". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Saturday, February 4, 2017

A Civil War Posy

     . . . . A compelling pre- Civil War, Civil War and post-Civil War posy of characters: Julia Dent Grant, Varina Davis, Mary Todd Lincoln, Mary Boykin Chesnut and Harriet Lane Johnston. 

A young 19th woman makes up posies.

Young woman braids a posy in her friend's hair.

These women have more in common with each other than what they do not in terms of the events they lived through, not just as citizens but personally. All of them were more highly educated than the average woman of the era.  They all read widely. All of them were widowed. All of them lost dearly beloved children.  All of them were married to primary figures of the war. From their birth, all five of these women had intimate experience of the center of the casus belli for the War of the Rebellion, of slaves and slavery. All them knew what it was to own slaves, if, that is, if her uncle, James Buchanan did free the two slaves he brought back from a southern relative's estate to his own Wheatland estate in Pennsylvania (some think this is white washing by the Lancaster Historical Society -- I do not know).

Varina Davis and Mary Chesnut became close initially in Washington D.C., when their husbands were in the government there and lived, I think, in the same boarding house.  They were neighbors in Richmond and very close friends during the war -- did they ever meet in the New York years?

Julia Grant and Varina Davis become excellent friends in New York. Julia Grant and Harriet Lane certainly met Mary Lincoln -- many sources say that Julia did not like the company of the First Lady, though it's difficult to determine whether this was true.  It has been repeated as truth by many historians that it was and that because Julia so disliked Mary Lincoln, she persuaded General Grant  to leave the capital that fateful night rather than join the Lincoln's at Ford's Theater as they were invited to.  It is also said that she'd had a terrible premonition that something awful was afoot for that night. On these subjects the information is contradictory and fragmentary, so one cannot say definitively.

I have been thinking that during Chesnut's New York years of revising and pulling together her tremendous Diary From Dixie that she'd become well acquainted with Eliot's Middlemarch (1872), to the great benefit of herself as a developing, self-taught writer, and to the Diary as the great work it is, though it wasn't quite finished when she died. By all assessments, she did achieve her long-strived for goal, however, of becoming not only a very good writer, but an important one -- though of course, since it was The War of Rebellion, and she a woman, it took over 100 years for that to be recognized and admitted to, though (male) scholars always made good use of her work.

I don't know about Mary Lincoln, but the other women in that Civil War posy liked to write, even before the war. After being widowed, Varina Davis was regularly and frequently published in her New York City years by Joseph Pulitzer's New York World -- her daughter Winnie (for Varina), with whom she lived in New York until Winnie died from pneumonia, published several novels, that received middling success. Both Varina and Julia wrote their own memoirs of their lives with their famous husbands.

Named for Washington's very popular hostess, Harriet Lane, the Revenue Cutter Harriet Lane forces the merchant steamer Nashville to show its colors during the attack on Fort Sumter, April 13, 1861. "The Cutter Harriet Lane Fires Across the Bow of Nashville" by Coast Guard artist Howard Koslow.  During her days as Buchana's First Lady the presidential yacht was named for her—the first of several ships to be named for her, one of which is still in service today.

Harriet Lane made the low-neck lace bertha and posies her distinct fashion trademark

Harriet Lane Johnston was the richest of them, and began that way, thanks to her prosperous uncle, James Buchanan, for whom she served as First Lady in the years he was in the White House. I wonder if she and Julia, at least, ever met in New York after the war.  Though Harriet based herself in D.C. she traveled frequently and widely.  As the disgraced Buchanan's niece, she wasn't much, if at all, in D.C. during the course of the war itself.   She didn't marry the Baltimore banker, Johnston, until the war was effectively over in 1865, though they had known each other for years prior. She left a lasting, significant mark on art for the public in public spaces and institutions, as well as other works for the public good, particularly caring for orphaned and severely ill children,

It bewilders me rather, that Mary Todd Lincoln, the widow of the martyred president, did the most poorly of these five women after the war, even though she had a prosperous, adult son, Robert (he seemed to hate her -- she died at the home of her sister, not in his home). Mary Lincoln had to lobby Garfield over and over to receive a very small widow's pension as the survivor of the greatest President of the US, as he was called even then. After Lincoln's death though, she did nothing but scrounge for money and / or be put away in an institution. She had serious health problems, that seems obvious, but what's odd is how no one even now seems to have any sympathy for her emotional / chemical distresses. Documentation of the period that would tell us whether or not Mary Lincoln was indeed widely disliked in Washington appears to be difficult to track down.  There is speculation that much of this is rumors, spread deliberately by Kate Chase (Sprague), whose  father, Salmon Chase schemed relentlessly to become president himself, and who was entirely supported in this by his daughter.

It's particularly interesting that the happiest of these women were Varina and Julia, both widows of primary actors of the war and the peace after.

The difference between them is that Varina was often unhappy with Davis, both early and late -- who by all primary evidence was unfaithful to her after leaving incarceration, but she could not, of course, divorce him. After his death, she heartily enjoyed her life in New York.

The young Julia Dent

All the primary documentary evidence points to Julia always having been a happy, contented woman and never once regretful of her choice of a life mate, nor he of his.

Their romantic courtship could have been written in many a sentimental romance novel of the era. They both loved riding and were superb riders.  They took long jaunts together in the early mornings and the evening twilight, in between reading together novels of Walter Scott and others. They both loved reading as much as riding.

 I think of Julia, as she was falling in love with her 'Ulys, or Lys," as she called him, taking early notice that he always treated women, children, the enslaved and animals with respect and kindness, not least the horses they both loved so much. This is notable in an era in which white men treated all these classes with casual brutality either as a matter of course or a way of relieving frustration. She must also have taken notice of how interested and curious he was about everything, which made him more interesting than most other men. Their whole life together seems to have fulfilled their early romantic promise

This is not something that could not be said of many a marriage of the time -- as with Kate Chase Sprague, who was so unfortunate to marry a drunken abusive man, and left her in penury, peddling vegetables and eggs from her own garden and chickens to former peers in D.C. in order to survive.

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