Subtle differences in marriage patterns can be seen throughout different wars. Divorce rates change, communication improves, and concerns are even altered. The problems facing married couples in the Civil War were different from those in more current wars and are unique to the situations they experienced, yet there are some things that remained constant.
Emotions During the War
While situations changed for spouses, the emotions remain consistent. The wives of soldiers are always concerned, anxious, worried, angry, sad, or some other variation. This is because they are concerned for their loved one’s safety and hope they return in one piece without any significant change. Diana Phillips for example wrote in 1862 to her husband saying “I shall feel anxious till I hear from you after the battle” (Nelson & Sheriff, 2007). Many wives were concerned during the civil war that if their husbands returned, they would return calloused, emotionally scarred, and a stranger to them due to long separation. Men on another note felt guilty, exemplified by Marshall Phillips writing back to his wife “I feel sometimes as if I done wrong by inlisting and leaving you with a family of small children” (Nelson & Sheriff, 2007). While men were away at war leaving their wives at home, these emotions bubbled into distraction, becoming a major obstacle for both spouses to overcome. This anxiety was mitigated by at least one factor, trust, like George Upton who wrote “Whatever you, and him, think is best shall feel perfectly satisfy with” ( Nelson & Sheriff, 2007). A soldier could rest easy in one aspect when he knew he could trust his wife to take care of the home to the best of her abilities.
Question of Virtue
With such separation also came a necessity for trust, faith in the husband to make wise decisions as well as faith in the wife left at home. Thus, virtue became a tremendous source of tension between couples and a increasingly debated topic. Even mothers during the Civil War were concerned about their son’s virtue as one mother encouraged her son to seek female correspondents to buoy his spirits ( Nelson & Sheriff, 2007). Many family members left at home, mostly wives, worried their husbands would cave to prostitution, gambling, and other vices to fill their free time. As one unknown wife fumed to her husband “It came upon me so sudden I was not thinking of such a thing and did not know you used cards at all and was thinking of the same man that went away and hoping he would return the same” and going on to say “you are a father now and don’t bring disgrace upon your child’s head” ( Nelson & Sheriff, 2007). The separation brought out a lot of doubt in marriages, a commonality between wars. However it was not just the women concerned about their husbands, men were equally concerned about their wives left at home alone, affairs being a possibility.
Communication during the Civil War consisted predominantly of letters back and forth, making them a very important aspect to the soldiers and families because it was their link across the lines. Consequently, it became a concern of the content of these letters and their effects on soldiers’ focus. As a result of this concern, newspaper articles were written instructing wives and family members on what to write to their soldiers. It was recommended that they write letters about how everything at home was fine, there were no problems, it was quiet and peaceful with nothing to worry about, and so on. This could relieve some of the stress and guilt of soldiers leaving their families behind to fend for themselves, but it could also distract the soldiers. Instead of keeping them from worrying, it might have caused them to wish they were home rather than at war, consequently distracting them from their duties. As Joseph Huneycutt had to write “My dear wife, I have to state to you the sad news that tomorrow at 12 oclock that I have die. I have to be shot to death for starting home to see my wife and dear children” ( Nelson & Sheriff, 2007). Some men wanted to be anywhere but at war and so deserting became a problem. In the south, women purposely told their husbands to desert and come home, sabotaging the efforts of the confederates and giving them power. Letters became a way for husbands to say goodbye to their wives and families, as with Huneycutt, when deserting increased on both sides of the war. Sullivan Ballou, a Union soldier from Rhode Island, wrote a long poetic letter to his wife the night before his death making peace with his fate and telling his wife how much he loved her. It was a sad, romantic letter where he told his wife “my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name” (E. & J., 2013). There was a question to the validity of this letter because it was found in his trunk after his death and did not match his handwriting, but regardless of its validity, the letter serves as a powerful testament to the love between couples surviving the war even though many did not return home.
Marriage After the War
When the war ended and soldiers returned home, many things changed. For some, marriages ended. As one study showed, “Southern legislatures after the war expanded the grounds for both absolute divorce and legal separation, as well as bolstered the property rights of married women, reflecting the new reliance on the state to mediate domestic relations” (Petition written by Elizabeth Jenkins after Civil War when divorce rights were given to women, n.d.). Divorce rates after the war increased because of unfaithful men who fell prey to prostitution as well as unfaithful wives and because men coming back from war were changed men. Some came back mentally scarred, violent, and altogether different from when they left leading to strained marriages and in some cases separation. In addition, due to the high mortality rates from battle, there was an uneven ratio between men and women upon their return to society, leaving many women single or widowed and causing people to marry at a younger age to stabilize the population (Hacker, Hilde, & Jones, 2010). This led to social disarray and changing norms.
While some marriages ended, others became examples of powerful bonds. There were insecurities and bumps in the road, trials of time and separation, but many marriages survived. War is a test of the strength in relationships.
E. C., J. J. (2013). Ballou’s poignant last letter to Sarah. America’s Civil War, 26(3), 64-65.
Hacker, J., Hilde, L., & Jones, J. (2010). The Effect of the Civil War on Southern Marriage Patterns. Journal Of Southern History, 76(1), 39-70.
Nelson, S. R., & Sheriff, C. (2007). A people at war: civilians and soldiers in America’s Civil War, 1854-1877. New York: Oxford University Press.
Petition written by Elizabeth Jenkins after Civil War when divorce rights were given to women, 1869. (n.d.). Teaching American History in South Carolina a State-wide Approach to Teaching Professional Development. Retrieved February 14, 2014, from http://www.teachingushistory.org/ElizabethJenkinsDivorceRecords1869.html