As our nation is in the throes of expanding the definition of marriage to include same sex couples and is more open to the notion of polygamy, the Civil War and Reconstruction era offer a dramatic natural experiment in how the institution of marriage in the Southern U.S. responded to the war time deaths of 18% of its adolescent, young adult and early middle aged white men.
Only in the last few years are really definitive answers to the question emerging. Confederate widows who supported themselves without remarrying, Sugar Daddy widowers, and Southern women who became "cougars" by deferring marriage and then courting younger men, as well as relaxed standards for what constitutes a man worth marrying all contributed to bridging this gap, while more obvious options like interracial marriage and de facto polygamy turned out to play very minor roles.
Meanwhile, our economy is reaching levels of concentration that recall the plantation aristocracy of the South (indeed, it is probably more concentrated now than then), and our politics have taken a deeply partisan tone in which the GOP have become dominated by white Southerners. So the question is, to what extent are today's political ideologies in the South legacies of the plantation aristocracy's antebellum political influence.
This too has an answer that can increasingly be answered accurately and with a certain degree a nuance. Much of the South's backwardness today, economically, culturally and politically, can be attributed to the political staying power of the descendants of plantation elites in parts of the South where they were most dominant. Their commitment to plantation farming conducted by ill educated workers has held back Southern economic, political and cultural development.
Hat Tip to a recent post by Tyler Cohen at Marginal Revolution on Civil War reparations and economic winners and losers. This post was largely prompted by my efforts to check my own facts in a response to that post, and this research involved has significantly modified my understanding of the post-Civil War role of the planter elite in the development of the "New South". This research also filled in the blanks of unanswered questions I had had about the impact that gender imbalance had on marriage in the Reconstruction era in a surprising way. It is really astonishing how resilient marriage institutions were in this era.
Male Serial Monogamy Resolved The Post-War Shortage Of Men
About 18% of white men in the South aged 13 to 43 died in the American Civil War (1861-1865) and Reconstruction, and many more were crippled as a result, for example, with amputated limbs. Yet, by 1890, there was no excess in the number of women never married in the South.
An open access article from 2010 tells much of the story (pdf version here).*
There were isolated incidents of bigamy. Some isolated women also married across racial lines. But, both of these responses were extremely uncommon. About 7% of women never married at all, but this is barely elevated over the roughly 5% of each gender that never marries in ordinary times, so the widely expected epidemic of spinsterhood didn't occur either.
What did happen?
Southern women married during the war and then stayed widowed.
First and most importantly, women married Confederate soldiers at a frenzied pace during the war, so that they were widows rather than spinsters after the war. Few of these widows remarried.
Approximately one in five southern-born women aged 40–49 in the South were currently widowed in 1880, compared with just one in nine among northern-born women. [A] county-level map of widowhood in 1880, highlights quite clearly the sectional impact of the war on subsequent widowhood. The prevalence of widows in the South appears to be concentrated around urban areas and along the Mississippi River, suggesting a degree of geographic mobility among widows to areas offering greater access to wage labor and social support networks and higher overall mortality rates in counties adjacent to the river.
Percentage of White Women from 40 to 59 Years Old Currently Widowed, 1880 Census.
Does the large percentage of Southern widowers hide more than it reveals?
This key point does call for a second more piercing look at some point in the future, however.
The fact that Civil War widows often did not remarry (20% or more in much of the South to more than 40% of women in many counties along the Mississippi River aged 40-59 being currently widowed in many Southern counties in 1880 and about a third of Southern women in this age backet as whole), may conceal the most interesting parts of the story, however.
A large share of these widows would have married during the Civil War and lost their husband's in the process. A good guess would be that about 5%-6% of widows in this age group in the North and South alike were non-war widows (based on the ratio of the percentage of white men lost to the Civil War in each region). War widows, in turn, probably made up about half of Northern widows in this age group, and about three-quarters of widows in this age group in the South, but more like 80%-90% of widowed women in urban areas along the Mississippi River.
The phenomenal rise in the number of not currently married women participating in the market economy and wage labor in the Reconstruction era and the couple of decades that follow probably represents a high water mark of female labor force participation until World War II and then again until the 1970s with the sexual revolution (see also, e.g. here). Surely, there was more tolerance of female participation in the market economy and wage labor force in the South then than at any previous point in American history. Otherwise, these widows would have starved and died.
But, it seems doubtful that a 20% to 40%+ of the women in these Southern countries stayed universally celibate for decades, even though they did not remarry, and it would be interesting to see statistics on child bearing by widows in this time period to corroborate that inference. Few war brides could have had more than two or three children during the war, and many would have had just one or none. But, I suspect that many of these women had children after their husbands died in the war.
