About 620,000 soldiers died in the American Civil War. Of these, about 360,000 were Union soldiers and 260,000 were Confederates. Not all of them were killed in combat; in fact considerably more than half in both armies perished from disease. But that did not make any difference to the lot of the loved ones they left behind. There are in fact only two circumstances which made a difference to the emotional suffering of the widows and bereaved created by the War. One was that the Union was triumphant and the women of the North could therefore be told the sacrifice of their men had been of benefit, while conversely the women of the South had the bitterness of defeat added to their personal anguish. The other factor creating a disparate experience was that much of the fighting took place close to the homes of southern families and their lives were consequently severely disrupted, not to mention their way of life (owning of slaves, etc) being attacked as immoral.
Mourning was heavily regulated in the nineteenth century. Given that in the Civil War many women experienced bereavement from more than one direction, that it was happening in such quantity, and that they often needed to take over activities previously performed by the ones deceased, it’s amazing that they clung to the formalities. Possibly the act of making sure that their personal appearance was correct served as some kind of stabilising factor in the chaos.
At that time even the house of the deceased went into mourning. The front door was draped in black and all mirrors and glazed pictures were covered. The clocks were stopped at the hour the person had died. This was especially important given that most funerals were held in the home. It should be noted that men were only required to mourn a deceased wife for three months, with the display of black crepe around their hat or as an armband and maybe a black cockade on their lapel. The need for their return to work immediately after the burial meant that anything more elaborate was difficult; or at least this was the justification.
One rationale for the wearing of black when in mourning is the belief that thereby people are less noticeable to Death when it goes looking for its next victim, but this is a cultural rationale and not a very relevant one for women away from the front line. Particularly in the South, the ‘widow’s weeds’ which had to be worn within twenty-four hours of notification of death and which consisted of black crepe (silk or wool with a crinkled texture) could be a problem to obtain. Fabric, let alone ready-made clothes, was scarce. Resourceful women therefore turned their existing clothes black using a dye made from boiling walnut husks, a process which created a strong and pungent smell that carried for miles.
The length of the mourning period depended on the relationship of a woman to the deceased. If it was her husband who’d died, she would be in mourning for at least two years or more likely two and a half. There were three stages: Deep Mourning, Full Mourning and Half Mourning.
In Deep Mourning, a woman wore all black, and added a long black ‘weeping’ veil and black gloves when in public. Instead of a hat she had a bonnet covered in black crepe. She was not allowed to wear jewellery for the first few months, but after that she could wear jet or otherwise black jewellery. She would stay at home, without visitors, for a length of time which depended on the practices of her community, after which she could send out black-edged cards and tell people she was receiving again because her Deep Mourning period was over.
Full Mourning, which lasted nine to twelve months, permitted white collars and cuffs and lace, and the veil could be shorter. Gold jewellery was allowed so a woman could don her wedding band again.
Finally there were the three to six months of Half Mourning when the black could morph to mauve, grey or lilac and a black bonnet could be replaced by a white or a straw bonnet.
In the southern states, the full rituals of mourning were observed for the first year of the War, but after that, privations meant that the clothing dictates were too difficult to comply with and severe seclusion was no longer possible either. One in four Confederate soldiers died; obviously customs were unlikely to remain the same under such terrible conditions.