The Civil War drastically changed the definition of marriage in the south


(Editor’s note: This article is an abridged version of The Effect of the Civil War on Southern Marriage Patterns by J. David Hacker, Libra Hilde, and James Holland Jones.)

In 1864, the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger received a letter from H. R., who identified herself as an eighteen-year-old, unmarried woman from Buckingham County, Virginia. Hattie, as the editor called the anonymous letter writer, admitted suffering from a “chill feeling of despair” brought on by the “execrable war.” She wrote the following:

the reflection has been brought to my mind with great force that after this war is closed, how vast a difference there will be in the numbers of males and females.

Having made up my mind not to be an old maid, and having only a moderate fortune and less beauty. I fear I shall find it rather difficult to accomplish my wishes.

She asked the editor, “[D]o you think that I will be overlooked ‘amidst this wreck of matter and crush of men and horses’[?]”

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Social historians of the Civil War have generally agreed that fears like Hattie’s were well grounded in demographic realities. Nearly 620,000 men were killed in the war, a number approximately equal to the deaths in all other American wars from the Revolution to the Korean War combined. The deaths of huge numbers of men rendered “the assumption that every woman would be a wife … questionable, perhaps untenable.” The death rate was especially great in the Confederacy, which lost approximately one in five white men of military age in the conflict.

The death rate was especially great in the Confederacy, which lost approximately one in five white men of military age in the conflict. The reduced population of young men “demographically deprived” southern women of husbands. The loss of such a large proportion of the South’s male population undermined the region’s established pattern of family formation and threatened the identity of white women as wives and mothers. A generation of southern women faced the prospect of becoming spinsters reliant on their families for support.

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A flurry of marriages occurred early in the war, whenever men went on furlough, and then again at the end of the war. Richmond, the Confederate capital, hosted hundreds of wartime marriages, leading observers to marvel at the “marriage frenzy.” In 1863, after receiving a visit from her engaged nephew, who had lost a leg during the war, Judith McGuire of Virginia wrote, “I believe that neither war, pestilence, nor famine could put an end to the marrying and giving in marriage which is constantly going on. Strange that these sons of Mars can so assiduously devote themselves to Cupid and Hymen; but every respite, every furlough, must be thus employed.”

In early 1865, McGuire again commented on “a perfect mania on the subject of matrimony. Some of the churches may be seen open and lighted almost every night for bridals, and wherever I turn I hear of marriages in prospect.” As she traveled home with a group of other southerners at the war’s end, Kate Cumming heard a soldier declare that “the first thing he intended doing, after he arrived home, was to get married. I heard many of the soldiers say the same.”

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Based on overwhelming evidence from diaries and letters, women favored men who fought. When Eliza Andrews met a friend from Boston, apparently a Confederate sympathizer, she “felt uncomfortably conspicuous” walking with him because of his “broad-cloth coat and a stovepipe hat.” “I am almost ashamed, nowadays, to be seen with any man not in uniform,” she continued. Unmarried women expressed growing alarm as the draft removed the few men left at home to the front. “There is but few men at home,” complained a southern woman to an unmarried cousin, “and what there is I reckon has declined the idea of ever marrying.”

As time passed and casualties mounted, some women became resigned to life without a husband. Others were willing to compromise on acceptable partners. In 1862 Ada Bacot complained of “two fashions which have crept into society … [t]hat of marrieng for money, & that of a woman marrieng a man younger than herself.”

The Fall of the House of Dixie is by Civil War historian Bruce Levine.
The Fall of the House of Dixie  (Photo: Bruce Levine)

Military service conferred cachet upon the soldier, often regardless of his class. After the war, wealth became less important in the economically devastated South when contracting marriages, and many women married below their social class. Susan Bradford Eppes met her “Soldier in Gray” following the battle of Gettysburg, and they married after the war. “I hope we will not have too much trouble with my trousseau,” she remarked. “I wish they were willing for me to have only simple clothes for I am marrying a poor man and I do not ever intend to live beyond his means. Father would be willing but Mother and the sisters think, because they had these clothes I must have them, too.”

