Family Separation and Reunion

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Family Separation and Reunion

The effects of the Civil War on American family life were not as disruptive as those of some later conflicts, in spite of the strains caused by geographical separation and postwar reunion. The American family at all social levels was already different from its European counterparts by the early 1830s, a fact often remarked on by visitors from abroad. Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) was a French political theorist and historian who visited the United States in 1832, publishing his impressions in 1835 under the title De la democratie en Amerique, translated into English as Democracy in America. De Tocqueville saw the American family, along with religion and a democratic form of political participation, as one of three social forces that helped to hold the young nation together. He laid particular emphasis on the role of American women within the family:

For my part, I have no hesitation in saying that although the American woman never leaves her domestic sphere and is in some respects very dependent within it, nowhere [in the world] does she enjoy a higher station…if anyone asks me what I think the chief cause of the extraordinary prosperity and growing power of this nation, I should answer that it is due to the superiority of their women. (de Tocqueville 1969 [1835], p. 603)

Moreover, de Tocqueville regarded women as the primary sources of the influence of religion on the American family. He noted that American men were often driven primarily by economic considerations:

…religion is often powerless to restrain men in the midst of innumerable temptations which fortune offers. It cannot moderate their eagerness to enrich themselves … but it reigns supreme in the souls of the women, and it is women who shape mores. Certainly of all countries in the world, America is the one in which the marriage tie is most respected and where the highest and truest conception of conjugal happiness has been conceived. (de Tocquevillc 1969 [1835], p. 291)

In addition to the strength of their family life, however, pre—Civil War Americans were also noted for making a virtue of individualism and self-sufficiency. J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur (1735-1813) was a French army lieutenant from an aristocratic family who settled in upstate New York after the French defeat in 1759 and took out citizenship in what was then the colony of New York. He married an American woman in 1770, purchased a sizable farm, and took up writing about the new type of citizen that was emerging in North America. In Letters from an American Farmer (1782), Crèvecoeur observed that Americans were more active and self-reliant than Europeans, and less impressed by social rank or ancient customs. He described the change that occurred when a European immigrant became an American: "From nothing to start into being; from a servant to the rank of a master; from being the slave to some despotic prince, to become a free man, invested with lands, to which every municipal blessing is annexed! What a change indeed! It is in consequence of that change that he becomes an American" (Crèvecoeur 1981 [1782], p. 83).

These two features of nineteenth-century American society, a high valuation of the family (often strengthened by religious convictions) on the one hand and an emphasis on personal independence on the other, not only predated the Civil War but have persisted into the present century (Bellah et al. 1985, pp. 87–89). One important difference between the nineteenth century and the twenty-first, however, is the changes in technology that have made it easier for separated family members to keep in touch.

Coping with Separation

People who were separated from their families at the time of the Civil War did not have the benefit of rapid, reliable, and affordable transportation to visit their loved ones; they also lacked the modern telecommunication devices that are taken for granted in the twenty-first century.

To begin with transportation, although the railroads played an important part in military strategy and troop transport during the Civil War (Gable 1997, pp. 1–4), they were not as readily available to the civilian population. In January 1862, Congress authorized President Lincoln to take over civilian railroad lines for military use. People who wanted to visit or care for relatives in either army frequently had to travel in horse-drawn carriages or wagons. The scarcity of efficient transportatio also often complicated family reunions after the war was over. Maria Jackson, a former slave, told of her family's move to Georgia after her father returned from the war:

My daddy was named Jim Neely, and he comed all the way to Alabamy to marry my mammy…. Mammy and daddy got back togedder atter the war and it was a long time 'fore us come to Georgy. My granddaddy sent fer us then, yes that he did. He sent a one horse waggin plum to Alabamy to brung us back….I don't 'member how long it tuk 'em to git back in that waggin but I does member dat … it sho' a long hard trip 'cause it warn 't lak times is now, and folks lived a long ways apart, and somepin' t'eat was hard to git, and dey was hungry plenty times. (Jackson 1938, pp. 268–269)

In the absence of face-to-face visits, people kept in touch through the mail. Recent advances in photography allowed Civil War soldiers and their families to enclose small photographs known as cartes de visite in their letters; but the earliest telephone would not be invented until 1871, and the telegraph system was, like the railroads, taken over for military use in May 1861. Telegrams were sent to inform Civil War families of a soldier's injury or death, but these were only brief official communications, not personal messages.

