Mourning during the Civil War


Mourning is the process of grieving the death of a loved one. In the mid-nineteenth century, middle- and upper-class Americans observed an elaborate set of rules that governed behavior following the death of a spouse or relative. The astronomical rate of death during the American Civil War (1861–1865) often hindered the mourning process, transformed the ways in which individuals and communities responded to death, and heightened women‘s public role in mourning traditions.

Antebellum Mourning Traditions

Mourning Clothing

After her husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861, 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

Mourning Jewelry

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

The Burial of Latané

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.

Stonewall Jackson's Grave

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.

  • 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, 16–65.
APA Citation:
Janney, Caroline. Mourning during the Civil War. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/mourning-during-the-civil-war.
MLA Citation:
Janney, Caroline. "Mourning during the Civil War" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 18 May. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 14
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