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What I learned from Mrs. Grierson*

By August 5, 2022 9 Comments

That Alice Kirk Grierson loved her husband is clear from the letters she sent him, full of devotion that wasn’t simply practiced or platonic. For a woman with her Victorian sensibilities, her passions are as embarrassingly physical as they are evident. That she and her husband were one cannot be doubted. 

Alice Kirk Grierson

Her life was not easy. A major general in the Civil War, her husband, Benjamin H. Grierson, a hero at Vicksburg, decided to stay in the military after Appomattox and was assigned to the West, then shuffled, with his family, to often remote forts where sometimes for weeks and months, Alice and the children lived alone and in tents. Grierson saw lots of action in the Indian wars. His command was the Tenth Cavalry, African-Americans, “buffalo soldiers.” Grierson was, from early on, an abolitionist, a staunch progressive.

When Mrs. Grierson’s lot brought her to a well-established fort, when she and her children could move out of a tent and into a house–some of them nicely outfitted–she was, not by choice, thrust into playing hostess to visiting military brass and their wives, tasks she found as wearying as trying to rear her children alone in the difficult and faraway places she did. 

Her letters sometimes protest a bit at the work her husband’s position required, both of him (long absences in frontier lands) and of her (playing hostess to officers and families)–not to mention being Mom.

And Mom she was. Given the Major General’s frequent absences and the danger his pursuit of renegade Comanches throughout the vast, broiling Southwest created, their altogether infrequent time together nonetheless bore abundant fruit. Alice Kirk Grierson had no trouble getting pregnant, and each and every beloved baby only served to increase her workload with a new pile of anxieties.

There were already so many children and so much to do that she told her husband, in a burdened letter, that she couldn’t help but fear their reunion again because of what she guessed would inevitably occur. 

She tried to explain: 

Charlie’s existence I accepted as a matter of course, without either joy or sorrow. Kirkie’s with regret, for so soon succeeding him. Robert came nearer being welcomed with joy than any other. Edie was gladly welcome so soon as I knew her sex, but I was exceedingly thankful she did not come until the close of the war. Harry succeeded her too soon to give me as much rest as I would have liked, and it was so hard on me to learn to harmonize public life with nursery duties and other cares, that I used to feel as if I had scarcely natural affection for Harry, and told you before he was a year old, that I would rather die than have another child, yet no sooner was he weaned than Georgie came into life, but I was neither tempted to commit suicide, nor the fearfully frequent National crime of abortion.

Her last two births left her in depression, and then, “When our precious baby died, you said to me, “bear up, darling, she was with us for some purpose.” She says she thinks often of his words: “What is the purpose for which she was with us?” Her question is not rhetorical. 

When she hears news of her mother’s illness in faraway Chicago, she determines not to stay any longer in Indian Territory. She must leave Ft. Sill, and when, after a long and grueling stagecoach trip, she arrives at her father’s home, she decides, firmly, that it will be some time before she returns to the Colonel.

He misses her dearly and tells her so. She knows his loneliness, she says, but she refuses to return and stays in Chicago through the winter. She refuses to go back when he wants her to, for a very simple reason: “My darling husband, I should have gone to my grave if I had not gone to my father’s house,” she tells him in a letter.

Alice Kirk Grierson is a Christian, a believer. She abides by what she considered the Bible’s directives about being “subject to your husband,” of the promise she made to give herself to him and his desires. She was a woman of her day and time. She regards coitus interruptus as unseemly, even a kind of sin. Armed with her rich faith, she’s come to believe the only way she can prevent another pregnancy is by staying away from her beloved husband until she’s rebuilt the strength to deal with what she sees as inevitable eventualities–yet another baby.

For a moment, I put the book down, stopped reading.

I suppose It’s unfair for me to assume my reaction to her story may be the same as anyone else’s–in this case specifically, any other men; but I’ve not been able to forget Mrs. Grierson’s love letters–for that’s what they are–nor the dilemma her situation created for her. 

And times have changed. Birth control today is an industry. The Christian faith, even among the pious, doesn’t make the demands it did of Mrs. Grierson. I don’t know that her story adds anything to the debate surrounding what she called 150 years ago the “National crime of abortion.” 

But her letters and her story teaches me–a man, a husband, and a father–two lessons I can’t help take to heart in the middle of all the debate in Kansas this week and throughout the nation: first, as a male of the species, how very much about the whole subject I just don’t, and even can’t know; and second, also as a male, that it may be best for me to keep my mouth shut about matters Mrs. Grierson’s letters make painfully clear I only dimly understand.


*The Colonel’s Lady on the Western Frontier: The Correspondence of Alice Kirk Grierson. University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • RZ says:

    Well done. Thank you for this timely and thouggt-provoking story!
    I might add two quick reactions:
    1. I was struck by the irony of an abolitionist whose career required the brutal exploitation of another race of people.
    2. I was struck by the destructive bondage of misguided theology in the form of prohibited natural birth control (predestination interruptus?) and gender- role norms.
    In summary, I guess we are all caught up in the
    ” theological” assumptions of our times! Who really has it “right”?

    • James Schaap says:

      There is a further complication. Grierson was a strong advocate for President Grant’s “Peace Policy,” which insisted that the means by which to deal with “the Indian problem” was to push assimilation, a policy which seems awful today, but, back then, was the humane way of dealing with the Native populations. The alternative, advocated by significant military brass, was. . .yes, eradication. I don’t know how close that truth comes to being the kind of history some MAGA-type legislators and legislatures call “Critical Race Theory,” truth that can’t be told now, in some places, under penalty of law.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I’m with you about my limits.

    • Tony Vis says:

      Me too! It is why I have chosen not to say or write anything in public about abortion rights. It’s not that I lack thoughts and opinions. It’s that I think men should be silent for a good while as they listen to the voices of the women around them. Thanks for the story, Jim. As always!

  • Wow! Such a wonderful and interesting read. Thank you for this.

  • Karen Obits says:

    Admitting to what we don’t know is evidence of humility. Without a spirit of humility, it’s hard to see how we will truly be able to hear each other, especially the real-life stories of women – whose lives bear the most immediate impact. That same humility must be brought to bear in considering what professional medical (and mental-health) providers tell us about their experience in treating women when it comes to reproductive healthcare.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      And I’d say evidence too of real brains. Admitting what we don’t know is the fuel of all real science, including theology.

  • Jim says:

    Harriet Beecher Stowe had the same issue with her husband, the theology professor. Took frequent spells at the water cure spa. Packed him off to Europe to build his school’s library. They missed each other so, for reasons nearly fatal to her.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Thank you, James. As I read your blog, I was coming to the same conclusion as the one with which you ended. There is a deep tragedy here. In our times, it is indispensable that we men listen – listen – and respond to the needs of women, truly to understand things from their perspective. The love in the marriage was deep but the perplexities nearly unbearable. I will be going through today with a heavy heart for Alice Kirk and all who love as deeply and suffer as deeply as she. I hope I am one tenth of the Christian person she was.

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