By authors: J. David Hacker, Libra Hilde and James Holland Jones
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.” She wrote that
"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."
She asked the editor, “[D]o you think that I will be overlooked ‘amidst this wreck of matter and crush of men and horses’[?]”1
Social historians of the Civil War have generally agreed that fears like Hattie’s were well grounded in demographic realities. Nearly 620,000 men were killed in the war, a number approximately equal to the deaths in all other American wars from the Revolution to the Korean War combined. The deaths of huge numbers of men, Nancy Cott has argued, rendered “the assumption that every woman would be a wife … questionable, perhaps untenable.” The death rate was especially great in the Confederacy, which lost approximately one in five white men of military age in the conflict. Catherine Clinton has stated that the reduced population of young men “demographically deprived” southern women of husbands. Drew Gilpin Faust, in her study of elite southern white women during the war, has argued that the loss of such a large proportion of the South’s male population undermined the region’s established pattern of family formation and threatened the identity of white women as wives and mothers. A generation of southern women faced the prospect of becoming spinsters reliant on their families for support. Similarly, in a recent study of white southern womanhood in the late nineteenth century, Jane Turner Censer has expressed the notion that the Civil War “constituted a watershed” in the likelihood of marriage for southern white women.
If it is true that the war condemned a generation of southern women to spinsterhood, then demography, specifically the imbalance in the number of men and women, contributed to what some historians have described as a...
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