To Have and to Hold…or Not: Weddings, Independence, and the Civil War

To Have and to Hold…or Not: Weddings, Independence, and the Civil War

“Record-Low Marriage Rate,” based on data from the Center for Disease Control’s National Vital Statistics System. Courtesy of economist Jay L. Zagorsky.

Even with the legalization of same-sex marriage, the U.S. marriage rate is the lowest it has been in at least 150 years, according to economist Jay Zagorsky of Boston University. Another recent study from Cornell University researchers concluded that the U.S. has “large deficits in the supply of potential male spouses.” Lead author of the article, Daniel T. Lichter, believes “marriage is still based on love, but it also is fundamentally an economic transaction. Many young men today have little to bring to the marriage bargain, especially as young women’s educational levels on average now exceed their male suitors.” Shortage of suitors or not, the marriage rate of millennials (defined as those born between 1981 and 1996) is most certainly lower than previous generations; in 1960, 72 percent of adults were married, while today the rate is 50 percent. Put together, these statistics suggest the institution of marriage is changing.[1]

From 1861 to 1865, marriage likewise seemed to be changing for those living through the Civil War. Some white southern women felt particularly worried that there would be few suitors left by the end of it all. In 1863, unmarried Ardella Brown lamented, “If I Can get any Body to have me you Shall get to a weding But there is nobody a Bout here only Some old widiwers for all the young men has gone to the army.” While some women would use the war as an excuse to delay marriage, the shortage of eligible men did worry others who intended to become wives and mothers. As historian Drew Gilpin Faust elegantly put it, “a married woman feared the loss of a particular husband; a single woman worried about forfeiting the more abstract possibility of any husband at all.” Not only was marriage a key component of ideal, nineteenth-century womanhood, for most southern white women, it also provided a clear societal position in this time of uncertainty.[2]

“Soldiers’ Cemetery, Alexandria, Va.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

And so, as a somewhat unexpected consequence of wartime death tolls rising, wedding bells rang. From Virginia, Judith McGuire believed there to be “a perfect mania on the subject of matrimony” during the war, writing that “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.” Another young woman, Esther Alden in South Carolina, reflected, “One looks at a man so differently when you think he may be killed to-morrow. Men whom up to this time I had thought dull and commonplace…seemed charming.” In a changing world, some women increased their dedication to seemingly unchanging institutions, like marriage.[3]

Women were not alone in this desire to marry; many young men also sought wartime weddings, wanting the reassurance of wives awaiting their return as they marched toward an undecided future. On July 2, 1861, Frank Schaller of the Twenty-Second Mississippi Infantry sent a letter to his “dearest Sophy” in South Carolina, writing, “Every day I feel more reluctant to go into an uncertain life without having the consciousness of being yours entirely…Now prepare for it. I am in earnest.” Not only did he believe, “I could fight better & do everything better” as a married man, he also reflected on her future, “Should I fall, you could have at least the satisfaction to be a soldiers widow who I trust will only die in honor. Besides, though I know you do not want me to tell you this, some pension would insure you the prospect of a humble but honorable existence.” Frank would be shot, but he ultimately survived the war. For Frank, it was not just about emotional stability, but also economic stability for Sophy.[4]

Frank was not alone in his urgency to secure the label of marriage – take Georgia Page King and William Duncan Smith’s story, in St. Simon’s Island, Georgia. Just three months into his courtship he wrote, “A war is fast approaching. Oh Let me claim you as my own! Let me have the right to protect you, and shield you by my earnest love.” Realizing Georgia might object to their rushed courtship, he urged, “Do not let, oh! do not let, any slight obstacles, or conventionalities, prevent you from being mine as soon as you can. We know not what may happen!” They married July 9, 1861. William died in Georgia’s arms on October 4, 1862, after sixty-seven days of dysentery. In a time when everything seemed uncertain, and everyone seemed to be declaring independence, Georgia claimed her own in choosing to marry William. As she explained to her brother, “I feared that you all might not approve—but my heart relented.”[5]

Unexpected matches brought on by ambiguity and emotion reached even Abraham Lincoln’s family, with Elodie Todd, little sister of Mary Todd Lincoln. Elodie sent a letter to her future husband in May 1861, writing, “Ever since I can remember, I have been looked upon and called the ‘old maid’ of the family, and Mother seemed to think I was to be depended on to take care of her when all the rest of her handsomer daughters left her, and I really believe they all think I am committing a sin to give a thought to any other than the arrangements they have made for me.” They had just met in February. Elodie was twenty, he was thirty-two, twice-widowed, and the father of two little girls. It was an unlikely match, and a surprising proposal, made even more surprising when Elodie decided, “But as this is the age when Secession, Freedom, and Rights are asserted, I am claiming mine.” She married him the following year.[6]

