Meet The 'Capital Dames,' Civil War Washington's Secret Power Brokers

Meet The 'Capital Dames,' Civil War Washington's Secret Power Brokers

9:21pm Apr 26, 2015
President Lincoln's Cottage provided Abraham Lincoln with a refreshing escape from Washington's summer heat, but it was also the site of a painful period in Mary Todd Lincoln'€™s life.
President Lincoln's Cottage provided Abraham Lincoln with a refreshing escape from Washington's summer heat, but it was also the site of a painful period in Mary Todd Lincoln'€™s life.
Ariel Zambelich / NPR
  • President Lincoln's Cottage provided Abraham Lincoln with a refreshing escape from Washington's summer heat, but it was also the site of a painful period in Mary Todd Lincoln'€™s life.

    President Lincoln's Cottage provided Abraham Lincoln with a refreshing escape from Washington's summer heat, but it was also the site of a painful period in Mary Todd Lincoln'€™s life.

    Ariel Zambelich / NPR

  • Cokie Roberts' other books include Founding Mothers and Ladies of Liberty.

    Cokie Roberts' other books include Founding Mothers and Ladies of Liberty.

    Ariel Zambelich / NPR

It's an overcast morning outside President Lincoln's Cottage, a national historic site in Washington, D.C., and Erin Carlson Mast is struggling to open a pair of huge, historic wooden pocket doors.

"When we began the restoration these had been closed for over 100 years," Carlson Mast, the site's executive director, tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.

Abraham Lincoln and his family spent summers at this cottage in the 1860s, making use of a retirement complex called the Old Soldiers' Home. It's uphill from the White House and thus much cooler in the summer — in fact, too cold for some.

"The one letter we know he wrote definitively from here, he's writing to his wife, Mary, and says that the housekeeper and the cook have grown so cold at Soldiers' Home and want to move back to the White House," Carlson Mast says. "And he just ends with the simple question, 'Shall they?' So he's in no hurry to leave."

The recipient of that letter, Mary Todd Lincoln, is one of several Civil War-era women at the center of Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868, a new book by Morning Edition contributor Cokie Roberts.

Sitting in the cottage at a marble-topped table, Roberts explains how these women — who couldn't vote and were considered to be their husbands' property — exercised power in Washington.

"Their influence was indirect not just with their own husbands, but with other men in power," she tells Inskeep. "So they would go to the secretary of the Navy and say, 'Oh, it's just terrible so-and-so is being deployed to Italy and his wife is pregnant. You can't do that!' And the secretary of the Navy would say, 'Yes, ma'am, I can't do that. You're right.' And that happened all the time. These women were lobbied by favor-seekers or bill-passer-seekers or just individuals. ... They would be the person who had the ear of the powerful man more than anyone else."

The women maneuvering for power included Jessie Benton Fremont, the daughter of a senator and the wife of 1856 presidential candidate John Charles Fremont. In her book, Roberts quotes from a letter in which Jessie notes her neighbors' excitement that they may be living near the future "presidentess."

"She was going to elect him president and she would be the 'presidentess' and everyone saw her as an incredible power," Roberts says. "We're talking 1856: John Fremont is the first [ever] Republican [Party] nominee. And Jessie Fremont was out there throughout that campaign — in fact, so much so that the Democrats, Fremont's opponents, said sarcastically: Why not just have a campaign banner that has little tiny letters that say, 'John C. Fremont, husband of Jessie Benton,' in great huge letters, 'for president.' "

In the end, the Fremonts lost and, four years later the Lincolns won, which is how they came to spend their summers in what later became known as the Lincoln Cottage. Site director Erin Carlson Mast says the pain of Mary Todd Lincoln's life spread through these spacious rooms.

"By the time she's in this house, two of her children have already died and half of her family is fighting with the Confederacy against the government that she and her husband now represent," she says.

