Photo Credit: John Cunliffe
Hard To Have Him Die: Loss and Grief in the Civil War
[Elizabeth Keckley] watched [Lincoln] bury his head in his hands, "his tall frame convulsed with emotion." At the foot of the bed she stood "in silent, awe-stricken wonder," marveling that so rugged a man could be so moved. "I shall never forget those solemn moments -- genius and greatness weeping over love's idol lost." President Lincoln then walked down the hall to his secretary's office. He startled the half-dozing secretary with the news: "Well, Nicolay, my boy is gone -- he is actually gone!” 
The moving excerpt above describes the death of William Wallace Lincoln, the 11 year-old son of Mary and Abraham Lincoln. Tragedies like this – all too common in the nineteenth century – took on added poignancy during the Civil War, when death was seemingly everywhere, touching hundreds of thousands of homes and leaving enduring scars on the national psyche.
Even a cursory review of the Civil War makes prominent mention of the death rate (commonly cited figures are 620,000 soldiers from both sides and 50,000 civilians), frequently emphasizing one salient aspect or another: susceptibility to disease, lack of awareness of germ theory, or deficiencies in medical care. And while there is ample documentation of the mourning customs and behaviors observed during the period, there is comparatively little discussion of how death – and more specifically, grief – impacted individuals. Mourning, a highly ritualized and public act, was quite different from grief, the often private process in which women and men adjusted to losing loved ones. Alban Jasper Conant remarked about President Lincoln, “ever after [his son’s death] there was a new quality in his demeanor… I saw him on many occasions, marking the change in him.” Nor was President Lincoln alone. Loss touched many of the leaders of both the United and Confederate States, including Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, William Sherman, James Longstreet, John McClernand, J.E.B. Stuart, and Francis Barlow, just to name a few. And while biographies mention how these leaders bore their grief, it must be noted that women of the period bore the brunt of mourning, often doing so in comparative silence.
The following discussion requires us to consider two related concepts: mourning and grief. For the purposes of this post, mourning is defined as a ritualized set of behaviors designed to help an individual deal with the immediate shock of loss and create a socially acceptable pathway for resuming regular routines. Grief, while highly individualized, can be defined as a process one undergoes to create a lasting narrative about a loved one, to ensure that others know about the deceased in a certain way. While these definitions are strongly influenced by 21st century bias, the primary concept of mourning addresses the behaviors related to loss, while grief focuses mainly on the process of recovering from loss.
As Drew Gilpin Faust points out in This Republic of Suffering, Americans in the 19th century could hardly be considered strangers to death, particularly where children were concerned. The 1850 Census estimated a 1.39% mortality rate across all people and all causes of death; by comparison, the United States CDC reported a mortality rate in 2014 of .82% across all people and all causes of death. Of the deaths recorded in the 1850 Census, 122,978 were of children under the age of 5, accounting for 38% of total deaths. If children 5-10 years of age are included, the percentage of child deaths climbs to 44.8%. Compare this to the worldwide 2015 under-5 mortality rate of 7.6%, roughly one-fifth of the 1850 under-5 mortality rate in the United States alone. 
In this context, the Victorian ideal of what was known as the “good death” arose. One author explains:
“The good death” represented an ideal experience for someone that is prepared to die. First and foremost, this person would likely die at home, surrounded by loved ones. Before the professionalization of funeral directors at the end of the 19th century, death had always been handled at home. Family members would tend to the dying, comforting and tending to them in their final days and hours. It was thought that the dying would be able to impart a particular kind of wisdom that only comes at the end of one’s life, or perhaps offer apologies for wrongdoings or forgiveness to others.
