Lincoln's Generals' Wives: A Conversation with Candice Shy Hooper

Several recent biographies and novels have focused on "the wives of...." Civil War protagonists, most notably Mary Todd Lincoln and Varina Davis. 


Candice Shy Hooper took a different tack in her group biography of four wives of prominent Union generals: Jessie (John) Frémont, Nelly (George) McClellan, Ellen (William T.) Sherman, and Julia (Ulysses) Grant. In Lincoln's Generals' WivesCandy focused on how each woman influenced her husband's Civil War career, in addition to background on their lives.

I met Candy when she gave a great presentation at a Civil War Roundtable meeting last June. We read each other's books and spoke by phone in August.

She graciously commented that Julia Wilbur reminded her of the best characteristics of all of the women she profiled – smart, strong, courageous, resilient, and determined. But here are a few highlights of the conversation about the four subjects of her book.

The Idea

Candy went back to school to earn a master's in history at George Washington University. When she wrote a paper on William Tecumseh Sherman, she learned that his wife Ellen had gone to visit President Lincoln to advocate on her husband's behalf. She then remembered that Jessie Frémont had made a similar trip to the President, although with a less-than-successful outcome. 


Her first idea was an article, but a professor suggested a book instead. A few months later, she realized she had a full-length book if she could expand the Lincoln focus and bring in other women. Her criteria for inclusion: existence of records (although a note about what was missing from Julia Grant below), a story to tell from the woman's point of view, and service in the Union Army. Elizabeth Blair Lee would have been a great subject, Candy said, but her husband Samuel was an admiral, not a general. 

As Candy told me:

At the beginning of the war, Frémont and McClellan were riding high; by the end of 1862, both had left the Army. At the beginning of the war, Sherman and Grant were fighting to even be in the service, but were on top at the end. And as it happens, Ellen Sherman and Julia Grant helped their husbands succeed, while Jessie Frémont and Nelly McClellan did not. 

Each woman's story is unique. Candy warned that the book does not provide advice on what makes a good or bad military wife.

The Women

In recounting their backgrounds, Candy does not over-compare or connect her four subjects. A few themes do emerge, however.

  • They came from prominent families. Thomas Benton (father of Jessie) and Thomas Ewing (father of Ellen) were senators and held other political positions, and were willing to use their connections on behalf of their sons-in-law. Frederick Dent (father of Julia) owned a plantation (and held slaves) in Missouri, and the family was part of the St. Louis social circle. Nelly McClellan's father Randolph Marcy was not quite as elevated, but he was a West Point-educated Army office and had ambitious marriage plans for his beautiful daughter.
  • With the exception of Jessie, who served as a chief of staff to her husband, the women were traditional in that they were the primary family caregivers and had no aspirations to go beyond their "sphere."
  • Their views of slavery diverged, with Jessie the most strongly opposed. Ellen, a strongly devout Catholic, was not as publicy active but was fiercely anti-slavery. In contrast, Julia Grant traveled with a woman long-enslaved in their family, a woman named Jule. Nelly McClellan did not leave any written record about her own views, but husband George was famous for not wanting the war to be about slavery.
  • They were all so young! In the midst of this tremendous conflict and the pressures, Jessie Fremont at age 37 was the oldest of the four. Nelly McClellan was just 26.
  • Another thing that struck Candy as she worked on the book is that Julia Grant and Ellen Sherman both had physical disabilities that, especially for the time, might have precluded marriage and family. Grant had strabismus (which manifests itself as a wandering eye) and Ellen had scrofula, a painful and often unsightly skin condition. In fact, Candy's detective work helped identify Ellen's specific condition, which she found in archdiocese records at Notre Dame! To Candy,

The fact that Ulysses Grant and Cump [William Tecumseh Sherman's nickname, a version of this middle name) loved these women speaks to the character of the men.

Their Actions

So what did they do that helped or hurt their husbands' careers? As correspondents, sounding boards, companions in camp and at home, surrogates, and in other myriad duties, Jessie and Nelly ended up doing damage, while Ellen and Julia provided encouragement, companionship, but also candid advice.  The book goes into far more interesting detail than what I highlight here:

John Frémont crossed President Lincoln by, among other things, issuing his own Emancipation Order in 1862. Jessie traveled to Washington to defend him. After an exhausting multi-day trip, she arrived tired and dirty to the Willard Hotel and wrote a note to request to visit Lincoln at his convenience that evening or the next day; he responded, "now." When they met, both she and he were irritable, talking at cross-purposes. Many accounts exist about the meeting, all agree it did not go as Jessie wished. In fact, Candy notes that the only time Jessie's ambition for her husband took a backseat to the larger political picture was when she derailed her husband's third-party presidential candidacy in 1864. With no love lost between them and Lincoln, Jessie recognized the terrible consequences to the Union and to emancipated slaves if her husband's candidacy resulted in a McClellan win.

Nelly and George McClellan corresponded frequently and openly. Both were enamored with his position as head of the Army; both disdained Commander-in-Chief Lincoln. Nelly could have provided her husband with frank feedback about prevailing views in Washington, but she did not. Yet to Candy, Nelly's real damage to her husband;s legacy occurred after his death, when she allowed his personal letters to her to be published. George McClellan in all his vainglory to the world for eternity.

Ellen Sherman spent most of the war in her family's home in Lancaster, Ohio. She offered her opinions and interpretations freely to her husband, and she was often spot on. She was a devout Catholic (something she could not get her husband to embrace despite multiple attempts), fan of Lincoln, and strong supporter of her husband in his times of greatest need--such as when the popular press reported he was insane. Ellen's father, brother, and brother-in-law were already planning a trip to Washington, and Ellen decided to go, too. Candy describes her meeting with Lincoln with a very different outcome than that of Jessie Fremont. 

Julia Grant's main contribution was to be present at her husband's side. For reasons perhaps connected with her eye condition, perhaps her own personality, she rarely wrote her husband, despite his truly desperate entreaties. But while the maps that Candy includes in her book show a handful of trips taken by the other three during the war, the map of Julia Grant's travels shows a route that would challenge anyone, much less a woman traveling with children in the midst of the Civil War. To Candy.

I would read Grant's letters [when he pleaded with Julia to write him] and get so upset. But her physical presence centered Grant, and that in turn helped him focus on what he needed to focus on.

The Only Known Meeting

Most of the Confederate generals's wives lived out the war in Richmond, where they would have seen each other and "gone to the same parties," Candy pointed out, while the Union generals' wives were spread apart, whether in their homes, with their husbands in camp, or in Washington.

Candy found one occasion when three of the four (all except Ellen) were in the same place at the same time: at a New York City Sanitary Commission Fair in 1864. It was not a planned meeting, but their presence raised the profile of the event--and the fundraising take. A contest in which attendees could vote for which general would receive a ceremonial jeweled sword turned into a contest especially between Nelly and Julia, but ultimately a proxy to gauge the popularity of Gen. McClellan and Gen. Grant (and by extension President Lincoln.) In 1864, McClellan was running for president against Lincoln. 

Candy was clearly captivated by the story, which she found in the memoir of a nurse who was at the fair. She told me she originally drafted 30 to 40 pages about it. But as writers must do, she had to trim it to a very readable three or so.

Another Interesting Meeting

Chance meetings happen everyplace. Candy is a 20-year resident of and active in community affairs in Boca Grande, Florida, with a population of only a few thousand residents. After the local paper ran an article about her and her book, she said she received a call from another local resident--a great-great granddaughter of William and Ellen Sherman! She has since connected with other members of the family.

For more information, check out her website.