Civil War Widows

Civil War widows in Virginia are defined as women married to Confederate soldiers who died during the American Civil War (1861–1865). The numbers of these women are difficult to determine—historians estimate between 4,000 and 6,000—but their characteristics are clearer. They were relatively young and their marriages had been relatively brief; if they had children, they were still too young to be of help in supporting the family. About half of all widows remarried during or after the conflict, with the youngest ones the most likely to do so; however, because of the war's toll on young men, they were substantially more likely to marry men who were much older or younger than themselves. Few of these women worked, but beginning in 1888, some were eligible for a state pension that provided the minimal support of $30 per year. MORE...

 

It is difficult to determine how many of Virginia's Civil War soldiers who died in the conflict left widows. Still, given the estimate of 20,000–30,000 total deaths for Virginia troops and the fact that about one in five soldiers were married, there likely were somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 Virginia women whose husbands perished in the war.

No single source documents all of Virginia's Civil War widows. Two records, however, allow scholars to identify many, if not most, of these women. The identity of 1,297 of these widows can be determined from the death claim records produced during the war. If a soldier who died was owed back pay by the Confederate government—which often was the case in the Confederate army—his widow could apply to receive it. Unfortunately many of the widows never filed for these payments because the war ended before their claims could be filled. In addition to the death claim records, beginning in 1888 the wives of Virginia's soldiers who had died during the war were authorized to file for a pension from the state government so long as they did not have an annual income exceeding $300, did not own personal property in excess of $1,000, and had not remarried. About 1,900 Virginia women successfully filed for such pensions from 1888 to 1899.

While it is impossible to list every Virginia Civil War widow, a profile of those who can be identified reveals many factors that shaped their wartime and postwar lives. The most outstanding characteristic of these widows was that the median length of their marriages before the war had been only six years and that they only had a median age of twenty-seven. Further indicative of their brief marriages before the war, the median number of children was only two. Finally, given their relative youth, it is not surprising that only one-third of them owned land before the war's outset. Hence, with the death of their soldier-husbands, these women were left with no or limited financial assets and likely did not have children old enough to provide labor to assist them.

Given their small monetary resources, Virginia widows faced difficult circumstances even while the war was still being waged. To aid these widows as well as the wives of soldiers who were still living, the Virginia General Assembly in 1863 instructed the county courts to provide these women and their children with food. The county governments did their best to accomplish this task, but surely were hindered by the lack of supplies and the concurrent inflation.

The most obvious question is whether these widows were able to find new husbands during and after the war. Using the names of widows found in the death claim records, it appears that slightly less than half of Virginia's Civil War widows remarried. Further, most who remarried did so either during the war or in its immediate aftermath. The most influential factor shaping whether war widows remarried was their age, with the youngest ones being most likely to marry again. Indeed, about three-fourths of those who were under the age of twenty when the war began found new husbands. Middle-aged widows were far less likely to remarry, but this largely can be explained by the fact that they were more likely to own property as well as to have adult children who could provide them with aid and labor. Hence, many widows who did not remarry did not do so by choice.

Widows who remarried were influenced by the shortage of men created by the war. Quite simply, it was difficult for widows to find husbands of the same demographic and class backgrounds as themselves. As a result, there was a significant increase in the share of women marrying significantly younger or older men than themselves. Specifically, the share of Virginia's Civil War widows marrying men ten or more years older than themselves more than doubled, and the share of those marrying men five or more years younger than themselves tripled in comparison to the numbers before the war.

Few of the widows who did not remarry appear to have taken gainful employment; only about 2 percent seem to have done so by 1870. Of course, given Virginia's overwhelmingly rural economy, there were few opportunities for women to work outside the home even if they had wanted to do so. Those who did find employment tended to work in traditionally female occupations such as dressmaking, weaving, and spinning cloth. Most women who did not remarry had relatives living nearby to help them in the period before their children reached adulthood and could assist them.

The amount of pension eligible widows received was fairly minimal at only $30 annually under the initial pension act. Despite the relatively small amount of compensation, about 1,300 Civil War widows filed for and received pensions during the first two years of the program. Significantly, Virginia's pension program differentiated between those Civil War widows whose husband had died during the conflict and those wives whose veteran husbands had died after the conflict. For example, under the 1900 pension act, the former group of women received $40 per year compared to only $25 for the latter. Still, even this larger sum was quite small when compared to the much more generous federal pension program aiding Union Civil War widows that began during the war and awarded sums approximately three times greater than in Virginia. While very few Virginia Civil War widows could survive on the small pensions they received, it surely would have been a welcome compensation to the sons, daughters, and other relatives with whom many of these increasingly elderly women often resided.

Further Reading
Gross, Jennifer Lynn. "'You All Must Do the Best You Can': The Civil War Widows of Brunswick County, Virginia, 1860–1920." MA thesis, University of Richmond, 1995.
Kenzer, Robert C. "The Uncertainty of Life: A Profile of Virginia's Civil War Widows." In The War Was You and Me: Civilians in the American Civil War. Edited by Joan E. Cashin. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002.
Morrison, Jeffery R. "'Increasing the Pensions of these Worthy Heroes': Virginia's Confederate Pensions, 1888 to 1927." MA thesis, University of Richmond, 1996.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Kenzer, R. Civil War Widows. (2012, December 4). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Civil_War_Widows.

  • MLA Citation:

    Kenzer, Robert. "Civil War Widows." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 4 Dec. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: March 22, 2010 | Last modified: December 4, 2012


Contributed by Robert Kenzer, the William Binford Vest Professor of History at the University of Richmond.