Mourning customs during the civil war era

April 12, 2012

Understanding the mourning customs during the American Civil War era gives us valuable insight into how our ancestors honored the dead. This time period also broke tradition on the time set aside to grieve before remarriage. Plus I find the subject fascinating.

Morning customs during the civil war era

 To understand mourning customs during the Civil War era, we must first look back on these customs which actually had their beginnings in ancient Greece and Rome. These included the wearing of black during the bereavement period. A lot of people believe America began the formal black clothing worn out of respect originated here.

True mourning became almost an art form beginning in 1861 England with the death of Prince Albert. Queen Victoria made mourning fashionable and trendy. She showed respect for her dead husband as well as started mourning traditions that continued for decades. This coincided with the Civil War then taking place in the U.S between 1861-1865.

Here are some interesting facts about the dead and mourning.

*The deceased was usually dressed and laid out in the home where they lived. Sometimes embalming took place in the home in the days before funeral homes became the norm.

*All mirrors in the house had to be covered. Should a mirror fall on its own and break, that meant someone in the family would soon die.

* If there was a clock in the room where a person died, it must be stopped or someone in the family would die.

*The body had to be carried out of the house feet first or it could look into the home, inviting others to follow it in death.

*Mourning clothes were among the first made available on a mass market scale.

*Queen Victoria mourned her husband from the time of his death in 1861 until her own death in 1901.

*The custom of sitting with the dead (commonly called a wake)was likely started to keep rodents away from the body. The body of the deceased must not be left unattended from the time of death until burial.

I had the honor of being present for a “wake” in 1970 at the age of ten. My aunt had passed away and I was spending the night with my cousins in the basement bedroom of her house. Her husband was sitting with my aunt’s body and casket upstairs.

I recall this as a very creepy night as we all told ghost stories, knowing she was upstairs in the living room. At one point the family dog walked by the outside window (which was at head level), breathing quite heavily and almost giving all of us a heart attack! I’d like to say this is the first and only wake I ever attended.

As a genealogist, I love to read of the clothes used during the mourning period and how they came about.

The American Civil War claimed the lives of over 600,000 men between 1861-1865.

Many merchants and clothiers made a profit by selling ready made black clothing in their stores, as there was always a demand for mourning attire.

Unlike the wealthy Royal family, many could not afford to purchase black clothing specifically for mourning. So they would either take their clothing to a person in town who would dye them, or they would dye them on their own.

This included not only a dress and bonnet, but also undergarments, a handkerchief, and a veil. A veil was a necessity for a grieving woman, as it was protection not only for her but for those who saw her in public. It was believed the spirit of the dead would hover close to those it had loved in life. Should someone look directly into the face of a mourning woman, the spirit could attach itself to that person. It also disguised the tear stained face of the bereaved.

The material also was to have a sheen to it. It was believed this sheen, along with the black color, would make it difficult for the spirit of the dead to see the mourner. Most mourning dresses were made of wool or cotton. Due to the likelihood of the dyes running should the wearer be rained on, most widows stayed at home for a long period of time after the death. She wasn’t allowed to accept social invitations and no one was allowed to visit for entertainment purposes. A grieving woman would send out invitations to friends and neighbors when her grieving period was over.

The mourning period lasted for at least one year and could continue for up to two and a half years. Many women, however, donned their outfits for the duration of the war as many of their family members were killed in battle.

Mourning was done for different amounts of time determined by who had died. They are as follows:

*For a husband, a period of 1-2 1/2 years

*Six months to one year for a parent

*Six months to a year for children over 10 years old

*Three to six months for children under 10

*Infants were mourned for at least 6 weeks

*Siblings 6 to 8 months

*Aunts and uncles 3-6 months

*Cousins 6 weeks to 3 months

*Grandparents were mourned for 6 months

Many of these war widows remarried, especially those who were widowed at a young age. Their second marriage was most likely to someone much younger or older than themselves, as many men their age were off in battle. Women should customarily have waited at least a year before taking another husband. But with farms to run and most being housebound with small children, many took a new husband within a few months.

Widowers, however, weren’t as confined to the rules of Victorian society as the women. Many remarried within months. Especially if the care of young children was involved. It was more frowned upon for a widow to remarry before the customary time allowed by society and could leave a permanent black mark on the way future generations would perceive her.

Most funerals held during the American Civil War period took place in the home of the deceased by as many as three preachers. The body could not be left alone at any time between death and the funeral. Neighbors and families would gather at the home, bringing food and offering comfort. The offering of food and fellowship survives as a tradition to this day.

The actions at a funeral during this era were carefully watched. It was customary and expected for the widow to scream and cry. Should the sister-in-law or neighbor do the same, rumors could be expected to fly regarding their unseemly behavior.

It’s interesting to observe the mourning customs during this era. Although we no longer remain dressed in black for an extended period, I find it interesting the custom lasted as long as it did and most likely will continue well into the future in some societies.


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