Civil War Weddings

I’ve shared a couple of posts about the Civil War because I taught history for 35 years, and I still like to learn more about the past. This particular post is about Civil War Weddings. I hope you enjoy it.

In the nineteenth century women had little influence in politics, economics, or education.  A woman’s wedding day was her day to shine even if she didn’t come from a wealthy family.  At no other time in her life would a bride be as important as she was on her wedding day.  

A wedding was also an important social event for communities, especially in the South.  Relatives who lived both near and far away gathered for the joyous event.

Most girls began courting and married somewhere between the ages of 18 to 21 and men by age 23 although some girls married in their early teens.  If a girl remained unmarried much past the age of 23 she was considered to be an old maid.

Just a note here; courting and dating are not the same thing.  The express purpose of courtship was marriage while dating is-at least in the beginning-for fun and amusement.  To court a young woman a man was expected to ask the permission of her father.  It was also expected that his intentions were honorable; that is, marriage minded.  Courtship usually took place in the woman’s home under close supervision.  A couple was rarely left alone.  While gathering information for this article I read one story about a man who was so desperate for a kiss from his beloved that he gave her chaperone a drugged peach to put her to sleep.  

Of course, most people have heard of bundling which sometimes took place in the North.  This was a Dutch custom that involved putting a man and woman into the same bed either fully or partly dressed.  

Our modern system of dating emerged from this tightly structured system of courtship.

I found it interesting that if you lived in the South once a man actually proposed to a girl, it was expected that she turn him down at least twice before she said yes.  I guess she didn’t want to seem too eager-or maybe desperate-but given the nature of courtship it seems like a lot of silliness to me.  

Once an engagement was finalized the couple would sometimes visit family members to extend personal invitations to the wedding.  Engagements were usually short with many less than six months.  During this time the preparations for the wedding were made.  This included the bride’s trousseau. 

The wedding dress itself probably would have surprised you.  Prior to 1840 when Queen Victoria wore a white dress to get married in most wedding dresses were chosen so they could be used as the bride’s best dress after the wedding.  White was expensive and hard to clean, so it was far more practical to marry in a colored dress.  The dress at the top of the page is a purple silk worn by a bride in the year 1863.

Queen Victoria’s dress was made of white satin trimmed with orange flower blossoms and over this a veil of Honiton lace.  The lace was created especially for her, and after the wedding the design was destroyed.  The lace which formed the flounce of the dress was four yards long and three quarters of a yard in depth.  

Naturally, not everyone could afford expensive lace and satin even if Queen Victoria did wear it to “the wedding of the century.”  Here’s a description of the wedding dress worn by a Missouri bride in 1859:   …tight bodice, a necklace neckline and dropped shoulders with flowing sleeves… material used was linsey-woolsey… produced only on American farms and plantations…blocks of dark and light gray… formed stripes around her 5 yard skirt.  The gray was broken by a band of wine colored wool and natural linen stripes alternating.

Some brides wore purple in honor of those who had fallen in battle.

Although brides didn’t often wear white their attendants did.  When Cornelia Jones Pond married in 1853 in Liberty County, Georgia, her attendants wore white silk dresses covered with white tulle, white sashes, gloves and slippers.

The wedding ceremony itself sometimes took place in a church, but people often chose to be married at home.  After the ceremony people partied sometimes for a period of days.  It’s interesting to note that people often married in late spring or in winter to avoid heavy work in the fields.  

After the ceremony it was traditional to have a wedding supper much as we do today.  A typical menu would consist of turkey, ham, bread, biscuits, jellies, cakes, ice cream, gelatin, candy, and fruit.  Again, the poor would not have served such an assortment of dishes.  It’s also worth noting that during the antebellum period wedding cakes weren’t white as they are today.  They were dark fruit cakes.  

Did they have a honeymoon?  Yes, the upper classes did, but the poor usually didn’t.   The trip usually consisted of sightseeing and visiting far off relatives and could last up to several months.  What about gifts?  Some people gave them, but some didn’t.  The war made gift giving in the South extremely difficult. 

During the war itself some things changed.  For one thing it was hard to meet men because everybody was in the army.  Fear of being an old maid caused many girls both North and South to marry men who would have been socially unacceptable in previous days.  Esther Alden who lived in the South said, “One looks at a man so differently when you think he may be killed tomorrow.  Men whom up to this time I had thought dull and commonplace seemed charming.”  

Marriage between Yankees and Southern girls also took place.  Women who refused to walk past an American flag or listen to Northern music could also be seen “arm in arm with dashing lieutenants and captains.”  Their elders mourned this “marrying craze”, but it didn’t stop anyone.  Recuperating soldiers-even amputees-were acceptable as mates.

I bet it was easier for girls to meet possible mates in the South than it was in the North because the war was fought in the South.  The armies were closer.

So, what do you think?  Are modern weddings all that much different?  

I used the following links to collect information for this article if you’d care to read in more detail.

About Elaine Cantrell

Elaine Cantrell was born and raised in South Carolina. She has a Master’s Degree in Personnel Services from Clemson University and is a member of Alpha Delta Kappa, an international honorary sorority for women educators. She is also a member of Romance Writers of America. Her first novel A New Leaf was the 2003 winner of the Timeless Love Contest and was published in 2004 by Oak Tree Press. When she isn't writing you can find Elaine playing with her dog or maybe collecting more vintage Christmas ornaments
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6 Responses to Civil War Weddings

  1. Jeff Salter says:

    Interesting stuff!
    I love history — it was one of my favorite subjects in grades 1-12 and I minored in Hist. in college.
    I think I would have enjoyed being in your class.


  2. Patricia Kiyono says:

    Nice post! History was my minor, and I taught it for one year at the middle school level. I guess that’s why I enjoy writing historical romance. It’s interesting to see how traditions began and how they’ve changed.


  3. Nice! My mother’s mother was married (to her first husband) in 1896/7 Italy. My sister has her wedding dress, which was made of purple and green embossed silk;(the colors are dark and subtle).
    “Bundling”, putting young men and women under quilts together on cold evenings, was common in many northern communities, which generally caused engagements!
    Even here, where there were still many farms, I heard that the priest at the local parish priest up until the 1960s had weddings only on Wednesday mornings so that everyone could get back to farmwork.
    So I guess it depends on where you are as to how things have changed. The biggest problem I see is that people rush into marriage with the idea that “you can always get a divorce”. People generally used to make a more serious choice and committment.


    • Elaine Cantrell says:

      I think you’re right. People always think they can they can get a divorce. They never stop to think how it might affect their family.


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