Lincoln's Generals' Wives: Four Women Who Influenced the Civil War for Better and for Worse (Kent State University Press, 2016). In the book, Hooper examines the historical impact of Jessie Benton Frémont, Mary Ellen Marcy "Nelly" McClellan, Eleanor Ewing "Ellen" Sherman, and Julia Dent Grant, covering "the early lives of her subjects, as well as their families, their education, their political attitudes, and their personal beliefs." The study contrasts sharply what the author interprets to be the positive influences of Mrs. Grant and Sherman with the misguided marital collaborations of the wives of George McClellan and John C. Frémont.
DW: After figuratively living with Ellen, Julia, Jessie, and Nelly for long periods of time while your project was taking shape, which figure developed into your favorite (and why)?
CSH: Aaaahhh — the “Who’s your favorite child?” question! Hard, hard question, but I think I have to say Julia Grant is my favorite. I’d read a great deal about Julia even before I began this project, but carefully reading The General’s letters to her and her memoirs gave me a completely different picture of her and new appreciation for her complex personality. Though she sometimes pretended to be naïve when it suited her purposes, she was actually very clever, particularly when it came to people who slighted her husband when he was down on his luck and later claimed his friendship when he triumphed. And while the Grants had one of the greatest love stories in our history, I was fascinated that she didn’t hesitate to disagree with her husband on a wide range of topics, from the length of his beard to his military strategies.
But mostly, I was astounded at how much she traveled during the Civil War to be with Ulysses. Though his biographers often mention that she was with him “a lot,” Julia was, in fact, the Civil War’s “Road Warrior.” I’m the first to map her (and the other wives’) travel during the war, and the map of the war years is nearly as impressive as her husband’s. Julia traveled more than 10,000 miles during the war, often with four young children in tow, sometimes through enemy territory, and always at the mercy of unreliable ferries, trains, carriages and horses to be with her husband. She was very nearly captured by Confederates in Mississippi in 1862. Her travel is even more astonishing when you realize that she did it all with a serious disability. Julia was born with an eye defect that affected her vision and her depth perception, making many tasks — from reading and writing to sewing and stepping onto trains — difficult and sometimes dangerous.
And then, at the end of the war, she refused Mary Lincoln’s invitation to go to Ford’s Theater on April 14, setting up one of the most fascinating “what-ifs” in American history.
DW: Your subtitle mentions how the ladies influenced their spouses’ careers “for better and for worse.” Can you give an example of how each harmed her husband’s prospects?
CSH: Actually, my subtitle is meant to reflect my conclusion that two of the wives influenced their husbands “for better” and two “for worse.”
When Jessie Frémont rushed to Washington in September of 1862, to convince Lincoln to let her husband’s ill-timed emancipation order stand, by all accounts, the meeting did not go well. There was plenty of room for blame on both sides, but it was what Jessie did right after the meeting — encouraging her husband to defy the President — that was fatal to General Frémont’s military career.
Nelly McClellan fed her husband’s disdain for Lincoln and his cabinet in her letters. McClellan had his own problems, but it appears she endorsed his every paranoid fear about his civilian and military superiors. Even when he gave her openings to question his judgment, it is not apparent she ever encouraged him in that regard.
In my opinion, Ellen Sherman’s influence on her husband’s career during the war was wholly positive. When he was branded “insane,” he wanted to hide — but she wanted to fight, and did. Her meeting with Lincoln was marked by thoughtful preparation, rational discussion, candid admission of her husband’s shortcomings, and trust in Lincoln’s advice for rehabilitation of Sherman’s career. When in 1864, Sherman threatened to leave the army, Ellen forbade it as desertion, and urged him to stay in the fight. She was devoted to the cause of ending slavery and saving the Union, and she believed her husband had an important role to play.
Julia’s devotion to Ulysses was reflected in her courageous travel throughout the war to be with him. Her reassuring companionship preserved Grant’s equilibrium, that quiet calm that struck every person he encountered and that particularly marked his demeanor as a military leader. Julia provided equal parts of love, confidence, and cheer, and Grant made certain that she understood just how important the last quality — “sunshine,” he called it — was to him.
DW: The women had varying degrees of direct interaction with Lincoln. Can you briefly encapsulate what the president thought of each?