The letters exchanged between separated family members during the Civil War were handwritten. The first commercially successful typewriter was invented in 1867 but not produced in quantity until 1873. Thus the letters so eagerly awaited by soldiers and their relatives during the war took much longer to write than a modern letter composed on a word processor or sent as an e-mail message. In addition, the slowness of the postal system and interruptions in mail delivery resulting from the war meant that people worried about their loved ones often had to wait months for news. Kate Douglas Wiggin (1856-1923), a children's author and educator born a few years before the Civil War, wrote a novel that included an account of the way in which one woman first heard of her fiancé's mortal injury:

[Jane] was engaged to marry young Tom Carter…Then the war broke out. Tom enlisted at the first call. Up to that time Jane had loved him with a quiet, friendly sort of affection, and had given her country a mild emotion of the same sort. But…the anxiety of the time set new currents of feeling in motion…Men and women grew fast in those days of the nation's trouble and danger…Then after a year's anxiety, a year when one never looked in the newspaper without dread and sickness of suspense, came the telegram saying that Tom was wounded; and…she packed her trunk and started for the South. She was in time to hold Tom's hand through hours of pain…to put her arms about him so that he could have a home to die in, and that was all;—all, but it served. (Wiggin 1903, p.

Mary Todd Lincoln and Spiritualism

Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882) was one of the most controversial First Ladies in American history. Born into a slaveholding family in Kentucky, she left for Illinois at the age of twenty to escape a domineering stepmother. Although she was courted by Stephen A. Douglas, Mary Todd was more attracted to Abraham Lincoln, Douglas's fellow lawyer, and married him in November 1842. They had four sons, only one of whom outlived both parents. By the time Lincoln was elected to the presidency, their second son, Eddie, had already died at the age of four. Their third son, Willie, died of typhoid fever in the White House in April 1862.

Mary Todd Lincoln had already been under considerable stress as First Lady because of her Southern background. Two of her stepbrothers and her brother-in-law were killed fighting for the Confederacy, and she was accused of being a Confederate spy. After Willie's death, she began to look for comfort in the teachings of spiritualism, a movement that had begun in upstate New York in the 1840s. Spiritualists believed that a person could make direct contact with God, angels, or the spirits of the dead through clairvoyants or mediums.

The movement's first leaders were the Fox sisters of Hydesville, New York, who reported in 1848 that they had made contact with the spirit of a murdered peddler who communicated with them by rapping on tables. Spiritualism was appealing to many women because it offered them opportunities for leadership as mediums or as lecturers. Following the Fox sisters, such women as Cora L. V. Scott and Achsa W. Sprague lectured widely throughout the United States and held seances. Séances are meetings in which the participants sit around a table in a darkened or semi-darkened room while the medium goes into a trance and receives communications from the dead. Some twenty-first century spiritualists refer to these trance messages as channeling. Spiritualism surged in popularity during and after the Civil War because there were so many bereaved families longing for some kind of contact with or message from soldiers who had died in the war.

Mary Todd Lincoln apparently began to visit the Lauries, spiritualists living in the Georgetown section of Washington, in the spring of 1862 after Willie's death. She hoped to be able to communicate with her two dead sons. She later wrote to her half-sister that she had been visited by Alexander, her half-brother killed at Baton Rouge in 1862, as well as her boys. "Willie lives. He comes to me every night and stands at the foot of the bed with the same sweet adorable smile he always has had. He does not always come alone. Little Eddie is sometimes with him, and twice he has come with our brother, Alex." It is thought that there were at least eight spiritualist séances held in the White House itself between 1863 and Lincoln's assassination in April 1865. Lincoln is said to have attended one of these meetings in April 1863.

After Mary Todd Lincoln left the White House, she frequently visited spiritualists under an assumed name in order to test their abilities. On one trip to Boston, she attended a séance in which Lincoln appeared before her. She then visited the studio of William Mumler, a "spirit photographer," who produced a photograph in which the figure of Lincoln can be seen behind that of his widow, his hands on her shoulders. The picture is said to have given Mrs. Lincoln great comfort in her later years. Unfortunately for Mumler, he was sued for fraud in 1869, the prosecution charging that the "spirit photographs" were made by using double exposures and other tricks of the photographic trade.



Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972, pp. 488–490.

"Do You Believe? The Mumler Mystery." American Museum of Photography. Available at

Carter, Paul A. The Spiritual Crisis of the Gilded Age. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1971, pp. 99–106.

Military Families

There was one group of American families that had become accustomed to postponed weddings and periodic family separations before the Civil War, and that was the families of career military officers. Ulysses S. Grant and his wife Julia had to wait four years to marry after they met in 1844. Julia and "Ulys" became secretly engaged in 1845; her father, a wealthy Missouri slave owner, had his reservations about the match because Grant's family was relatively poor. After graduating from West Point, Grant served in the Mexican War until 1848, when he could finally marry Julia. She accompanied him to various garrisons in the West until 1852, when she returned to Illinois to live with Grant's parents in order to care for the first two of their four children. Grant resigned his military commission in 1854 in order to rejoin his growing family.

During the Civil War, Julia visited her husband as often as possible, often moving their children to new schools in order to keep the family together. In October 1861, Grant wrote to his sister from Cairo, Illinois, that he expected Julia to arrive within the week. In 1862, he wrote to his sister from Tennessee that he was looking forward to a week-long visit from his wife. During the last year of the war, Grant wrote to his father that he and Julia had been offered a house in Philadelphia and that they planned to move there permanently (Grant 1912, letters of October 25, 1861; October 16, 1862; and September 5, 1864).

There was the same kind of family loyalty on the Confederate side. Robert E. Lee visited his wife Mary Anna, who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and was confined to a wheelchair by 1861, as often as he could during the conflict. On Christmas Day of the same year, he sent his daughter a letter expressing how much he missed his family in Virginia:

My Dear Daughter: Having distributed such poor Christmas gifts as I had to those around me, I have been looking for something for you. Trifles even are hard to get these war-times, and you must not therefore expect more. I have sent you what I thought most useful in your separation from me, and hope it will be of some service…To compensate for such 'trash'[money], I send you some sweet violets, that I gathered for you this morning while covered with dense white frost, whose crystals glittered in the bright sun like diamonds, and formed a brooch of rare beauty and sweetness, which could not be fabricated by the expenditure of a world of money …Among the calamities of war, the hardest to bear perhaps, is the separation of families and friends. (Lee 1861)

Slave Families

The ambiguous legal status of slave marriages prior to the Civil War meant that some former slaves who had joined the Union Army or fled to the North during the war either took new wives or returned to their homes to find that their wives had remarried. Those who had been married in a formal religious ceremony—which some slave owners encouraged—generally had less complicated reunions. One former slave recalled her wedding:

When I growed up I married Exter Durham. He belonged to Marse Snipes Durham who had de plantation 'cross de county line in Orange County. We had a big weddin'. We was married on de front po'ch of de big house…. Dat was some weddin'. I had on a white dress, white shoes an' long while gloves dat come to my elbow, an' Mis' Betsy done made me a weddin' veil out of a white net window curtain. When she played de weddin' ma'ch on de piano, me an' Exter ma'ched down de walk an' up on de po'ch to de altar Mis' Betsy done fixed. Dat de pretties' altar I ever seed…. Uncle Edmond Kirby married us. He was de nigger preacher dat preached at de plantation church…. [Before emancipation Exter saw his wife only on weekends.] I was glad when de war stopped kaze den me an' Exter could be together all de time 'stead of Saturday an' Sunday. (Durham 1941, pp. 287–289)

Another former slave was less fortunate. Years later, his daughter recalled that when her father "… came back from the war—in the old time way of jumping the broom handle—my mother had married again, so he didn't disturb her, and the little children she had then" (Holmes 1945, p. 175).

Popular Music

Popular music was one way of coping with the pain and frustration of family separation. Many of the camp songs of the Civil War, both Northern and Southern, expressed a longing for an end to the conflict and anticipation of reunion with families. "Goober Peas," a Southern song attributed to A. Pindar, reflects not only the dietary hardships of the Confederate soldier ("goober peas" is an old term for boiled peanuts, considered an emergency ration), but also his homesickness:

Sitting by the roadside on a summer's day, Chatting with my mess-mates, passing time away, Lying in the shadows underneath the trees—Goodness, how delicious, eating goober peas.