Roberts' book includes a scene in which Mary reports that her dead son came to visit her in her bedroom. "Mary Lincoln held at least one séance out here," Carlson Mast says. "We know that the séance ... was in part to connect with [their sons] Willie and Eddie."

Roberts writes of a first lady who was largely rejected by Washington society, and who tested the patience of her husband. She calls the couple's relationship tortured but loving.

"Abraham Lincoln clearly loved Mary Lincoln and vice versa," Roberts says. "But she was one of the most difficult human beings. ... She did have big losses, but everybody had big losses — more than 600,000 Americans lost their lives in the Civil War. And she could have tremendous flare-ups of temper. But she was also very smart and she was politically very savvy."

Mary was even accused of leaking news items to reporters in order to keep their papers on her side. Rejected by Washington society, the first lady came to confide in her servants, including a dressmaker and former slave who later wrote a tell-all memoir.

More than 150 years later, Roberts says there's a lot she recognizes in these Civil War-era women.

"It's really remarkable how much we do the same things century in, century out," she says. "You recognize their concern about their children; you recognize their interest in fashion; you recognize the jewelry that they're wearing. Mary Lincoln's pearls were on display at the Library of Congress the other night; I would have loved to take them out of the case and put them on. But you also recognize their intelligence and their political sensibility."

It was a time when women had to be covertly ambitious. Today, Roberts says, "They can be overtly ambitious, carefully. ... It's still very difficult for a woman to have the word 'ambitious' attached to her. It's not meant positively when it's attached to a woman."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On a gray morning in Washington, we were standing on a lawn, and through the mist saw a strangely familiar figure in a stovepipe hat.

And there's Abe Lincoln now.

ERIN CARLSON MAST: There's Abe Lincoln, yeah. That's a life-sized, bronze sculpture of Lincoln.

INSKEEP: We contemplated that sculpture with Erin Carlson Mast. She directs President Lincoln's Cottage. That's a white house with brown trim, a national historic site. Inside, we closed and opened huge wooden pocket doors, each at least 10 feet tall.

MAST: When we began the restoration, these had been closed for over a hundred years. I think I'm not going to be able to open it all the way.

INSKEEP: Let me help you with that.

MAST: I'm not strong enough.

INSKEEP: President Abraham Lincoln and his family spent their summers here in the 1860s. They were making use of a retirement complex called the old Soldiers' Home. It's uphill from what we now call the White House, and thus much cooler in summer - in fact, too cold for some.

MAST: The one letter we knew he wrote definitively from here, he's writing to his wife, Mary, and says that the housekeeper and the cook have grown so cold at Soldiers' Home and want to move back to the White House. And he just ends with the simple question, shall they? So he's in no hurry to leave. But...

INSKEEP: This story centers on the recipient of that letter, Mary Todd Lincoln, the first lady of the United States and one of the Civil War-era women of Washington. These women are the subject of a new book by our colleague Cokie Roberts, who was waiting for us inside the house.

There she is.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Welcome to the home...

INSKEEP: You came down the stairs as if you...

ROBERTS: I know.

INSKEEP: You know, it's...

We pulled up chairs at a marble-topped table, and Cokie told stories of the 19th-century wives of presidents and senators and secretaries of war.

You write about women who are ambitious and seeking power and even exercising power, even though they had no right to vote or run for office. How were women...

ROBERTS: Or own property. If they were married women, they belonged to their husbands. Everything on their bodies belonged to their husbands.

INSKEEP: Their names disappeared. They would be Mrs. Jefferson Davis.

ROBERTS: Mrs. Senator Davis.

INSKEEP: Ah, OK, I'll try to keep that straight.

ROBERTS: You see? Even that is quite remarkable.

INSKEEP: So how were women exercising power and influence?>>ROBERTS: Well, their influence was indirect, not just with their own husbands, but with other men in power. So they would go to the secretary of the Navy and say, oh, it's just terrible - so-and-so is being deployed to Italy, and his wife is pregnant. You can't do that. And the secretary of the Navy would say, yes, ma'am, I can't do that, you're right. And that happened all the time. These women were lobbied by favor-seekers or bill passer-seekers or by just individuals.

