The Civil War was especially difficult on the family unit, which tended to be close knit and often extended. In most families, the husband and the eldest sons were the primary breadwinners, and it was a great loss when they had to go off to war. This was especially true among middle-class families, in which wives and mothers often had little experience providing for their families. A farmer's wife knew how to hold down the family stake in her husband's absence, but city women were in a much more difficult position.
Women of the era had an indomitable spirit, however, and they drew from deep reserves of strength and ingenuity when it came to supporting their families. Those who had been sheltered their entire lives, which was common, often found the transition traumatic, but they persevered as never before.
In many ways, Civil War wives were the forbearers of World War II's Rosie the Riveter and the trendsetting feminists of the 1960s and 1970s. Many women found themselves running farms, plantations and businesses while their husbands were away. Thousands of women on both sides worked as nurses or aided the troops through such organizations as the United States Sanitary Commission.
Coping with Loss and Trauma
While they may have disagreed on ideology, families on both sides of the war shared one common trait: the pain of personal loss. Husbands and fathers died by the hundreds of thousands in both the North and the South, and thousands more returned home wounded and maimed. Many men were so shattered by their wartime experiences that they were little more than emotional and physical invalids, a situation that placed a huge burden on their already struggling families.
When the Civil War erupted, it often divided families. Lieutenant David H. Todd, commandant of the Confederate Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, was the half brother of Mary Todd Lincoln. John J. Crittenden, the former governor and U.S. senator from Kentucky, had tried to prevent the war in 1860 with a compromise; his sons fought on both sides of the war.
In addition to the financial hardship, the families of wounded veterans often had to face tremendous psychological pain. Many soldiers returned home suffering from what today would be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, and there were few resources available to help them or their families.
Many women, initially ecstatic when their husbands returned home, watched their lives slowly crumble as they realized the rest of their years would be spent tending to their husbands' permanent wounds. Some women found they couldn't tolerate their postwar family existence and fled for a better life elsewhere.
Soldiers in the field maintained a strong sense of family by bonding with their comrades through common experience and background. Many senior officers went even further by appointing actual family members to their staff. During the winter months, when the war all but came to a halt because of the weather, entire families often joined their husbands and fathers in camp, happy to have the time together despite the conditions. In the summer, wives and children occasionally made short camp visits when their husbands and fathers were close enough.
On the home front, many women participated in military assistance and relief efforts, such as sewing bees, food drives, and medical collections. Not only did these activities help provide soldiers with desperately appreciated items they probably wouldn't have been able to find elsewhere, but they gave the women a sense of unity and purpose.
Weeks and months alone without their husbands plunged many women into severe depression; military relief efforts gave them something to do with their time and placed them in contact with others who understood their emotions. Families and soldiers also kept bonds strong by writing long letters back and forth. Nothing made a soldier's day like a letter from his loving wife, and vice versa.
Women performed front line work of the aid societies — nursing, sewing, and packaging — but they also did a good deal of the organizing and management. Elizabeth Blackwell, the nation's first officially degreed woman doctor, helped organize the Women's Central Relief Association, making it an effective and efficient organization that coordinated local efforts across the northern states. Abigail May ran the New England auxiliary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, coordinating local chapters so that the most aid possible reached soldiers' camps.
Northern families lost a great many loved ones over the course of the war and experienced their share of problems and grief, but Southern families suffered far more. In the South, the threat of warfare was almost a daily occurrence. Numerous Southern towns and cities were destroyed over the course of the war, and the impact on the Confederate civilian population was enormous in virtually all areas. In many regions, it took all the coping skills families could muster to survive each day.
As the war progressed, the Northern blockade of Southern ports took a heavy toll on the general population. Items that Northerners took for granted became increasingly difficult to find in the South, and prices for basic necessities such as sugar and salt skyrocketed. Confederate money became almost worthless, and inflation reached staggering levels. For women who were the sole support of their families, it became a daily struggle to put together the most meager of meals.
A refugee family leaving a war area
Photo courtesy of the National Archives (200-CC-306)
Worse still for Confederate families were the indignities they were forced to endure when Union forces invaded their towns. Many watched in helpless horror as their livestock and produce was taken from them or simply destroyed on the spot by vengeful Federal soldiers. Many families simply fled, wandering from area to area in search of food and shelter. This way of life was extremely hazardous, and the children suffered the most. An entire generation grew up hating the North, often justifiably.
For a great many soldiers, the horrors they had witnessed on the battlefield only increased their compassion for civilians caught in the middle. Most soldiers had families back home, and they understood well the emotional trauma the war caused. A good deed on their part might result in a good deed by others later on.