CSH: Lincoln surely admired Jessie Frémont early in the war due to her powerful Congressman father, and her prominence in the 1856 campaign.
But Lincoln grew frustrated with the Frémonts once they established the general’s headquarters in St. Louis. After Lincoln learned that Frémont had issued an emancipation order in Missouri, Lincoln was stunned and asked him to rescind the order. Frémont refused, and Jessie met with Lincoln to convince the President that Frémont was right. Their meeting ended in a verbal fistfight, and Lincoln was furious after she left. From that point, I believe the best way to describe Lincoln’s attitude toward Jessie is to say that he tolerated her.
Nelly — we know that Lincoln met her — certainly at the February 1862 White House reception, but we don’t know much else. There’s no record of his reaction to her then or on the other social occasions when they must have met. We know that he was quite fond of her parents — Lincoln admired her father, General Randolph Marcy.
One of my favorite vignettes in the book is when Ellen’s brother Tom tells her about Lincoln’s reaction to her, three months after her visit about her husband. Tom was in Lincoln’s office in April 1862, when the President was signing Sherman’s commission as Brigadier General. Tom told him that Ellen had raised a flag when Lincoln was nominated in 1860. “He rubbed his hands & with much pleasure said ‘that’s first rate’.” A wonderfully human moment, when Lincoln is expressing delight in Ellen’s political support .
But when Lincoln first met Julia in the spring of 1864 he was completely charmed. I think he might have looked kindly on her initially because she had the same obvious eye defect that his son Robert had (strabismus, or crossed eyes), but it’s clear Lincoln liked Julia’s style. During Lincoln’s last visit to City Point in late March 1865, he would have been grateful for Julia’s patience as she struggled to cope with his wife’s erratic behavior. It was clear that Lincoln felt very kindly toward the Grants.
DW: And what did they think of Lincoln?
CSH: Jessie Frémont first thought Lincoln naïve — that he could not appreciate the problems they faced in the Western Military Department in St. Louis, Missouri. Soon after, Jessie’s view of Lincoln altered; she thought the Commander in Chief irrelevant, at least to her husband’s decision to issue an emancipation order. And finally, Jessie’s early positive view of Lincoln, after he had made her husband a general, was wholly forgotten when he repudiated her husband’s emancipation order and removed Frémont from command.
Though Nelly was known for helping to smooth McClellan’s actions on occasion, existing evidence shows that both in words and in deeds, Nelly bolstered her husband’s arrogance toward Lincoln and his cabinet. From all we know, she not only echoed McClellan’s disdain for his civilian and military superiors, she egged him on.
Once Ellen Sherman learned that Lincoln had repudiated the Know-Nothing Party’s hatred for Catholics, she was for Lincoln “heart and soul” — when no one else in her politically astute family supported him. Of course, she couldn’t vote for him, but she “sent up a flag on his nomination,” she sent her boys to a rally for him to shout their approval, and she stood outside at a parade in his honor. She urged her husband to take Lincoln’s advice after he had been labeled “insane.” Later, when Lincoln placed McClernand in command over Sherman, she ranted in a private letter to her husband that Lincoln should be impeached, but she never repeated that sentiment. She always had her eye on the bigger picture — victory for the Union — and once McClernand was out of the picture, her faith in Lincoln was restored.
The question of Julia’s opinion of Lincoln is a fascinating one. As her President and her husband relentlessly battled to destroy the Confederacy, Julia calmly absorbed the destruction of the slave-fueled plantation lifestyle she had loved so much. But there is no evidence that Julia harbored ill thoughts toward Lincoln at all, or that she ever sought to color Grant’s feelings for the President.
DW: Sometime last year, I was glancing through a quarterly historical journal article about one of General Sherman’s post-Civil War western tours. According to the caption, the accompanying photo of the traveling party brazenly included his “mistress.” As some have alleged and others have doubted, was infidelity common in the Sherman marriage and (if it was) how did Ellen cope with this?