INSKEEP: They would be a doorkeeper for a senator or a president is what you're saying.

ROBERTS: They would be the person who had the ear of the powerful man more than anyone else.

INSKEEP: The women maneuvering for power included Jessie Benton Fremont, daughter of a senator and wife of a presidential candidate, John Charles Fremont.

And there's a letter that you quote in which Jessie Fremont is writing - with some excitement - that all of the neighbors on her street are excited because they think they're living near a future presidentess - presidentess. What did she mean?

ROBERTS: She was going to elect him president, and she would be the presidentess. And everyone saw her as an incredible power. We're talking 1856; John Fremont is the first Republican nominee. And Jessie Fremont was out there throughout that campaign - in fact, so much so that the Democrats, Fremont's opponents, said sarcastically, why not just have a campaign banner that has little, tiny letters that say, John C. Fremont, husband of Jessie Benton in great huge letters for president?

INSKEEP: Fremont - or rather, the Fremonts - lost. Four years later, the Lincolns won, which is how they came to spend their summers here in the Lincoln Cottage. Our guide to the house, Erin Carlson Mast, said the pain of Mary Lincoln's life spread through these spacious rooms.

MAST: Mary Lincoln held at least one seance out here. By the time she's in this house, two of her children have already died and half of her family is fighting with the Confederacy against the government that she and her husband now represent.

INSKEEP: There's a scene in Cokie's book in which Mary Todd Lincoln is reporting that her dead son has come to visit her in her bedroom. Would things like that have happened here in this house where we are?

MAST: Yeah. In fact, we know that the seance that took place out here was in part to connect with Willie and Eddie.

INSKEEP: Cokie Roberts writes of a first lady who was largely rejected by Washington society and who tested the patience of her husband.

What was that relationship like?

ROBERTS: It was tortured, but it was loving. Abraham Lincoln clearly loved Mary Lincoln and vice versa, but she was one of the most difficult human beings I've ever met. She...

INSKEEP: I love how you say you ever met, but it's how you feel...

ROBERTS: It is.

INSKEEP: ...When you get into the letters of people...

ROBERTS: It's true.

INSKEEP: ...And so forth.

ROBERTS: She - she did have big losses, but everybody had big losses. More than 600,000 Americans lost their lives in the Civil War. And she could have tremendous flare-ups of temper, but she was also very smart and she was politically very savvy.

INSKEEP: She was even accused of leaking news items to reporters in order to keep their papers on her side. Rejected as she was by Washington society, the first lady confided in her servants. Those confidants included a dressmaker, a former slave, who later wrote a tell-all memoir. Even in a time of war, the capital had plenty of time for gossip and scandal.

When you have researched and read the letters of the women of this era, the mid-19th century, do you feel in some way that you recognize them?

ROBERTS: I always recognize women in history. It's really remarkable how much we do the same things century in, century out. You recognize their concern about their children; you recognize their interest in fashion; you recognize the jewelry that they're wearing. Mary Lincoln's pearls were on display at the Library of Congress the other night. I would've loved to have taken them out of the case and put them on. But you also recognize their intelligence and their political sensibility.

INSKEEP: Women can be overtly ambitious today rather than covertly ambitious.

ROBERTS: They can be overtly ambitious, carefully.

INSKEEP: Go on.

ROBERTS: It's still very difficult for a woman to have the word ambitious attached to her. It's not meant positively when it's attached to a woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

INSKEEP: That's our colleague, Cokie Roberts, daughter of a congressman and congresswoman, whose own great political family has been in Washington for decades. Her book on 19th-century Washington women is called "Capital Dames." It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. The theme music was written by B.J. Leiderman and arranged by Jim Pugh. I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Support your
public radio station