In Civil War Wives, Carol Berkin sketches the lives and times of Angela Grimke Weld, Varina Howell Davis and Julia Dent Grant. This is solid women’s history, close to the sources and closely attuned to opportunities and constraints these well-known women faced. Weld was married to abolitionist Theodore Weld. Davis was the spouse of the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, while Grant was the wife of Ulysses S. Grant, president of the United States. Berkin is an able historian and an accomplished writer. Under her guidance, prose flows smoothly. Identification with the women and their stories, regardless of their circumstances, comes easily. We think that we know them. Berkin’s focus is biographical and she accomplishes that aim effectively. It is well-crafted, accessible history at the personal level.
Berkin makes no grand claims for her book and biography often remains just that: the study of a life. Good biography, though, raises questions and broadens perspectives. What shines through Berkin’s study is that the “History” as written by historians often moves at a level and in directions that overwhelm even the most intelligent and informed of people. Not only may individuals make choices that put them on the wrong “side” of history, curiosity and education are no guarantees that an individual will grapple with what historians later decide to the be the key issues of their time. Grimke Weld was a passionate abolitionist, but she abandoned a public life for one of domesticity and duty, and Varina Howell Davis, an clever and sophisticated woman, was dedicated in her support for the confederacy. Julia Dent seems to have been the emotional foundation of her husband, but not at all well-suited for a public life. Context and contingency cannot be underestimated when trying to make sense of a life, be it historical or contemporary.
As I finished Civil War Wives I thought of three other wives I had recently read about, the brides of Osama Bin Laden. At his death Bin Laden had been married for 27 years to Siham Sabar, a teacher, and for 25 years to Khairiah Sabar, a child psychologist. Both of these women were from Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden’s youngest wife, Amal Ahmed al-Sadah, was from Yemen and may have been “given” to Bin Laden when she was a teenager. The younger wife was wounded, possibly in an attempt to protect Bin Laden, when the Navy Seals stormed the compound. We do not know much of these three women, save their commitment to their husband and family. It is easy to see Bin Laden’s wives are enemies in the “War on Terror,” but understanding their choices and values is much more difficult. What choices did they have? Growing up in an extraordinarily controlled societies, did they imagine alternatives? Were the aware of the harm and pain caused by their husband? And did they see “History” as something to be embraced or avoided?
My initial inclination when studying history is to look to the big picture and to identify with the broad sweep. It is a comforting approach, for such history is written with the benefit of time and distance. It makes sense of what is chaotic and organizes decisions into chapter points, making clear the distinctions of right and wrong. But that sort of history also misses much. Berkin’s book is a welcome antidote, a tonic to keeps us honest. Much of life is neither national, nor international, nor even about “big” topics. Instead, it is about what can be grasped and touched: family and friends, our local tribes. History may tend to focus on the battlefield, but lives are lived around the hearth.