Chorus: Peas, peas, peas, peas, Eating goober peas.

Goodness, how delicious, Eating goober peas….

Just before the battle, the General hears a row He says, 'The Yanks are coming, I hear their rifles now.'

He looks down the roadway, and what d'ya think he sees?

The Georgia Militia cracking goober peas. Chorus.

I think my song has lasted just about enough.

The subject is interesting, but the rhymes are mighty rough.

I wish the war was over, so free from rags and fleas—We'd kiss our wives and sweethearts, say good-bye to goober peas. Chorus. (Pindar 1866)

On the Union side, soldiers sang "Just before the Battle, Mother," written by George F. Root:

Just before the battle, Mother, I am thinking most of you.

While upon the field we're watching, with the enemy in view.

Comrades brave are 'round me lying, filled with thoughts of home and God;

For well they know that on the morrow, some will sleep beneath the sod.

Chorus: Farewell, Mother, you may never press me to your breast again;

But, oh, you'll not forget me, Mother, if I'm numbered with the slain.

Oh, I long to see you, Mother, and the loving ones at home,

But I'll never leave our banner till in honor I can come.

Tell the traitors all around you that their cruel words we know,

In every battle kill our soldiers by the help they give the foe. Chorus.

Hark! I hear the bugles sounding, 'tis the signal for the fight,

Now, may God protect us, Mother, as He ever does the right.

Hear "The Battle Cry of Freedom," how it swells upon the air,

Oh, yes, we'll rally 'round the standard, or we'll nobly perish there.



For thousands of American families in 1865, the only reunion they could expect with their loved ones was on the other side of the grave. Some mourners turned to spiritualism, hoping to receive ghostly messages from their dead (Carter 1971, pp. 85–108). Others read popular novels about the afterlife, mostly forgotten by contemporary readers, but best sellers in the years following the war. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844-1911), a clergyman's daughter, wrote a novel about heaven called The Gates Ajar, which opens with the news of the narrator's brother's death in combat:

They tell me that it should not have been such a shock. 'Your brother has been in the army so long that you should have been prepared for anything.'…I suppose it is all true; but that never makes it any easier. The house feels like a prison. I walk up and down and wonder that I ever called it home…. It seems to me as if the world were spinning around in the light and wind and laughter, and God just stretched out His hand one morning and put it out. (Phelps 1868, pp. 5–6)

The fact that The Gates Ajar went through fifty-five printings between 1868 and 1884 indicates that a good many bereaved Americans found comfort in Phelps's picture of the afterlife.

Confederate soldiers returning home from war often had difficult reunions with their families. A recent historian has described the mood of the defeated Southerners as "relief and dejection and smoldering rage" (Ahlstrom 1973, p. 682). In many cases the men had to cope with the destruction of their homesteads and other property as well as the disruption of their family life. Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut (1823-1886), the wife of a former senator from South Carolina, recorded in her diary a conversation she had with a fellow displaced Southerner in March 1865:

…as Captain Ogden is a refugee, has had no means of communicating with his home since New Orleans fell, and was sure to know how refugees contrive to live, I beguiled the time acquiring information from him. 'When people are without a cent, how do they live?' I asked. 'I am about to enter the noble band of homeless, houseless refugees, and Confederate pay does not buy one's shoe-strings. To which he replied, 'Sponge, sponge. Why did you not let Colonel Childs pay your bills?' 'I have no bills,' said I. 'We have never made bills anywhere, not even at home, where they would trust us, and nobody would trust me in Lincolnton.' 'Why did you not borrow his money? General Chesnut [Mary's husband] could pay him at his leisure?' 'I am by no means sure General Chesnut will ever again have any money,' said I. (Chesnut 1905, pp. 367–368

Some former Confederates found a measure of comfort in the nostalgic ideology of the Lost Cause; others returned as best they could to their former occupations or moved to the West to seek new fortunes there.