Perhaps many of these women in the age range of 40 to 59 were celibate by the time that they were entering menopause (as many of them were at that point), but most women who were widows in the 1880 census had been widows for at least 15 years, since they were 25 to 44 years old and decidedly fertile. Then again, the combined life expectancy at birth for men and women combined in the 1860 census, before the war, for whites in the U.S. as a whole was just 43.6 years and didn't break 50 for whites until the 1900 census.
Yes, total fertility rates (i.e. roughly speaking, the average number of children to whom a woman gives birth in a lifetime) declined from 1860 to 1870 to 1880. But, this was part of an overall secular trend, even if the decline was somewhat steeper from 1860 to 1870 than in the decades before or after those time periods. Even at the height of the Baby Boom, fertility did not return to even the levels of 1900. While the end of the Baby Boom and "sexual revolution" are often attributed to the advent of oral contraceptives and other modern contraceptive devices, total fertility rates in 1970 were very similar to what they had been in 1930, by 1990 total fertility rates were back on the secular trendline. Total fertility fell by 4.59 births per woman per lifetime from 1800 to 1930, gradually each decade, without the assistance of modern contraceptives. (Similarly, the germ theory of disease started to dramatically reduce mortality rates from infectious diseases long before antibiotics or vaccines were widely available.)
The total fertility rate in the United States for white women in 1800 was 7.04, about the norm for third world women in Afghanistan and the poorer parts of Africa today. For white women, it has declined every decade thereafter, without fail, through 1940 (when it reached 2.22) until it increased with the baby boom in 1950 (2.98) and again in 1960 (3.54), and then declined steadily again to an all time low in 1980 (1.77) and recovered in 1990 and 2000 (to 2.05). Generally speaking, black women followed the same trend through 1990 (except for a slight upward blip in 1870 after emancipation), but total fertility for black women declined in 2000 for black women and increased for white women in that year. Since 2000, the total fertility rate for white women surpassed that of black women for the first time in U.S. history for which reliable government statistics are available.
The authors of the current study dismiss the possibility that unacknowledged interracial relationships resolved the celibacy issue in the following well sourced passage (citations omitted):
Southerner Anna Bragg related to her husband news of a widower with three children remarrying and also described the wedding of Captain Paine to Miss Mary Frincks. “Some say he has a wife and child living,” Anna Bragg noted. A Union chaplain turned down the request of a woman who “had the hardihood to ask me to marry her to a man who confesses that he has a wife in Reading Pa. and who says his wife has had a ‘nigger baby’ since he came to the army,”
After the war, white southerners responded to interracial marriage with violence. In 1870 Frances Harper, who had been an abolitionist, described a conversation with a black man whose son had “married a white woman, or girl, and was shot down, and there was, as I understand, no investigation by the jury; and a number of cases have occurred of murders, for which the punishment has been very lax, or not at all … ."
Widespread fears that emancipation would increase the incidence of interracial sexual encounters led states to pass more laws prohibiting interracial marriage “during the Civil War and Reconstruction than in any comparably short period.” The deaths of so many young men during the war probably contributed to such fears. John Blassingame, for example, has argued that the death of white men in the war led to a postwar increase in sexual contacts between white women and black men in New Orleans. The number of interracial unions no doubt remained quite small. Although instances of interracial marriage and cohabitation occurred during Reconstruction in numbers large enough to suggest some initial level of toleration from white neighbors, the vast majority of white women—confronted with the possibility of violence, rigid enforcement of miscegenation laws, and the vast social distance between themselves and black men—married white men.A culture of covert interracial and non-marital sexual relationships with white widows that did not extend to vaginal intercourse during fertile periods, particularly in Mississippi River towns, seems very likely.
A substantial number of those widows may have not remarried because there were social welfare benefits to being a war widow that could not be secured in the event of a remarriage (as well as greater levels of control over a late husband's property and greater tolerance of participation in the labor force by widows), rather like the tendency of divorced alimony recipients who have significant others to not remarry so as not to jeopardize that means of economic support. A discussion of this for Union widows is found here. Widows and orphans are more sympathetic beneficiaries of charity and government largess than married women and their husband's stepchildren.
Sugar Daddies, Cougars and Lower Standards
Second, while marriage prospects for women who were widowed were poor, marriage prospects for widowers and poor men in that era were very good relative to the situation before the war.
