Candice Hooper is a historian, writer, and member of advisory boards for President Lincoln’s Cottage in D.C. and the Ulysses S. and Julia D. Grant Historical Home in Detroit. Her first book is a detailed and lively account of the overlooked role four women played in the Civil War. Using letters, memoirs, and her subjects’ extensive wartime travel reports, Hooper’s group biography of Jessie Frémont, Nelly McClellan, Ellen Sherman, and Julia Grant—each married to a Union Army General—shows how much these women influenced their spouses and, through them, the President and the nation.
Candice Shy Hooper, winner of the 2017 Sarton Award for her biography, Lincoln’s Generals’ Wives: Four Women Who Influenced the Civil War, spent much of her growing-up years on two small islands in the Pacific where her Navy father was stationed. She was born in Guam, and then lived for four years on Saipan with her parents and siblings. There was no television or radio, just books, and mountains, and beaches still littered with World War II detritus, including rusty tanks, and abandoned and littered Japanese military posts—and an occasional unexploded grenade.
“We staged plays to entertain our parents and competed to read the most books. It was a childhood like no other, including a trip to Japan aboard a U.S. Navy ship,” Candice recalls of those times.
Some might say it was an ideal beginning for a writer. But Candice only came to that activity as a primary focus in her life when she was in her 50s, after earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, a law degree, a career on Capitol Hill, first as an aide to Congressman Charlie Wilson (yes, the same man portrayed on the big screen by Tom Hanks in “Charlie Wilson’s War”), and eventually the creation of her own lobbying firm in 2001.
Halfway through law school, Candice’s interest in the energy industry led her to take a job with ENSERCH, an international energy and engineering company. After she launched a major sales/marketing effort for government contracts, she was elected a corporate vice-president. “I was the first woman vice president of that NYSE-listed company, and one of the very few women corporate officers in the energy/engineering industry at that time.”
But she says the best thing about that time was that “the girl from Guam met the kid from Sundance, Wyoming—Lindsay Hooper.” The two married in 1984 and today her husband is still her best friend and biggest supporter. She blames her late-blooming desire to be a writer on a book she read in 2003, and then couldn’t find a place for on her crowded bookshelves—because she never gave away a book in her life.
“Rick Atkinson’s 682-page An Army at Dawn led to my epiphany,” Candice remembers. “When I couldn’t wedge it into my crowded bookshelves, I knew the time had come to organize my library. As I began pulling books from shelves…I was astonished to see how many were books of battles, leaders, fighting men, nations, and causes. That’s how I discovered that military history had been my passion for years, and that’s when I decided to pursue it.”
The first step she took was to go back to school, and in 2008, George Washington University awarded her a master’s degree in history, with a concentration in military history.
“Going back to school at the age of 55 energized me,” Candice says.
While reading about the Civil War, she was struck by the symmetry of two sets of U.S. Army generals. “The first set, John Charles Fremont and George Brinton McClellan, were like meteors. They blazed at first sight…left chaos in their wake, then faded from view. The second set, William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses Grant, were like stars in the fading light of dusk. They were only dimly perceived, but their brilliance emerged as night fell. In the darkest hours of the night, they shone brightly enough to light a path home, and they endured.”
She then found herself wondering about the men’s wives, and how these 19th-century women contributed to their husbands’ careers. Over the past century and a half, a legion of historians had examined the minutia of the generals’ lives, but none had focused on their wives, and their relationships with Abraham Lincoln. So the four women were who Candice decided to write about.
“The conscious inspiration was when I learned during my graduate studies that military wives had traveled to Washington to seek President Lincoln’s help for their husbands during the Civil War. But soon, I also realized that the unconscious inspiration for this work was my mother, a Navy wife, who had followed her husband to far corners of the world to be by his side and to enable him to be with his children as we grew up. They always say that the toughest job in the Navy is that of a Navy wife, and I believe that’s true. My greatest regret was that my mother died the year before Lincoln’s Generals’ Wives was published. Although she knew that I was writing it, I would have loved if she could have held the book in her hands.”
In the course of her research, Candice discovered symmetry in the wives’ stories. “Jessie Benton Fremont and Mary Ellen McClellan both displayed the most conventional nineteenth-century wifely attribute—uncritical, worshipful endorsement of their husbands’ every instinct. But their unquestioning support for their husbands proved disastrous to the generals and nearly so to the nation. They enabled their husbands to persist in their incompetence and delusion and to reject the advice and friendship of their commander in chief.
“The other set of wives, Ellen Ewing Sherman and Julia Dent Grant…did not hesitate to take issue with their husbands when they believed their actions to be wrong or their judgments ill-advised…They intelligently supported their husband’s best instincts—including trust in and admiration for Abraham Lincoln—and rebuffed their worst.
“How these women influenced their husbands’ military careers 150 years ago sheds new light on our understanding of the Civil War, and is a window into the timeless sacrifices and ingenuity of women in wartime throughout history,” Candice summarizes. “Somehow, it seems, my whole life prepared me for this story.”
Candice worked on the book for eight years before Lincoln’s Generals’ Wives was published by Kent State University Press. Those eight years were filled with lots of research and lots of writing. “But mostly lots of thinking about the women I’d decided to profile, and how best to present their stories to people who know a great deal about the Civil War and to those who don’t.”
She tells us the most important thing she learned during those eight years was how much a nonfiction writer relies on other people, a lesson evident in the lengthy list of acknowledgments listed in her book. “I recall that as a young girl I wanted to be a detective, then an archeologist, and later I wanted to be a teacher. In my senior year of college, I applied to the Naval Officer Candidate School, but my letter of acceptance was sent to the wrong address and didn’t catch up to me until after the school year had started. That was just one of the many bits of serendipity, like meeting my husband through my work, and reading that book by Rick Atkinson, that have enabled me to do things I could never have aspired to or dreamed of doing.”
Lincoln’s Generals’ Wives is Candice’s first book, although she has written articles that have been published in The New York Times and in the peer-reviewed Journal for Military History. She has also written book reviews for several journals, and has had poems published, one of which won her an award. Candice belongs to poetry groups in Florida and Wyoming that, she says, “have helped me to look at the world in a whole new way.”
On January 1, 2019, she plans to begin working on her next project, a book Candice believes will channel her father’s military experience just as her Sarton-winning book channels her mother’s experiences. “It’s a topic in the history of the U.S. Navy that has been on my mind for more than a decade. I’ve been saving all sorts of articles and references about it over the past ten years, so I know that I’m compelled to write it at some point.”
As for advice she would give other writers, she suggests they should never underestimate how much they will have to do themselves to get their book published—whether it’s the research, writing, seeking publication, publicizing, or preparing for each book talk by focusing on the specific audience. She adds that it’s also important to pat yourself on the back every time you reach a milestone, whether it’s a well-written sentence or a major literary award.
“Like the Sarton Award! Celebrate yourself,” advises our biography winner, Candice Shy Hooper.