For Union veterans, family reunions were sweetened by the additional satisfaction of military victory. Patrick Gilmore (1829-1892), an Irish American bandmaster serving in the Union Army, wrote one of the best-known Union songs in 1863, two years before the end of the war, in anticipation of a Northern victory. "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" is Gilmore's reversal of an Irish antiwar song, "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye," in which a soldier's wife laments her returning husband's injuries: "Ye're an armless, boneless, chickenless egg, Ye'll have to be put with a bowl out to beg, Oh Johnny I hardly knew ye." Gilmore rewrote the message of the song to comfort his sister Annie, who was engaged to a captain in the Union light artillery named John O'Rourke:

When Johnny comes marching home again,

Hurrah! Hurrah!

We'll give him a hearty welcome then,

Hurrah! Hurrah!

The men will cheer and the boys will shout,

The ladies they will all turn out,

And we'll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching home….

Get ready for the Jubilee,

Hurrah! Hurrah!

We'll give the hero three times three,

Hurrah! Hurrah!

The laurel wreath is ready now

To place upon his loyal brow,

And we'll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching home.

Let love and friendship on that day,

Hurrah, hurrah!

Their choicest pleasures then display,

Hurrah, hurrah!

And let each one perform some part,

To fill with joy the warrior's heart,

And we'll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching home. (Gilmore 1863)

In addition to individual reunions with their loved ones, Union soldiers were also welcomed home by the nation as a whole in the first mass victory parade in the country's history. Known as the Grand Review of the Armies, it took place on two successive days, May 23 and 24, 1865, in Washington. On the first day, 80,000 infantrymen from General Meade's Army of the Potomac marched down Pennsylvania Avenue twelve abreast, along with pieces of artillery and a seven-mile-long line of cavalrymen. On the second day, 65,000 men from General Sherman's Army of Georgia passed in review, the infantrymen followed by the medical corps and civilians—black families who had escaped from slavery. Within a week both armies were officially disbanded. The Grand Review was so moving to the participants, however, that it was repeated by 40,000 surviving veterans 50 years later—in 1915, when Europe was in the midst of a new war that the United States would enter within two years (New York Times, August 16, 1915).


Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1973.

Bellah, Robert N., Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985.

Carter, Paul A. The Spiritual Crisis of the Gilded Age. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1971.

Chesnut, Mary Boykin Miller. A Diary from Dixie, edited by Isabella D. Martin and Myrta Lockett Avery. New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1905.

de Crèvecoeur, J. Hector St. John. Letters from an American Farmer. New York: Penguin Books, 1981 [1782].

Durham, Tempe Herndon. Interview in Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves: Typewritten Records, vol. 14, pp. 284–290. Washington, DC: Federal Writers' Project, 1941.

Gable, Christopher R. Railroad Generalship: Foundations of Civil War Strategy. Fort Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1997.

Gilmore, Patrick. "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." Boston: Henry Tolman, 1863 [sheet music]. A MIDI file is available at

Grant, Ulysses S. Letters of Ulysses S. Grant to His Father and His Youngest Sister, 1857–78, edited by Jesse Grant Cramer. New York: Putnam, 1912.

Holmes [no first name given]. The Unwritten History of Slavery: Autobiographical Accounts of Negro Ex-Slaves. Interview in Fisk University Social Science Institute, vol. 18, pp. 175–180. Nashville, TN: Fisk University, 1945.

Jackson, Maria. Interview recorded December 13, 1938. In The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, edited by George P. Rawick, Suppl. Series 2, vol. 1, pp. 267–274. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972-1979.

Lee, Robert E. Letter to his daughter, December 25, 1861. Available online at

Phelps, Elizabeth S. The Gates Ajar. Boston: Fields, Osgood, & Co., 1868.

Pindar, A. "Goober Peas." New Orleans: A. E. Blackmar, 1866 [sheet music]. A MIDI file is available at

Root, George F. "Just before the Battle, Mother." Text in the public domain. A MIDI file is available at

"To Repeat Grand Review: 40,000 Veterans of Civil War Will March on Fiftieth Anniversary." New York Times, August 16, 1915, p. 10.

de Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America, tr. George Lawrence, ed. J. P. Mayer. New York: Doubleday, 1969 [1835].

Wiggin, Kate Douglas. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin & Co., 1903.

Rebecca J. Frey