“Marriage at the camp of the 7th N.J.V. Army of the Potomac, Va.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In 2019, women are more likely to claim independence not in the choice of marriage partner, but in the choice of marriage, period. Though the choices in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries may appear to be totally different, they are opposite avenues to the same path – choosing a future that best suits them. In a time of political and economic upheaval, some nineteenth-century women chose marriage in a search for stability, while today, some women delay marriage for similar reasons. If walking down the aisle, today many millennials do so with a combination of prenuptial agreements, cohabitation before marriage, and marriage at a later age (late twenties). Experts have also estimated that millennials are driving down the divorce rate as much as 24 percent since the 1980s. In short, fewer millennials are marrying, but those that do are staying married. While single white women of the Civil War era feared their chances for marriages would lessen, it turned out to be a false fear; “the vast majority (approximately 92 percent) of southern white women who came of marriage age during the war married at some point in their lives.” Today, with a percentage so much lower than this, it appears the institution of marriage is shifting again, with effects still to be seen.[7]

 

[1] Jay Zagorsky, “Why are Fewer People Getting Married,” The Conversation, 1 June 2016, https://theconversation.com/why-are-fewer-people-getting-married-60301; Daniel T. Lichter, Joseph P. Price, Jeffrey M. Swigert, “Mismatches in the Marriage Market,” Journal of Marriage and Family, 4 September 2019, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jomf.12603; John Anderer, “Why are Marriage Rates Down? Study Blames Lack of ‘Economically-Attractive’ Men,” Study Finds, 5 September 2019, https://www.studyfinds.org/why-are-marriage-rates-down-study-blames-lack-of-economically-attractive-men/; Kim Parker and Renee Stepler, “As U.S. Marriage Rate Hovers at 50%, Education Gap in Marital Status Widens,” Pew Research Center, 14 September 2017, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/14/as-u-s-marriage-rate-hovers-at-50-education-gap-in-marital-status-widens/.

[2] This post keeps all spelling and phrasing quoted from documents in its original form without including [sic], except for on occasions when punctuation has been converted to modern-day notations. For elite white women, Confederate loyalty/service replaced many of the other qualifications, like wealth, manners, and family lineage, in evaluating the worth of a suitor, according to Anya Jabour, “Days of Lightly-won and Lightly-held Hearts: Courtship and Coquetry in the Southern Confederacy,” in Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges, ed. Stephen Berry (Athens: University of Georgia Press: 2011); Ardella Brown to Cynthia Blair, 20 May 1863, Blair Papers, Duke University, quoted in Anya Jabour, Scarlett’s Sisters: Young Women in the Old South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 270; Drew Gilpin Faust, Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 151.

[3] Judith W. McGuire, 8 January 1865, Diary of a Southern Refugee during the War by A Lady of Virginia (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 329; Esther Alden, quoted in Francis Butler Simkins and James Welch Patton, The Women of the Confederacy (Richmond: Garrett and Massie, 1936), 188.

[4] Frank Schaller, Soldiering For Glory: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Frank Schaller, Twenty-Second Mississippi Infantry, ed. Mary W. Schaller and Martin N. Schaller (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007), 44.

[5] William Duncan Smith, Savannah, to Georgia Page King, St. Simons, 10 April 1861, King and Wilder Family Papers [K-W Papers], 1817-1946, Georgia Historical Society, Savannah, Georgia; Georgia Page King to Henry Lord Page King, 1 July 1861, K-W Papers, GHS.

[6] Elodie Todd to Nathaniel Dawson, 28 April 1861, quoted in Stephen Berry and Angela Esco Elder, eds., Practical Strangers: The Courtship Correspondence of Nathaniel Dawson and Elodie Todd, Sister of Mary Todd Lincoln (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017), 22-24.

[7] Hillary Hoffower, “7 Ways Millennials are Changing Marriage, from Signing Prenups to Staying Together Longer than Past Generations,” Business Insider, 24 May 2019, https://www.businessinsider.com/how-millennials-are-changing-marriage-divorce-weddings-prenups-2019-5#millennials-are-having-weddings-that-are-more-nontraditional-7; J. David Hacker, Libra Hilde, and James Holland Jones, “The Effect of the Civil War on Southern Marriage Patterns,” The Journal of Southern History 76, no. 1 (February 2010): 42.

Angela Esco Elder

Angela Esco Elder is an assistant professor of history at Converse College. She earned her doctorate at the University of Georgia, and the following year she was the 2016-2017 Virginia Center for Civil War Studies postdoctoral fellow at Virginia Tech. Her research explores gender, emotion, family, and trauma in the Civil War Era South. She is the co-editor of Practical Strangers: The Courtship Correspondence of Nathaniel Dawson and Elodie Todd, Sister of Mary Todd Lincoln.

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