Antebellum Mourning Traditions
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 Fredericksburg was 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 University of 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 Presbyterian Cemetery (later Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery), not far from 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 soldiers.
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 Confederate dead.