Behind Every Great Man – Four Military Wives Who Influenced the Civil War (For Better or For Worse)

History often forgets the crucial role some Civil War generals' wives played in the outcome of the conflict.

History often forgets the crucial role some Civil War generals’ wives played in the outcome of the conflict.

“Sadly, little attention has been paid to the wives of some of the Union’s leading generals.”

By Candice Shy Hooper

CIVIL WAR LITERATURE is filled with books about women who stepped outside society’s norms to take part in the conflict. Some disguised themselves as men to fight, while others became nurses, spies, camp followers, abolitionists or to worked in munitions factories. Books about Southern women dwell on Southern belles who stoically faced the Yankee invaders with grace, while coping with shortages in food and clothing, and loss of morale in the face of defeat. Tales of women stepping outside their “conventional” roles are certainly compelling. Sadly, little attention has been paid to the wives of some of the Union’s leading generals. Yet these spouses, all but overlooked by history, left their mark, and in some cases, made considerable contributions to the outcome of the war. In my new book, Lincoln’s Generals’ Wives, I looked at the partners of four Union generals, and the roles they played (for better and for worse) in their husbands’ military careers. Their stories bring to mind the old adage: behind every great man, there is a great woman.

Missouri was a state divided during the Civil War. John Frémont, commander of the Western Department ran his territory like a dictator... and his wife Jessie played spouse, adjutant and political advisor.

Missouri was a state divided during the Civil War. It probably didn’t help that John Frémont, commander of the Western Department, ran the region “like a European autocrat.” His wife Jessie was his unofficial aide de camp and political advisor. 

A Frontier Power Couple

Jessie Frémont.

Jessie Frémont.

Jessie Frémont’s style was aggressive – she assumed tactical control of John Frémont’s military career. When the general was given command of Union forces in the Western Military District, she accompanied her spouse to his new outpost, selected the headquarters building and set herself up at a desk outside his door, as his virtual aide-de-camp. Frémont’s personality leaned toward an imperial isolation – from the local civilian population, from visiting dignitaries, from his own troops. Jessie shielded him from these interlopers from her privileged position in his office. Her poorly-planned and worse-executed visit to Lincoln to defend the general’s controversial 1861 emancipation order was bad enough, but she then encouraged her husband to distribute copies of the order weeks after Lincoln revoked it. She convinced her husband to believe he was the target of conspiracies against him and insisted on communicating with him in code words. Her devotion was so fierce, her hair turned white one day during the war when she discovered that Confederate spies had learned the route her husband and his troops were taking in the field. Everything she did she did to further his career and to burnish his reputation – including secretly derailing his presidential bid in 1864 in order to protect his antislavery reputation.

Meet the McClellands.

Meet the McClellands: George and Nelly.

George McClellan’s Better Half

Nelly McClellan favoured a more passive approach to her husband’s career. She fed the Army of the Potomac commander’s paranoid, narcissistic view of the world, of Lincoln and of the president’s cabinet. Nelly supported her husband’s desire to resign after Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and even encouraged her spouse to defy his superior, Union General-in-Chief Henry Halleck. Unlike other generals’ wives, Nelly didn’t participate in the welfare organizations that were the hallmarks of women’s work; she didn’t even visit military hospitals until her husband encouraged her to do so. She fled from criticism of her husband – to New York and Connecticut, where she was entertained and could entertain others. After her husband’s death in 1885, Nelly abandoned responsibility for protecting their personal, intimate correspondence, including his incendiary opinions of the war’s top civilian and military leadership. 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.

Sherman's wife Ellen stood by her husband when the strain of command drove him over the edge. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Sherman’s wife Ellen stood by her husband when the strain of command drove him over the edge. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Sherman’s Beloved

Mrs. Sherman.

Mrs. Sherman.

Ellen Ewing and William Tecumseh “Cump” Sherman grew up as foster siblings – as equal as brother and sister can be. They each went off to boarding schools – she to Catholic schools; he to West Point – and kept up a steady, substantial, correspondence that turned into a long-distance romance by the time he graduated. Their marriage was delayed by his financial woes and her ill health, but by the time they married in 1850, they were solidly friends and lovers. Each knew the other’s faults and never shrank from debate on a range of issues, be it financial familial, political or military. Ellen Sherman’s influence on her husband’s career during the war was wholly positive. When Sherman 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 the course. Committed to the ending of slavery and the preservation of the Union, she believed her husband instrumental to both causes. Ellen was honest in assessing her husband’s virtues and weaknesses and never shrank from acknowledging them when it was in his interest to do so. Her honesty, her faith, and her remarkable perspicacity were a source of strength for Sherman in some of the worst times of his life.

Grant likely couldn't have achieved the successes he had (nor survived the failures) were it not for his devoted wife Julia.

Grant likely couldn’t have achieved the successes he did (nor survived his many failures) were it not for his devoted wife Julia.

Grant’s Rock

Future First Lady Julia Grant. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Future First Lady Julia Grant. (Image source: WikiCommons)

In military terms, the source of strength used to defeat an enemy is called “center of gravity,” and General Ulysses S. Grant certainly looked to Julia as just that. The Mexican War veteran and future president needed his wife in a way that the other generals did not. Grant needed constant assurance of Julia’s love and constant “sunshine” as he called it, from her – a loving domestic oasis that provided him a respite from the horrors of war. Unable to write her husband as often as he liked, she traveled more than 10,000 miles over four years to be with him as often as she could. Despite a debilitating eye defect, she traveled over bad roads, often crossing into enemy territory, sometimes with all four children and often with her slave, Jule in tow. In fact, the two women were once very nearly captured by Rebel troops on one of these voyages. The Grants – and everyone who saw them together in camp knew that Julia’s presence was essential to the general’s success. She enabled that gentle man to wage terrible war.

Post Script

Jessie Frémont and Nelly McClellan endorsed the worst in their husbands’ characters – both encouraged their spouses to disdain, even ignore Lincoln – a commander-in-chief who made every effort to understand and support those two difficult generals. Ellen Sherman and Julia Grant, on the other hand, often disagreed with their husbands, but supported their generals’ best instincts. Together they helped to sustain the key military architects of the Union victory and helped sustain the Republic.

51Y33JdOGaL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_Candice Shy Hooper’s is the author of Lincoln’s Generals’ Wives: Four Women Who Influenced the Civil War for Better and for Worse. She has contributed to the The Journal of Military History and The New York Times. She received her MA in history from The George Washington University and is a member of the Board of Advisors of President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, D.C., and of the advisory board of the Ulysses S. and Julia D. Grant Historical Home in Detroit, Michigan.

Leave a Reply