Shaped our Nation, 2008, etc.) shines a spotlight on the remarkable political, literary, and activist women of Washington, D.C., during the tumult of the Civil War.
In her previous books, the author has recounted the changing roles of women and their significant impacts on the nation’s growth, and her latest is a natural follow-up. With the commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War in 2011, Roberts’ curiosity was piqued again. “I started wondering whether that horrific conflict had a similar impact on American women’s lives,” she writes. The author’s extensive research included diaries, newspapers, government records, and private correspondence, all of which capture the turmoil, excitement, and heartbreak that transpired in this once-quiet “prewar Capital City.” With the onset of the war, Washington evolved into a sprawling Union Army camp and then a reeking, overcrowded military hospital. As a result, some Southern belles fled to Confederate territory. Women shouldered new roles, becoming nurses and forming social service and relief agencies. Some wrote propaganda, and others became spies. Many women moved to Washington to fill positions once held by men. African-American women founded societies to advocate for improved conditions in the camps for displaced slaves. The author’s cast of characters is vast, from familiar names to those less well-known, and her detailed, layered narration makes the information fresh and highly relatable. Whether Roberts is relating the confidences between Mary Lincoln and her seamstress, Elizabeth Keckley, the tireless work of abolitionist Josephine Griffing, or the struggles of Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, to secure her dying husband’s release from jail, each story widens the historical lens.
An enlightening account detailing how the Civil War changed the nation’s capital while expanding the role of women in politics, health care, education, and social services.