Did Southern Belles Marry the Enemy?: It was an “Awful Possibility”

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Nov 5, 2017
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The Reluctant Bride (1866) by Auguste Toulmouche.
In 1864, the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger received a letter from H. R., who identified herself as an eighteen-year-old, unmarried woman from Buckingham County, Virginia. Hattie, as the editor called the anonymous letter writer, admitted suffering from a “chill feeling of despair” brought on by the “execrable war.” Hattie wrote:

…the reflection has been brought to my mind with great force that after this war is closed, how vast a difference there will be in the numbers of males and females. Having made up my mind not to be an old maid, and having only a moderate fortune and less beauty. I fear I shall find it rather difficult to accomplish my wishes.”

Poor Hattie asked the editor, “[D]o you think that I will be overlooked ‘amidst this wreck of matter and crush of men and horses’[?]"

Hattie’s worry was not unique among the belles in the South. Social historians of the Civil War have generally agreed that fears like Hattie’s were well grounded in demographic realities. Approximately 620,000 men were killed during the Civil War with the death rate especially great in the Confederate states. The South lost approximately one in five white men of military age in the conflict. Gary Gallagher estimated that the South mobilized between 75 and 85 percent of its white male population of military age by the end of the Civil War.

Faced with a shortage of potential spouses after the war, some Southern women postponed marriage or chose less appropriate husbands. Their diaries and letters well document women’s fears of spinsterhood. Southern women in areas occupied by the Union army risked social ostracism by courting and marrying Union soldiers. Historians of the occupied South have written, “Letters and diaries of Union men in every occupied community reveal considerable social intercourse between Federals and ‘secesh’ girls which in a good many instances led to romances and marriages.”

This thread was inspired by @lurid. Hope you and others enjoy it!

Wiley Bell Irvin, Milhollen Hirst D. Embattled Confederates: An Illustrated History of Southerners at War. New York: 1964. pp. 177–78.

Southern Literary Messenger, February, 1864 courtesy of NCBI.

The Effect of the Civil War on Southern Marriage Patterns by J. David Hacker, Libra Hilde, and James Holland Jones.
Intriguing and enlightening! This is not something I have ever considered. I suppose it also forced the blending of otherwise distinct social and cultural practices - and ironically, not only reunited the Union, but strengthened it substantially in a way afforded by no other means. Thanks for posting!
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