CSH: The stories of Sherman’s many flirtations (and perhaps more than that) are almost exclusively from his postwar years, which were not the focus of my book. I do mention it briefly, though. There seems to be a near historical consensus on this point, although there is no real evidence. I read about his infatuation with the sculptress Vinnie Ream (who had earlier caught John Frémont’s eye, too) and with the widow of one of his staff officers. I seem to recall reading a letter after the war from Ellen to Sherman objecting to Mrs. Audenreid using a Sherman family pass on a railroad; Ellen seemed quite upset. In her postwar years, Ellen’s health, never good, got worse. She put on weight and suffered from shortness of breath, and rarely went out in public. As Ellen removed herself more and more from Sherman’s active social life (he went out to the theater or dinner nearly every night), the results were probably predictable, though unhappy for her. I do believe, though, that Sherman sincerely loved Ellen, and that he meant what he said as he ran to the room where she was dying — “Ellen! Wait for me! No one has ever loved you as I loved you!” He was thoroughly shaken by her death — he never believed she was as ill as she was and, though a healthy man at that time, died barely two years later.
DW: Of the four, the multi-talented Jessie Benton Fremont was probably the most outspoken promoter of her husband. How much can we attribute this advocacy to a shrewd finding of a socially acceptable outlet for her own ambitions?
CSH: Jessie was, indeed, a very ambitious woman. Her famous father educated her like a man and treated her as his political confidante. She was raised in the highest circles of Washington’s political society, and nineteenth-century society’s limits on women frustrated her beyond measure.
Much like Mary Lincoln, Jessie worked through her husband to achieve her political goals. She grasped the opportunities that being the wife of John Charles Frémont offered and she was aggressive in pursuing them. She was interested in politics and particularly interested in ending slavery. When Frémont turned down the Democratic Party’s request to be its presidential nominee in 1856, she maneuvered with Francis Preston Blair to get him the nomination of the new Republican Party, which opposed slavery. When Lincoln made her husband one of the first major generals in 1861, Jessie seized the chance to share his power in the military arena. She acted as Frémont’s unofficial chief of staff — “General Jessie” she was called in St. Louis — and she encouraged him to issue his emancipation order without advance notice to the President of the United States.
One of the most puzzling aspects of Jessie’s public record is her opposition to the women’s suffrage movement. You would think she would have been a prime supporter if not leader in that fight. But more than once she told Cady Stanton that she did not support giving women the vote — “women in their present position manage men better.” I believe that Jessie’s reluctance in this regard was strategic, that she believed it would be a liability to her husband’s career and to their shared interest in ending slavery.
DW: In the Civil War literature, Mrs. McClellan is rarely discussed apart from the famous body of quotable wartime correspondence from her husband. It seems to me that she’s easily the least studied figure of the four and your decision to include her in the book’s quadrumvirate of spouses greatly enhances its appeal . During your research, what were some of your most interesting discoveries? Was Nelly publicly active during General McClellan’s 1864 presidential run?
CSH: I found Nelly to be a fascinating historical figure. She was a celebrated beauty, who turned down McClellan’s first offer of marriage. She wanted to marry his West Point roommate, but her mother sabotaged their engagement. We know that when McClellan did marry Nelly, he adopted her religion, which gave him a sense of divine, if not messianic, purpose. Though Nelly left little in her own writing during the war — just five letters and three telegrams — McClellan’s habit of writing to her every day they were apart yielded a lot of information. From his many letters and her few, it is clear that Nelly egged McClellan on in his disdain for Lincoln and his cabinet. It’s not absolutely clear, however, that she shared that disdain. In fact, it’s not completely clear to me that she ever truly loved McClellan.
In the election of 1864, Nelly was not at all active — in fact, she told a friend that her husband would not accept the Democratic nomination if the platform was one for peace at any price, but he did so the very next day. In fact, McClellan himself was barely active — he told his campaign brain trust, “Don’t send any politicians around,” and he was completely mistaken about his political support among soldiers.
If Nelly’s ill-advised encouragement of McClellan’s every paranoid, narcissistic thought during the war weren’t bad enough, she abandoned responsibility for protecting their personal, intimate correspondence after his death. Instead, she left his reputation — and hers — to the not-so-tender mercies of a very misguided literary executor, who, with Mark Twain’s help, published perhaps the most inaccurate and most criticized “memoirs” of any prominent Civil War general. It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for George McClellan. Almost . . .
If Jessie fought too hard for her husband, Nelly fought not at all.
DW: Were there any sources of serious discord (personal, political, ideological, or otherwise) within any of the marriages during the war?
CSH: Yes. Three of the marriages suffered serious episodes of discord during the war, although only one of the husbands knew about it.