New variations within religion influenced the way in which death was viewed. The newly influential liberal evangelical movement in the United States changed the way people thought of themselves as pious believers. “After 1850, the delicate balance of the evangelical era tipped away from fear and anxiety and toward assurance,” explained James Farrell in Inventing the American Way of Death. Prior to this time, the role of religion only offered rigid guidelines in the ways in which one should worship and spoke little of any kind of joyful outcome after death: heaven was rarely discussed. This changed in the 1850s. This new kind of assurance guaranteed that one would be rewarded with a pleasant afterlife. By living a life dedicated to moral goodness and the will of God, the event of death was not to be feared but rather, celebrated.
This good death ushered families into the structured world of mourning, which had different stages and somewhat complex requirements. Deep mourning, the first stage, required the mourner to wear black clothing and speak only to relatives or close friends. The mourner could not attend any celebrations or public gatherings, and if a woman in deep mourning was out in public, she was expected to wear a heavy black veil attached to a bonnet (hats were considered inappropriate). For men, mourning dress was not particularly difficult as they could often wear regular black suits, possibly adorned with a mourning badge or black armband. Women’s full mourning dress was extremely regimented – even the material used in mourning dress was expected to be of non-reflective material such as bombazine, “adorned” with crepe (which apparently didn’t go well as adornment with any other material). Deep mourning was most stringent for a spouse, although particularly so for women; women remained in deep mourning attire for a year and a day, but some widows would wear this for longer periods. Second mourning was the next stage, typically lasting for a year, and was slightly less restrictive – veils could be shorter and some of the crepe attached to mourning wear could be removed. During the final stage of half mourning, lasting approximately six months, colors such as gray, lilac, or mauve could be worn, bonnets were white, and some jewelry was allowed. The entire mourning process for a widow was roughly two and a half years, while for other relatives mourning could last from three months to one year. Men, subject to only three months of mourning for a wife, would often marry before their mourning period was ended, and this was not deemed unusual; new brides were, oddly enough, occasionally in the position of mourning their new husband’s first wife.
The “good death” expanded somewhat during the Civil War, including battlefield deaths that were considered chivalrous or that included last expressions of dedication to family and faith. Poignant accounts exist of mortally wounded soldiers writing final letters to relatives, such as J.R. Montgomery, a Confederate soldier who wrote a final blood-stained letter to his father expressing hope that they will “meet in Heaven”, or Isaac Avery, who wrote a note asking that his father be told he “died with my face to the enemy”. But for far too many, it didn’t work that way. Death came, not as a quiet, reflective transition to a peaceful afterlife but a lonely, frightening, and often inhuman experience, particularly for wounded men who could not be recovered by stretcher bearers or whose wounds were deemed mortal and received no treatment whatsoever. The lack of a modern identification system and communication delays meant that families discovered their loved one’s death after many days, if at all. Families might descend on battlefields, searching for their sons or brothers. While such heartrending conditions did not affect the mourning rites per se, people struggled to accept the horrific circumstances in which their loved ones died and searched for ways to grieve, hoping that this might bring some measure of relief to their sorrow. Faith played a vital role in this, for if their loved ones could not receive “decent” burial rites, families could express their belief that the deceased died for a noble cause akin to a Crusade.
Grief took many forms. Faust’s book recounts some of the ways in which people memorialized their loved ones: Flora Stuart and Mary Lincoln never stopped wearing mourning clothes for their remaining years; one man carried the bullet that killed his son with him, while another carried a watch fob that included a button from his son’s uniform. On April 25, 1866, women in Columbus, Mississippi began the practice of laying flowers on the graves of both Southern and Northern soldiers, laying the framework for Memorial Day. As mentioned above, grief is an individualized process rather than a time-delineated event. It commonly leads a person to create meaningful rituals and remembrances, and for many, never fully ends. Modern theories of grief response incorporate research on trauma and the emotional and cognitive dulling that can come with it. Similar to a physical injury, there may be a degree of healing and yet observable marks remain, as Alban Jasper Conant noted with President Lincoln. For anyone enduring a loss, a range of physical symptoms may be present, including pain or difficulty moving, sleep difficulties, digestive complaints, restlessness, depression, and anxiety. Thinking clearly and planning can become, for some, impossible. Response times may be slowed significantly, and it is common for bereaved people to feel that they are losing their connection to reality. Again, these are 21st century observations, but they are not outside the realm of possibility for people during the Civil War. Accounts of James Longstreet after losing three of his children to illness in one week, or of William Sherman losing his young son, support the idea that loss and grief can have a tremendous impact on a person’s physical and emotional functioning.
