Southern Cultures 9.1 (2003) 100-101
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Intimate Strategies of the Civil War: Military Commanders and Their Wives. Edited by Carol K. Bleser and Lesley J. Gordon. Oxford University Press, 2001. 292 pp. Cloth $30.00
Did the spouses of Civil War leaders ultimately affect the outcome of this pivotal event in American history? Would the war have gone differently if Stonewall Jackson or William Sherman had listened more to their wives? These are some of the questions considered in Intimate Strategies of the Civil War, although they're not questions that yield many new revelations. In fact, most authors acknowledge that wifely influence on wartime strategies was relatively insignificant. And, while Emory Thomas does hypothesize that Robert E. Lee might never have fought for the Confederacy were it not for the strong southern sympathies of his wife, Mary, this portrayal of the unflinching Marse Robert is a little hard to swallow. The same is true of Jackson, Sherman, Grant, and most of the other eight commanders examined here. A more compelling question, which the essayists also consider, is this: if the marriages of Civil War leaders did not greatly affect the progress of the war, how did the war affect those marriages? Looked at from this perspective, Intimate Strategies of the Civil War yields some interesting insights—and some exasperating misperceptions and missed opportunities.
The book's goal is a promising one: to bridge "the artificial gap separating military history from women and gender studies." Yet, in some ways, the marriages discussed may not provide the best means for connecting that false divide. The twelve essays in this collection examine six Confederate and six Union marriages, and in nearly all cases the husbands were prominent members of society and the military hierarchy. This meant that some, such as the Confederacy's "first couple," Jefferson and Varina Davis, did not have to endure the prolonged separations that war often imposes on couples. For others, wealth and family support insulated wives from many of the more trying repercussions of war. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, this collection of essays gives us a far more supportive group of female Confederates than recent scholarship on more ordinary southern [End Page 100] women has suggested. The wives of the top military and political leaders of the South hardly seem a representative bunch on which to base generalizations about the pro- or anti-war sentiments of southern white women.
Of course, even among these elite couples, marriages were tested by the North-South conflict. But marriage is a difficult thing to grasp because so much depends on the complicated melding of individual personalities—something that Civil War Americans struggled with just as much as their twenty-first century descendants. In this regard, Intimate Strategies offers greater insight into the ways individual men and women were changed by the war than into how the war specifically altered men and women's marital relations. What stands out most in that light is the enhanced, if often qualified, independence of Civil War wives. In numerous instances, the war prompted married women to take on increased responsibilities and more overtly political roles. Jessie Fremont's insistent protests to Abraham Lincoln on behalf of her husband's emancipation policies in Missouri present the most obvious example of women's wartime politicking. Joshua Chamberlain's wife, Fannie, traveled frequently on her own during her husband's long absences from home; naval commander Phillips Lee's wife, Elizabeth, became the director of an orphan asylum. Even southern wives acquired a semi-independent voice, often following their husband's death. As widows, Varina Davis, Anna Jackson, and LaSalle Pickett all became writers, although, ironically, their writing helped them recreate themselves not as fully autonomous individuals but as professional widows of the Confederacy.
Perhaps the most frustrating feature of this book is its lack of attention to what was undoubtedly a critical influence on southern gender and marital relations: slavery. Surprisingly, the most sustained discussion of "the peculiar institution" comes in John Simon's insightful account of the Grant marriage and the public...