Elaine Showalter is professor emerita of English and American Literature at Princeton University and author, most recently, of “A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx.”

Capital Dames
The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868

By Cokie Roberts

Harper. 492 pp. $27.99

As Cokie Roberts shows in this spirited book, a follow-up to her best-selling “Founding Mothers” and “Ladies of Liberty,” the assertive and adventurous women of pre-Civil War Washington were not going to retire to their boudoirs when the fighting began. Focusing on 27 formidable dames, whom she divides into political, literary and activist actors, Roberts presents the war as a covert crisis of gender, as well as a momentous confrontation over slavery and race, accelerating change in the roles of both women and men. By the end of the conflict, Clara Barton wrote, “Woman was at least fifty years in advance of the normal position which continued peace . . . would have assigned her.”

At the start of the war, journalist Mary Clemmer Ames wrote, Washington was “a third rate Southern city.” Political women exerted social power for their husbands and fathers in an exhausting round of strategic partygoing and competitive party-giving. They gathered at an extravagant farewell party for the British ambassador and his wife at Willard’s Hotel, with desserts from a French caterer in the shape of pastry chariots drawn by spun-sugar swans. They gossiped about the first diplomatic delegation from Japan and the visit of the Prince of Wales. They worked across party lines to preserve and restore Mount Vernon and erect a monument to George Washington. And they went to the National Theatre for “everything from Shakespeare to Chinese acrobats.” Plus ça change. None of this activity, however, challenged women’s traditional roles; Virginia Clay, a busy hostess and wife of a senator from Alabama, was only amused to see radical dress reformers in the city wearing pants under their skirts: “Bloomers are most as plenty as blackberries.”

‘Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868’ by Cokie Roberts (Harper)

However, after Secession Day — Jan. 21, 1861, when Southern senators said their farewells to Washington and their wives and families were sent back to their home states — everything changed. Union women, led by Mary Lincoln, gamely tried to keep up their social activities, but there were much more urgent concerns. Union troops swarmed in to defend Washington and were barracked all over town, to the residents’ disgust. “You would not know this Godforsaken city,” one woman lamented to a departed secessionist friend, “our beautiful capital, with all its artistic wealth, desecrated, disgraced with Lincoln’s low soldiery.” An architect complained to his wife that the city was “one grand water closet — every hole and corner is defiled.”

Then came the waves of wounded soldiers and the need for nurses, medical supplies and hospitals. Dorothea Dix came to advise on sanitation and to organize a corps of female nurses; Louisa May Alcott went to a Georgetown military hospital as a nurse in 1862, until she contracted typhoid and then wrote the widely read “Hospital Sketches,” about her experience and her longing to be of use.

Women in the capital city cared for war orphans and started schools for liberated slaves. Lizzie Blair Lee worked in an asylum for abandoned children: “I took in the Asylum a Secesh baby — whose father was killed in the Army South & the Mother died & left it destitute so I shall call it Secessia.” Jane Swisshelm was among the female journalists who came to cover the war, and she stayed on as a clerk in the War Department. There were also jobs for women in the post office and the Treasury Department, where they cut greenbacks; the U.S. treasurer, Francis Spinner, declared that “a woman can use scissors better than a man.” Of course, the new female workers were paid half the salary of men, and scandalous rumors flew that the Treasury Department was “the most extensive Whorehouse in the Nation,” a “perfect Sodom” of pretty young women recommended for cushy jobs by lascivious congressmen.

The women of Washington were employed at all levels. The number of professional sex workers of course increased; there were 4,000 prostitutes on the streets, and Mary Hall kept “the best house of prostitution in Washington four blocks from the Capitol.” By 1864, women were also visible in more respected political roles. The abolitionist and suffragist orator Anna Dickinson addressed an audience of 2,500 in the House of Representatives. Dickinson competed successfully with men in an era of strenuous rhetoric; Connecticut Republican officials said she had held 1,500 people “breathless with admiration and astonishment” in a dramatic two-hour speech. Sojourner Truth came to meet President Abraham Lincoln, and Mary Lincoln defied critics of her extravagance by hosting lavish, morale-boosting parties in the Red Room, dressed in crimson silk.

Roberts is a gifted narrator of Civil War history, weaving the experiences and perspectives of the women into a fresh and illuminating account of key battles and events, from John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry to the assassination of the president. She concludes that “the services and sacrifices, the abilities and accomplishments of women in the Civil War, had changed the face of Washington, just as Washington had changed the place of women.” Certainly the war changed the aspirations of women, but changing their place in American society took much longer. Clara Barton spoke too soon in claiming how far American women had advanced. Roberts provides an epilogue about the fates of 14 of her main female characters that suggests that on the contrary, even the best-known had a hard time putting their new capacities to work after the war. Mary Lincoln’s friend and dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley ended her days in a home for destitute colored women and children; the tireless hostess and political player Kate Chase Sprague sank into poverty and died in Europe at 58. A few belatedly joined the women’s movement; Virginia Clay, who had mocked the bloomers, wound up as the first president of the Alabama Women’s Suffrage Association.

It’s not surprising that many women after the war were unable to turn their experiences and expertise into new roles. Political careers, one obvious path, were closed to them; higher education was available to only a few. Their full story makes very clear why women’s suffrage became a powerful movment after 1865. Given a taste of freedom, purpose and agency, many capital women could not go back to their domestic and secondary prewar lives. After the war, they would extend Julia Ward Howe’s stirring anthem by joining the fight to make women free. That struggle for equality would take much longer than any of them expected.