Jessie Frémont was in lockstep with her husband’s political and military policies through the war until August of 1864, when she realized his "third party" candidacy for the presidency might possibly result in a victory for McClellan, a foe of emancipation. Her hatred of slavery pushed her to secretly derail her husband’s bid for the office that both of them had always sought. As far as we know, Frémont never knew that his wife had engineered the decisive visit of John Greenleaf Whittier to his home, which led to his withdrawal from the race.
Ellen Sherman sharply disagreed with her husband in at least three instances during the war. In two cases, she opposed his instincts to leave the army. The first time was when he was accused of being “insane” in December 1861 and he told her he wanted to “hide.” She wanted to fight, and she did – fiercely and intelligently, encouraging her husband to remain in the army every step of the way. The second time was when General McClernand was given command over Sherman. When her husband wrote to her threatening to resign, Ellen flatly rejected that course, telling him it would be “desertion.” The third disagreement was ideological but highly personal as well, reflecting her hatred of slavery. On numerous occasions, Ellen virtually ordered Sherman not to visit their lifelong friends the Turners because Turner sympathized with the Southern cause, including continuation of the slave system.
In her memoirs, Julia Grant references an instance when she vigorously disagreed with one of his military orders: “It was at this time (December 1862) that the General was annoyed by many persons importuning him for permits to pass the lines and to buy cotton, coming armed, many of them, with permits from the Treasury Department at Washington. It was then General Grant wrote that obnoxious order expelling the Jews from his lines . . .” It’s not clear, though, whether or how she expressed her repugnance to her husband at the time. And of course, Julia’s sharpest disagreement occurred on the night of April 14, 1865, when she refused to go to the theater with the Lincolns. She and Grant later both called it her “freak,” and forever after described its ferocity and wondered at it source.
Sadly for both of them, Nelly McClellan never appeared to disagree with any of McClellan’s thoughts or actions.
DW: It’s easy to say that sincere love and the loyal support of wives are key elements in the success of “great men” throughout history, but, from your study of these four ladies in particular, what do you think is their most underappreciated role in the partnership?
CSH: There are many underappreciated aspects to these women’s influence upon their husbands, but one of the most interesting to me was that that they all brought very special fathers to their marriages, men who played major roles in the lives and careers of their sons-in-law. Marrying into Thomas Hart Benton’s family gave John — born out of wedlock, no West Point credentials, and meager financial prospects — a legitimacy that he might never otherwise have achieved. Randolph Marcy, who would probably not have been McClellan’s chief of staff if he were not his father in law, was the perfect go-between for George with Lincoln, since Lincoln liked and admired General Marcy. Ellen Sherman’s powerful political father deftly supported and advised Sherman in his dual capacity as foster father and father-in-law all of his life. And Julia Grant’s father’s favor in this regard was the land that Dent had given Julia as a wedding present, where Grant hewed Hardscrabble out of the forest with his own hands. There, Grant worked in the fields alongside black men, and to Dent’s disgust, paid them more than the going rate for black laborers. In those fields, especially, Grant could take the honest measure of them – their capabilities and their humanity. From that experience, Grant learned that black men would work without a lash and deduced they would fight, too. Once Lincoln made the decision to arm black soldiers, Grant had less reluctance than many generals to place them into combat units. The lessons that Dent’s Southern lifestyle inadvertently imparted to Grant served Lincoln and the Nation well during the Civil War.
DW: Thank you for your time! Is there anything else you’d like to mention before closing?
CSH: My maps! No book about the Civil War is complete without maps, and the maps in my book are truly groundbreaking [ed.: they are nice]. I’m the first to map the travels of the wives during the war, and the results are astonishing. None of these women stayed in one place during the war. Their maps tell a new story of the Civil War, and tell you much about the marriages as well.
Another of my favorite discoveries in eight years of research was how clever and funny and charming and enchanting all of these historical figures were, a little known side of their personalities that was most often revealed in their letters to each other. Who knew that Grant had a great streak of humor? McClellan could be humorously self-deprecating. Jessie is famous even today for her wit and charm. Julia pokes fun at herself time and again with tales of her disasters in the kitchen. The couples’ spirited banter in their correspondence gives us a real sense of their personalities. The generals come to life in their letters to the women they loved.