Some southern women in areas occupied by the enemy risked social ostracism by courting and marrying Union soldiers. Historians of the occupied South have written, “Letters and diaries of Union men in every occupied community reveal considerable social intercourse between Federals and ‘secesh’ girls which in a good many instances led to romances and marriages.”

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Not only the deaths of white men but also their wounds affected the prospects for marriage in the aftermath of the war. One of the most important roles of nurses, official matrons, and volunteer hospital visitors was to help wounded men cope with the psychological impact of their injuries.

“I constantly hear the unmarried ones,” wrote Kate Cumming, a nurse describing her amputee patients, “wondering if the girls will marry them now.” Years after the war, another southern nurse, Fannie Beers, had “never forgiven” a “heartless girl” who rejected her betrothed. The young man had suffered a facial wound and lost a leg. He told Beers about his engagement to “one of the prettiest … girls in ‘Massissip’” and asked her to write a letter telling the young woman about his wounds.

While they awaited his fiancée’s reply, Beers eased the wounded man’s worries that he would have to “let her off” by relating “instances of women who only loved more because the object of their affection had been unfortunate.” She later regretted nurturing his hopes, for it was her “misfortune to read to him a very cold letter from his lady-love, who declined to marry ‘a cripple.’” Though “inconsolable” for a short time, he soon decided that she would not have been a good wife. As for southern women, faced with the choice of marrying amputees or cripples, men from lower social classes, or no one at all, some of these women ultimately married disabled veterans.

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Female hospital workers and visitors treated disfigured patients as heroes instead of shrinking from them in horror or pity. Judith McGuire, a volunteer nurse, eased the anxiety of a man eager to travel home to marry his sweetheart.

“Ah,” she said, “but you must show her your scars, and if she is a girl worth having she will love you all the better for having bled for your country ….”

Nurses described how their patients cheerfully dealt with amputations and crippling injuries. “We have a room with seven men in it, who have lost a limb each. It is a perfect treat to go into it, as the men seem to do little else but laugh,” Kate Cumming remarked. “They are young men, and say to me, I must tell all the young ladies to come and see them, and that they will make excellent husbands, as they will be sure never to run away.”

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The lower age at first marriage for southern white men after the war, as compared with before the war, may have been related to the decrease in competition for property and in the purchase price of farms and businesses and to the greater probability of their inheriting property. After the war, there were fewer people in a position to make large purchases. Furthermore, land prices collapsed, which made it cheaper to purchase a new farm. A sample of farms in eight counties of the South suggests that the average cost of an improved acre of land was almost $30 in 1860; ten years later it had fallen to less than $15.

Men who lost brothers in the war probably received larger inheritances. In Orange County, North Carolina, for instance, the average number of sons mentioned in wills declined 28.2 percent after the war. War widows with property also may have made attractive wives for men who would not have otherwise had the resources to marry.

Lower farm prices, less competition, and greater shares of inheritances, however, were probably offset by reduced wealth, reduced savings, reduced incomes, increased taxes, and the bleak economic conditions of the postwar South. Most white families—especially slave-holding families—lost substantial real and personal wealth because of the war, which probably lowered the value of intergenerational transfers to young couples considering marriage.

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These results are remarkably consistent with the results of Louis Henry’s classic study of the effect of World War I on marriage patterns in France. Like the Confederate South, France lost between 15 and 20 percent of its young men in a few years of war. But, despite the severe marriage squeeze experienced by French women after the war, the vast majority of them eventually married. Indeed, among French women who came of age during the war, there was only a modest increase in the percentage remaining unmarried at age 50. In examining this paradox, Henry concluded that relatively small changes in age preferences compensated for the large imbalance in potential marriage partners. The French marriage market, like the postbellum South’s marriage market, proved to be surprisingly flexible.

Although the war did not create a crisis in white southern women’s ability to marry and fulfill their expected roles as wives and mothers, it did nonetheless have some effect on the overall character and meaning of southern marriage. Most important, the war utterly transformed former slaves’ ability to choose partners, marry, and form families. In addition, as many historians have argued, the war challenged traditional gender roles and individual marriages in diverse and interesting ways. Husbands seriously wounded in the war or suffering psychologically from their experiences no doubt affected their households and their wives’ and children’s lives, as did the loss of property and wealth.

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