Family Life during the Civil War


Family life in Virginia and across the South suffered devastating effects during the American Civil War (1861–1865). Few households, whether slave or free, or located in the Tidewater, Piedmont, or mountainous Southwest, could remain insulated from a war fought on their lands and in their towns. Many families were uprooted as they witnessed the destruction of their homes and landholdings. Most profoundly, all families dealt with the ordeal of separation. The war pulled white families apart in unprecedented ways, as a large proportion of men enlisted and fully one in five white men who fought for the Confederacy died. And while the chaos of war similarly dispersed the state’s large population of African Americans, it also offered a chance for those families to overcome the longstanding separations wrought by slavery.

White Families

White families in Virginia first confronted the war’s impact with the enlistments of their male kin. Service in the Confederate Army pulled men away from their homes for years at a time and appeared to threaten their culturally prescribed duty to protect and provide for their families. Yet many soldiers reasoned that army service could still fulfill that duty by allowing a man to fight against the Union’s threats to his family’s livelihood and privilege. As one Virginia soldier put it, his duty in the war encompassed “the defense of our country, our liberty and the protection of our parents, wives, and children, and all that is dear to a man.” More than 50 percent of the men who eventually enlisted from Virginia were heads of households who similarly tried to reconcile their family’s interests with that of the Confederacy.

No matter how these white Virginians justified the absence of men, the separation took a toll on those left behind. Wives, daughters, sisters, and other female kin assumed much of the work normally pursued by men—managing plantations, harvesting crops, running businesses—while confronting the new strains of war on their own, such as inflation and slave resistance. These mounting pressures took a toll on women. “We felt like clinging to Walter and holding him back,” wrote one Virginia woman in reaction to a family member’s enlistment. “I was sick of war, sick of the butchery, the anguish.”

Soldiers tried to sustain their role in family affairs through frequent letters home, but their correspondence proved an imperfect surrogate when the mail, disrupted by war, was slow in coming. Other women searched for ways of bringing their men home, either by filing a petition with the Confederate secretary of war for a man’s exemption, or by urging a soldier to desert the army. Such efforts were often unsuccessful, however, leaving most white families to wait until the war’s end to rebuild their lives—something made even more difficult when death intervened and rendered a family’s separation permanent.

Political divisions sometimes compounded the separations experienced by white families. Regions with high Unionist concentrations, such as western Virginia, witnessed the division of households on opposing sides of the war’s divide—pitting father against son, husband against wife, and even the oft-cited brother against brother. As one Virginian noted of his own family’s division, “There are thousands of families in the same situation.” These families included some of Virginia’s most prominent Confederate leaders: Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson became estranged from his Unionist sister, while J. E. B. Stuart, the famed Confederate cavalryman, urged his wife, Flora Stuart, to change their son’s name so that he no longer bore the moniker of his Unionist father-in-law, Philip St. George Cooke.

Estrangement occurred, too, for Virginians whose loyalty did not transfer to the Confederacy after the state seceded in April 1861. Union general George H. Thomas was a slaveholder from Southampton County whose family had been forced to escape into the woods during the Nat Turner uprising in 1831. But when he decided to remain in the United States army in 1861, his family objected and cut off contact with him. He later reconciled with his brothers, but his sisters remained estranged from him until his death.

Such divisions were at once a source of fascination and lament for Virginians, as newspapers covered cases like that of Confederate Antonia Ford of Fairfax Court House who, after being arrested by Union authorities for spying, fell for one of her captors, Major Joseph Willard of the Union Army, and married him in 1864. (When Confederate spy Belle Boyd fell in love with and married one of her captors, Samuel W. Hardinge, he was arrested and thrown in jail.) Many of these families reconciled in practical ways as the war came to a close, providing one another with material support, but they found it harder to reunite emotionally. As Warner Thomson, a slaveholding Unionist living in the Shenandoah Valley, wrote of his estrangement from his Confederate sons, “My natural affection for my sons & love for my country cause a struggle in my mind—it is a painful one.”

Black Families

African American Refugees

While the centrifugal forces of war pulled white families apart, black families found in the war a chance to bring their families back together after years of separation. Enslaved men, in particular, had been involuntarily sold away from their families through the antebellum domestic slave trade, either to nearby plantations or, in many cases, to states in the Deep South. But as the Union Army entered the South, and slaves recognized that freedom was on the horizon, roughly 100,000 black men from Virginia began to flee to army camps, and, with the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), enlist in the Union Army. Although this created new separations for some families, and subjected women left behind to the abuse of masters frustrated at the men’s departure, thousands of women and children eventually followed and helped establish makeshift refugee settlements (“contraband camps”) on the outskirts of military encampments, such as Fort Monroe in Virginia’s Tidewater. These camps became important sites of black family reunions during the war and postwar period.

Union officials from the Freedmen’s Bureau, as well as Northern missionaries who soon arrived at the camps, assisted former slaves in reuniting with family members by sending inquiries to military officials throughout the South asking for help in finding lost kin, performing marriage ceremonies, and helping freedpeople realize their newly acquired legal rights to marriage and child custody. Yet the family reunions did not come without conflict, as some found their spouses had remarried and others fought over children.

Still others found their marital relationships altered by the war itself. Men, by serving as soldiers, earning voting rights with the Reconstruction Act (1867), and being treated as heads of households by Freedmen’s Bureau policies, earned a newly elevated public position over women, creating a gender imbalance unfamiliar to many black families. Sorting out these domestic relationships and redefining them in the new context of freedom would remain as a long-term legacy of war for black families.

  • Berlin, Ira, and Leslie S. Rowland, eds. Families and Freedom: A Documentary History of African-American Kinship in the Civil War Era. New York: The New Press, 1997.
  • Clinton, Catherine, ed. Southern Families at War: Loyalty and Conflict in the Civil War South. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Faust, Drew Gilpin. Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
  • Marten, James Alan. The Children’s Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
  • Sheehan-Dean, Aaron. Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
  • Taylor, Amy Murrell. The Divided Family in Civil War America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
APA Citation:
Taylor, Amy. Family Life during the Civil War. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/family-life-during-the-civil-war.
MLA Citation:
Taylor, Amy. "Family Life during the Civil War" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 May. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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