Sunday, January 7, 2018

Civil War Widows

By Michelle Shocklee

The numbers are staggering.

It is said that over 620,000 men died in the American Civil War. Between 1861 and 1865, approximately three million husbands, fathers, sons, uncles, and brothers left for war. Thousands of American families would never see their loved one’s face again as the men died, often far from home. At Gettysburg alone, there were over 51,000 casualties. As a result of four long years of battle, hundreds of thousands of women became widows.

It's hard to imagine that kind of loss. In the span of four short years, so many, many lives were changed.

In both of my upcoming February releases, I touch on the subject of war widows. In The Widow of Rose Hillbook 2 in the historical romance series The Women of Rose Hill, our heroine, Natalie, is left to run the plantation alone after her husband dies shortly after joining the Confederate Army. Like the war widows of 1865, Natalie must forge a new future for herself and her young son. A future that often looked frighteningly uncertain. 

In my novella, To Heal Thy Heart, included in The Mail-Order Brides Collection,  Phoebe was engaged to a young Confederate soldier who perished in battle. Left without means or family, she must put her life and future in the hands of a stranger by answering a mail-order bride ad. Sadly, many real war widows were left with little choice but to marry again, usually without love and often to total strangers. In the South, especially, life as they had known before the war was forever changed. With so many men gone, women far outnumbered men of marrying age. Ads began to appear in newspaper "matrimonial columns" from both women and men seeking matrimony. Many men went West after the war, which is where Phoebe and Luke begin their life together, and widows were forced to leave behind everything familiar. While we can dream of the romance between a war widow and her handsome hero, the reality was most assuredly terrifying.

Hetty Cary, one of Richmond, Virginia's most beautiful belles, became a widow three weeks after she married Confederate Brigadier General, John Pegram. Pergram returned to battle after their brief honeymoon on February 5, 1865. He was shot and died instantly. Exactly three weeks from the date of her wedding, Hetty found herself in the same church, with the same people, the same minister, walking down the same aisle, for the funeral. “Again has St. Paul’s, his own beloved church,” wrote one female diarist, “receive[d] the soldier and his bride—the one coffined for a hero’s grave, the other, pale and trembling, though still by his side, in widow’s garb.” Hetty was so heartbroken she had to be torn from the body, almost by force. Unlike many women left alone, she would remain a widow for over 15 years.

One of the saddest tasks a war widow faced was that of retrieving her husband's body. The idea of their loved one's final resting place being far from home and perhaps on enemy lands was unacceptable. Some husbands even went so far as to write instructions to their wives about what should be done if the worst happened. A Union soldier named William F. Vermilion wrote this to his wife on June 30, 1863: "You have often asked what I want you to do if I should not get home. Get me home if you can,” he penned, “bury me on some nice loyal spot of ground, plant flowers over the grave. I don’t want to sleep in the land of traitors. I couldn’t rest well.”

I do believe there were happily ever after stories for many of these widows, although I'm sure the healing process wasn't easy. I hope I've done them justice through my storytelling and imagination. They, like their husbands, need to be remembered as the real people they were, living, loving, and eventually dying.

Michelle Shocklee is an award-winning author of historical fiction and is a contributor in six Chicken Soup for the Soul books. The Widow of Rose Hill,  Book 2 in the historical romance series The Women of Rose Hill, releases February 12, 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon. Book 1, The Planter's Daughter, is available now. Her historical novella set in the New Mexico Territory is included in The Mail-Order Brides Collection, releasing February 1, 2018. Connect with her at


  1. For a point of interest I Googled how many men died in the Vietnam War. The number recorded, and I did not verify the source, was 51,000. You indicated that that many men died in Gettysburg alone. That put it into some perspective for me. I've always felt the Civil War was especially poignant, given that we were fighting our own people. Please God, that we would learn from the past.

  2. I agree, Connie. I also pray our country is never so divided again. Thank you for your comments!

  3. this is a really great post. something a lot of people forget about. When my husband and son started reenacting civil war, this was one thing I wanted to know about. And our son who got his bachelors and masters in history finally was able to give me a lot of details.
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  4. Learning about the scope of widowhood made me realize how towns would have looked after the war. Amputees, wounded men, and women garbed in black-black-black. A permanent change to the landscape that no one could get away from. The Republic of Suffering is an excellent non-fiction book on this topic and it was an unforgettable learning curve for me.

  5. Heartbreaking to think of all the losses along with widows and families trying to survive after the Civil War with all the destruction the war caused on America soil. Thank you for shairng and your stories sound intriguing to the Civil War reader.

  6. Lori, thanks for your comments. I love that your family is involved in re-enactments! I so appreciate folks in costume when I visit historical sites!

  7. Stephanie, thank you for the book recommendation! I will definitely look it up!

  8. Marilyn, I agree. It’s heartbreaking to think of all the families that suffered loss. I too enjoy stories set during the Civil War.