The following images portray mourning clothing in Virginia in the antebellum period—a time when elaborate and structured mourning customs prevailed. Etiquette books recommended that mothers mourn a child for one year. 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.
The simple black silk mourning dress shown here has a detachable collar of black machine lace in a floral pattern. The dress dates to around 1860 and belonged to a Lizzie Smith from Matthews County, Virginia. Women were often photographed in mourning clothing, including these grieving women whose cased images are in the collection at the Valentine Richmond History Center. Elizabeth Ann Valentine's cheeks are gently hand-colored in a daguerreotype made around 1855; an unidentified woman wears a black veil, a light-colored collar, and earrings and necklace in the shape of a cross–and probably fashioned out of the hair of the deceased—in an ambrotype made in Richmond circa 1857; Marie Sanford Johnston, captured in a daguerreotype around 1860, is entirely clad in funereal tones, save for the light cap beneath her bonnet; and an unidentified women, circa 1855, sits for a daguerreotype in black lace gloves and partial hair covering.
File name: UnidentifiedWoman_V_34_40_23.tif Description: Unidentified woman, c. 1855 [in mourning] Medium: Sixth-plate daguerreotype ID number: V.34.40.23
Black silk dress, center closure, no buttons, dropped sleeves, gathered waist with smocked detail. Collar is detached, it is black machine lace in a floral pattern. Belonged to Lizzie Smith and her great niece of Willow Grove, Matthews County, Va.
File name: UnidentifiedWoman_V_50_57_02.tif Description: Unidentified woman, c. 1857 [in mourning]; by P. E. Gibbs Medium: Sixth-plate ambrotype ID number: V.50.57.02
File name: MarieSanfordJohnston_V_62_125_02.tif Description: Marie Sanford (Mrs. J. T. Johnston), c. 1860 [in mourning] Medium: Sixth-plate daguerreotype ID number: V.62.125.02
File name: ElizabethAnnValentine_L_68_80_08.tif Description: Elizabeth Ann Valentine, c. 1855 [in mourning]; by Tyler & Co., Boston, Massachusetts Medium: Sixth-plate daguerreotype ID number: L.68.80.08
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.