Antebellum Mourning Traditions
After her husband, Prince Albert, died in
1859, Queen Victoria set the century's Anglo-American standard by publicly
mourning her husband until her own death in 1901. Following her lead (if not the
length of her mourning period), both Americans and the British established
elaborate and structured mourning customs, especially for women. Etiquette books
recommended that mothers mourn a child for one year, a child mourn a parent for
one year, and siblings mourn for six months. Widowers mourned for only three
months by wearing armbands, badges, or rosettes of black fabric. Widows, however,
were expected to respect a minimum two and a half years in mourning. In the period
immediately following the death of her husband, a wife embarked on heavy-mourning,
in which she was compelled to wear only black clothing and to keep her face
concealed with a black, crepe veil when she left her home. This was followed by
full-mourning, during which she continued to don black garments and a veil, but
lighter shades of lace and cuffs were allowed to adorn her outfit. The final
stage, half-mourning, permitted the widow to wear solid-colored fabrics of
lavender, gray, and some purples.
Clothing was not all that demanded strictures during mourning; widows were also
obliged to wear only appropriate jewelry (usually jet black or tokens containing a
lock of the deceased's hair), avoid social functions, and correspond on
appropriate black-lined stationery. Funerals also served as a ritual allowing
survivors to honor the deceased and express their grief in the presence of friends
and the community.
Changes Wrought by War
Although women had held prominent roles in
mourning rituals throughout the Victorian era, the enormous number of casualties
brought on by the Civil War necessitated significant alterations in their
responses. During the first year of fighting, many
[Confederate women] tried to maintain the
rituals of dress and behavior that accompanied death. But with the increasing
economic hardships, many middle- and upper-class Southern women simply could not
afford to continue to abide by the etiquette.
When Confederate first lady Varina
Davis went into mourning for her son, Joseph, in April 1864, she wore a
black dress of inexpensive cotton. Warrenton resident Susan Caldwell's husband
advised her in the autumn of 1864 against wearing black following the death of
their young daughter. With "war and penury upon us," he thought it unwise to spend
the money on an unnecessary purchase. Young Lizzie Alsop of
undecided about wearing black after the death of her grandmother in March 1863.
"For tho' we should like to, mourning is so high that I do not know whether it
would be right for us to wear it or not," Lizzie commented. With as many as one
out of every four Confederate soldiers dying, women across the region were thrown
into a perpetual state of mourning and often forced to abandon their rituals of
dress and self-imposed seclusion.
Funerals During War
As Confederate women's ability to observe
strict mourning rituals of dress and appearance declined, the number of funerals
they witnessed increased. Prior to the war, funerals tended to be private affairs
situated firmly within the domestic sphere. But as the death toll rose, funerals
became daily, public events in cities across the state. With men dying hundreds
and thousands of miles away from home, strangers increasingly performed many of
the rites associated with death. Rather than finding eternal rest in a family
plot, most Civil War soldiers were buried on the fields where they had died.
Despite the staggering numbers of dead, during the war elite and middle-class
Southern women frequently tried to mitigate the impersonal and anonymous burials
of Confederate soldiers by attending services, writing letters to soldiers'
families, and placing flowers on military graves. The frequency with which
Confederate women performed funeral rites for their nation's dead helps to explain
the enormous popularity of the William D. Washington's painting
The Burial of Latané (1864), which illustrated white women, slaves, and children performing the
burial service of a cavalry officer killed during the Peninsula Campaign in 1862.
Funerals, which had been largely personal and private, took on a more political
tone in the Confederate South during the Civil War. The funerals of two Virginia
officers illustrate this point. Following the death of Confederate general Turner Ashby in June 1862, his
corpse was transported to Charlottesville, where it lay in repose while hundreds of tearful
visitors covered it with wreaths of laurel and roses. The next day an elaborate
procession of his cavalry and two slaves, all dressed in black, accompanied his
remains to the
Virginia] cemetery, a newly designated resting place for Confederate dead.
The following year, Virginians mourned
an even more popular Confederate leader, Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. After lying in
repose at the State Capitol in
Richmond, his remains were
moved to Lexington amid a
military procession and eventually interred at the Virginia Military Institute. Confederates throughout the
South grieved for their general—often in very public and partisan ways. In
occupied Winchester, for
example, Union soldiers ripped a badge of mourning for Jackson from the dress of
Winchester resident Julia Clark, commenting that it was an insult to their
Such actions did not deter Confederate women from demonstrating patriotism for
their nation. Funerals and resting places of common soldiers thus took on partisan
meaning as Confederate cemeteries increasingly became sites of national mourning
and pride. They would continue to hold such nationalistic meaning in the postwar
years through the efforts of the Ladies' Memorial Associations, which
took on the responsibility of identifying, transporting, and reburying the
Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the
American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
Janney, Caroline E. Burying the Dead but Not the Past:
Ladies' Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause. Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press, 2008.
Laderman, Gary. The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward
Death, 1799–1883. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996.
Loughridge, Patricia R., and Edward D. C. Campbell Jr. Women
in Mourning. Richmond: Museum of the Confederacy, 1985.
Neff, John R. Honoring the Civil War Dead: Commemoration and
the Problem of Reconciliation. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005,
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Janney, C. E. Mourning During the Civil War. (2012, December 4). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Mourning_During_the_Civil_War.
- MLA Citation:
Janney, Caroline E. "Mourning During the Civil War." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities,
4 Dec. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: January 14, 2010 | Last modified: December 4, 2012
Contributed by Caroline E. Janney
, an assistant professor of history at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.