Single women much more frequently married widowers (who unlike widows, rarely remained single), or deferred marriage and then became "cougars" pursuing men younger than themselves (taking advantage of the fact that as a result of population growth, younger cohorts were larger than older ones).
The standards that made a man worth marrying had been relaxed out of necessity. So, young Southern women married carpetbaggers from the North despite the negative social association of doing so, disabled war veterans who would have had trouble getting married in other eras, poor landless men who also would have previously had poor marriage prospects, and older men who might otherwise have never married at all because of the social failings that kept them single when they were younger.
Southern women aged 20–24 in 1870 were more likely to be married to a younger man (the percentage who did so increased from 6.4 percent in 1860 to 8.6 percent in 1870) or a much older man (up from 6.4 to 8.0 percent). Southern women aged 20–24 were also more likely to be married to a man born in a northern census region (up from 4.8 percent in 1860 to 5.6 percent in 1870), a foreign-born man (up from 2.4 to 3.1 percent), or a man with little or no real estate wealth (up from 58.4 to 67.2 percent).Some Southern women in occupied areas married Union soldiers and returned to the North with their new husbands. Some Southern women moved West where there was a shortage of women.
Some of these coping patterns weren't new. Even before the war, population growth created a 23%-25% surplus of white women aged 20-24 in the South over white men aged 25-29 who were their typical marriage partners, due in part to a growing population that made younger cohorts larger than older ones.
Subsequent marriages of widowers, together with low remarriage rates for widows, rather than polygamy, was the long standing mechanism for balancing a shortage of never married men relative to never married women in the South. The American South's iconic role of the "Sugar Daddy", a wealthy older man who takes up with a much younger woman, was a necessary lynch pin of social stability for decades.
One point about sources for social history in this article is also notable. The nation, Northern and Southern alike, kept copious diaries and journals during the Civil War itself, which was seen as an obviously important historic moment. But, when the war ended in horrible losses and hardship after the war, Southern diary and journal keeping declined dramatically. The fad ended and with it ended intimate access to a great deal of social history for that period.
Social Class After the Civil War
Some accounts of the Reconstruction era and the "New South" focus on the extent to which plantation owners lost their land to Northern bankers. This certainly happened in many places and did displace planter elites in places where this aristocracy was already relatively marginal by Southern standards. But, more comprehensive accounts reveal that in places where the planter elite was powerful in the first place, that this elite was able to maintain de facto economic and political dominance through their land ownership despite the fact that they no longer owned slaves.**
Where these elites were strongest and retained control, the effects are visible into the 1960s. These areas:
* more swiftly returned to plantation style cash crop farming while discouraging subsistence farming and other kinds of economic development,
* replaced slave labor with a "gang labor" system,
* successfully discouraged and retarded the implementation of widespread and advanced public education leading to higher illiteracy levels but also less dissent from their agenda,
* retaliated against black elected officials at much higher rates than the 10% rate for the Reconstruction era South as a whole,
* dominated the constitutional conventions that drew up state constitutions during and after Reconstruction,
* maintained relatively high land prices,
* offered blacks protection from lynchings (which were less common in these areas), improved housing and improved medical care, in exchange for greater productivity and refraining from political opposition to them,
* had higher proportions of black tenant farmers, and
* were much poorer than areas where planter elites had been less dominant.
Planter elite policies of eschewing widespread public education and non-plantation economic development left areas resulted in areas with above average relative planter elite wealth in 1860 having for each two standard deviations in increased relative wealth, 7% lower productivity at the turn of the century and 23% lower productivity by 1950.
Those areas where the planter elite were most dominant before the war clung to that less productive economic business model, while areas where the planter elite was weaker before the war managed to rebuild themselves into the more productive business model of the "New South".
* J. David Hacker, Libra Hilder & James Holland Jones, "The Effect of the Civil War on Southern Marriage Patterns," 76(1) Journal of Southern History 39-70 (Feb. 2010).
** Phillip Ager, "The Persistance of De Facto Power: Elites and Economic Development in the U.S. South, 1840-1960" (November 2012). Another important economic historian's confirmation of this hypothesis is found in Gavin Wright's "Old South, New South" (1986) which is cited by Ager and had been advanced by Wright as early as 1970 in articles by Wright cited by Ager.
See Also These Posts At This Blog:
* Economic Inequality In the 19th Century South (October 24, 2013)
* Modern India Compared To The New South Of The 19th Century (October 16, 2013)
* The Price Of Freedom (February 28, 2013)
* Impressions From Albion's Seed (October 6, 2012)
* Lobbyists for Liberty (November 8, 2011)