There are few contemporary accounts of the impact loss may have had on the leadership or decision making abilities of the generals, although (with a decidedly present-leaning bias) some modern writers leave little doubt:
Reflecting on Sherman's cruelties, Margie Bearss, wife of the famous historian, Edwin C. Bearrs, wrote, "Did perhaps the death of Willy start a chain reaction of fires and desolation in Mississippi that the winds of more than a century have not entirely hidden? Did Sherman hold Mississippi 'that sickly region' responsible for his death? Who knows. Yet, we do know that between the end of the Vicksburg Campaign and the beginning of the Meridian Expedition, only a few months' time, his concept of warfare changed and he began his own version of the 'total war' for which he became well-known." 
While it’s important to consider such questions cautiously, it is worthwhile to ask how grief impacted the leaders and their capacity to lead. Was McClernand simply abrasive, or was he hampered by his grief? Would Longstreet have made different command decisions if he was not “a changed man”, as Moxley Sorrel observed after his children’s deaths? We cannot know with certainty. However, it’s noteworthy that modern grief experts have observed that men often respond to grief by increasing their activity level, often feeling a need to do something or solve a problem. The possibility should be considered that Lee, Longstreet, Sherman and other leaders who experienced loss focused their energies into their commands, and it may be no accident that some of these men were considered the most implacable leaders of the war.
Bruce Catton, in 1961, summed up some of the experience of loss as he commemorated the centennial of the War:
The heartache and misery that descended on the people who knew and loved those who died or were maimed are simply beyond human computation, but it is hardly going too far to say that there was not a home in America which did not become intimate with grief and anguish during those four years.
Memorializing is a very human experience, allowing us to not only remember someone but remember them in a specific way. Grief, far from a “moving on” from the pain of loss, supports that function, letting people recall shared experiences and find a path to healing. Despite the scope of loss during the War, opportunities to remember – and emulate – sacrifice remain, on a national as well as individual level. Learning how women and men faced grief during the Civil War presents us with a challenge to remember what was gained, as well as what was lost.
 The Death of Willie Lincoln (2017). Abraham Lincoln Online, http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/education/williedeath.htm. Retrieved April 3, 2017.
 Janney, C. E. Mourning during the Civil War. (2015, October 27). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Mourning_During_the_Civil_War. Retrieved April 4, 2017.
 Faust, Drew Gilpin. (2008). This republic of suffering : death and the American Civil War. New York:Alfred A. Knopf.
 Mortality Statistics of the Seventh Census of the United States, 1850. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc2.ark:/13960/t4qj7qt8w;view=1up;seq=39. Retrieved April 4, 2017.
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 Stout, H.S. (2008). Religion in the Civil War: The Southern Perspective. http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nineteen/nkeyinfo/cwsouth.htm. Retrieved April 11, 2017.
 Drew Faust on the ‘Shared Suffering’ of the Civil War (2012). Interview transcript, NPR, http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=161544181. Retrieved April 14, 2017.
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 Grief Watch (date unknown). Symptoms of Grief. https://www.griefwatch.com/symptoms-of-grief. Retrieved April 20, 2017.
 Drake, R.B. (2002). The Ultimate Grief: William T. Sherman. http://battleofraymond.org/history/sherman.htm. Retrieved April 18, 2017.
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 Catton, B. Robert E. Lee and the Civil War. Address delivered to Historical Association of Southern Florida, February 8, 1961. http://digitalcollections.fiu.edu/tequesta/files/1961/61_1_01.pdf. Retrieved April 23, 2017.