Mary Custis of Virginia, Julia Dent of Missouri, Mary Todd of Kentucky and Varina Howell of Mississippi were raised according to traditional Southern custom. These women formed partnerships with men who became the presidents and military commanders of the United States and the Confederate States of America during the Civil War era.
All four married men of their own choosing despite family resistance. John Perry relates in “Lady of Arlington” that 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 and a rich heiress from a slave-dependent society, was slow to adapt to the rigor of army life.
Ishbel Ross, author of “The General’s Wife,” notes that, regardless of 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. Like Lee, Grant was a graduate of West Point.
Mary Todd’s family looked askance at the backwoods demeanor of young lawyer Abraham Lincoln. Yet Mary set her eye on this man she believed had the makings to someday become president of the United States.
Varina Howell’s mother thought the widowed and melancholy Jefferson Davis, at 36, was too old to marry her 18-year-old daughter. In spite of these objections, Varina followed her own counsel and married Davis who, at the time, owned a Mississippi River plantation.
Varina Davis and Mary Lincoln, both cultured and articulate, were rarely overshadowed in any gathering. In “Mary Todd Lincoln,” Jean H. Baker states that an acquaintance called Mary “the very creature of excitement,” and Joan E. Cashin referred to Varina’s “abounding vitality” in her biography of the “First Lady of the Confederacy.” Both women were attractive, witty and, at times, undiplomatically candid.
Julia Grant was willful but charming, and thrived on social interaction. In contrast, Mary Lee was intelligent, introspective and a devout born-again Christian who preferred her own intimate circle of family and friends.
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, however, Mary became disconsolate while alone in Springfield caring for their children.
Varina rebelled, but 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 United States and Confederate presidencies beckoned their husbands, Mary Lincoln and Varina Davis were eager to assume their role as First Ladies.
Mary Lee did not see her husband for more than a year after Robert E. Lee resigned from the U.S. army to join the Confederacy when war came in 1861. As Union forces prepared to march into the South, Mrs. Lee fled her beautiful mansion at 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, who earlier had left the army, reentered the service in 1861. She eventually joined Grant in Memphis, and followed him as he moved south through Mississippi as commander of Union forces in that area.
Given the norm of women’s subordination in Victorian 19th century relationships, the four women often strained marital harmony by striving for independence. However, they also safeguarded their marriages — they were their husbands’ greatest champions.
The leading ladies of the Civil War, Mary Todd Lincoln, Varina Howell Davis, Julia Dent Grant and Mary Custis Lee, were four Southern women who made the most of their exceptional talents, coped with their limitations and achieved their primary goals in life. Their legacy was their effective and enduring partnership with the men who led the North and South through the trauma of sectional conflict, and, in the case of Grant and Lee, helped guide the country during the recovery period that fostered the nation’s rebirth.
Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” (recipient of the Bachelder-Coddington Literary Award for 2015), available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.