Cokie Roberts titled her most recent book with an illuminating pun — the titular capital dames were not just women living in the nation’s capital during the Civil War; they were also, in Roberts’s telling, rather splendid.

Roberts, a political commentator for ABC News and National Public Radio, will recount tales of those trailblazers in a free public lecture and book signing at 7:30 p.m. on April 26 at the Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg.

The women featured in Roberts’s book — Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848–1868— include Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross; Dorothea Dix, an early mental health advocate; and Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who became a close confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln, a dressmaker for the Washington elite, and eventually the founder of a relief agency dedicated to helping poverty-stricken freed slaves.

In the book, Roberts chronicles these women’s growing independence and political clout. She also explores their efforts to keep the Union unified through the war and to help heal the nation once the fighting ended. She argues that the Civil War changed not only Washington, but also the role of women in American society.

“Capital Dames is a remarkable book,” said Paul Quigley, director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies and the James I. Robertson, Jr. Associate Professor of Civil War Studies in the Department of History. “Continuing along the trail she blazed with her earlier publications, Cokie Roberts re-envisions American history from the perspective of an extraordinary group of women.

“Though officially excluded from the male realms of politics and war, Washington’s women played an outsized role in the country’s greatest conflict,” Quigley added. “They did everything from nursing to mourning to spying, exerting behind-the-scenes influence at every stage of the Civil War. They even cut the nation’s brand new ‘greenback’ bills down to size. I’m delighted we’ll get to hear these women’s stories directly from Cokie Roberts.”

The Virginia Center for Civil War Studies is sponsoring the event with support from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, the Department of Communication, and the Department of History.

Written by Paula Byron