Lincoln’s General’s Wives: A Book Review

The American Civil War created powerful generals with powerful and sometimes peculiar personalities. In a remarkably intelligent and readable quadography, author Candice Shy Hooper has brought to life four interesting(ish) women who were thrust into a spotlight(ish) because of the men they married years before the spotlight glowed.  Called Lincoln’s Generals’ Wives, her subtitle …For Better and For Worse, is telling.

Lincoln’s General’s Wives: Four Women Who Influenced the Civil War – for Better and for Worse, by Candice Shy Hooper

John Charles Fremont is not a man easy to like; pugnacious, disobedient, insubordinate and being “better than his betters.” On the flip side, his courage, his daring, his vision, and his charm and good looks made him everyone’s hero. Especially Jessie Benton, the fifteen-year-old daughter of Senator Thomas Hart Benton. Defying her father, including long periods of personal estrangement, she fell madly in love with Fremont-the-explorer, a dozen years her senior, and eloped with him. She was smarter than he was, better educated and certainly better politically “placed,” and just as personally brave and daring – but (at least via author Hooper) not as charming or attractive. Lincoln didn’t like her, and he liked just about everyone.

Charming or not, Jessie deserved better. She adored her difficult, egocentric and philandering husband, and spent a lifetime either at his side, or at his back. He was her man, he done her wrong, but he was her god. And she, aptly described by the author, was a tigress, indeed.

Perhaps even outdoing Fremont in the egocentric Savior department, was George B. McClellan. His wife, Mary Ellen Marcy, or “Nelly,” is also a hard lady to figure or like. Author Hooper does the best she can with the dearth of first hand information about her. Few of her letters remain. His, of course, are plentiful and fraught with his sense of self-importance, predestination, and total disdain for the political powers of the time.

Nelly Marcy dodged the pursuant McClellan for several years before she finally agreed to marry him, when she was twenty-five and approaching spinsterhood. She had once been engaged briefly to McClellan’s old West Point roommate, Southern cavalier A.P. Hill, and appears to have adored him. One might conjecture that she married Little Mac because he (and her parents) wore her down.

If Jessie Fremont had her husband’s back, Nelly had his front – as a mirror image and his creation. She adds nothing at all except reassurance for her husband’s viewpoints. She basically distanced herself from disappointment or participation by a consistent detachment and preoccupation with the mundane. She is neither sympathetic nor even interesting. Not Hooper’s fault.

Ellen Ewing, wife of William T. Sherman, is a curious character. Their marriage was pseudo-incestuous, since little “Cump” was a foster-son of the Ewings from the time he was orphaned as a child.

No doubt Ellen adored her tall, lanky and good looking husband, but she had two higher loves. First and foremost, Catholicism. She was half-Catholic via her mother, but that was the half that “took.” Her health issues may have increased her dependence on the Church.  She loved her daily devotions, wore a large and prominent cross, and never ceased efforts to save her husband’s soul. He got tired of it and decided his soul was not up for grabs. The second great love of her life was her own family. The Ewings were a politically powerful Ohio family. Her Senator father had been in Polk’s cabinet; “Cump’s” brother was also a Senator. The Ewing home in Ohio would be Ellen Sherman’s home on and off for most of their lives. It was there that she returned over and over during times of stress.

Being married to Sherman was always stressful, since he was a mercurial sort, subject to depressions and fits of temperament. He loved the military, but couldn’t make a living at it until tested during the Civil War. She backed him consistently, and he became great.

When their beloved son Willy died at only eleven, it affected both Shermans to the core, and bound them tightly together in grief. Some years later, when their son Thomas entered the priesthood, it severed, or at least frayed, the bond. She was thrilled. He was devastated.

The Grants, of course, are the great Civil War love story. Plain as a post Julia Dent was devoted to her unassuming and even more devoted Ulysses. No matter how hard author Hooper tries to give Julia a mind of her own (a little), or feistiness (a little), or thought-provoking influence (a little), the bottom line is that the love between them through thick and thin (and a lot of pre-Civil War thin) was the best influence of all.

Few men who reached Grant’s heights are so dependent on the devotion of a wife. Few generals are such complete “family men.” Even fewer admit to it; Grant was the exception. Julia Grant was a genuinely nice lady. Not overly witty or intellectual. Certainly not good looking. Politically more naïve than prescient, and certainly less savvy than the aforementioned wives. Author Hooper tries to build cases for her, but the cases fall short. Nevertheless, Julia was undoubtedly the most important anything in Grant’s life, and would be until the day he died.

Ms. Hooper adds an interesting back-chapter to her quadography – tying all these ladies to the towering back-figure of Abraham Lincoln. These four women had remote or limited contact with the President, either “social” (McClellan and Grant) or supplicating (Fremont and Sherman). With the exception of Jessie Fremont (whose mutual dislike was well documented), Lincoln liked the others well enough, but they were inconsequential.

But as a conjecture (mine…) one wonders if Lincoln did not feel embarrassed for Julia, who bore the brunt of Mary Lincoln’s vitriolic temper on her worst days. He was there. He would have known. And in that same mode, one wonders if he didn’t envy Grant just a little for the gentle wind beneath his wings.

Candice Hooper has written a dandy book for those who love Civil War stories, people and nineteenth century women in general. Read it! You will enjoy it!

Lincoln’s Generals’ Wives

Kent State University Press, May, 2016

  • ISBN-10: 1606352784
  • ISBN-13: 978-1606352786
  • $26.95

 

 

 

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About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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One Response to Lincoln’s General’s Wives: A Book Review

  1. energywriter says:

    Interesting bit of history and the women who helped make it. Thank you, sd

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