“Days of lightly-won and lightly-held hearts”: Civil War Courtships

In the closing months of the Civil War, Kate Stone, a Louisiana planter’s daughter turned Texas refugee, commented on the ways in which the war had changed the courtship patterns of elite southerners. According to Stone, wartime courtships, especially with soldiers, were “just a piece of amusement on both sides,” and both men and women casually formed engagements that they had no intention of honoring. While Kate and “most of the girls” of her acquaintance accepted and even welcomed such temporary wartime romances, her mother, in keeping with antebellum customs in which courtship was intended to lead to marriage, believed that her daughter intended to marry one of the soldiers who danced attendance on her. The younger woman scoffed at the notion, explaining, “One must not distress a soldier by saying No when he is on furlough. They have enough to bear. They may be going back to sudden death.” Romantic entanglements as a form of Confederate loyalty did not, however, necessitate marriage. Rather, Stone explained that soldiers were fickle creatures: “They will most probably forget you for a sweetheart at the next camp, or their love will grow cool by the time you meet again.” The young women who welcomed soldiers’ attentions were equally inconstant; one of Kate’s friends made “a partial engagement” that she had no intention of keeping. As the war came to an end, however, Kate and her friends recognized that the casual relationships of wartime must come to an end as well. “We decided that the girls would all have to change their war customs, stop flirting, and only engage themselves when they really mean something,” she stated firmly. “The days of lightly-won and lightly-held hearts should be over.”

In my recent book, Scarlett’s Sisters, I challenged the notion that the Civil War, which drew so many southern men into the armed forces, reduced elite women’s ability to find husbands. Instead, I suggested, the Civil War offered young women greater scope to reject unwanted suitors and pursue “single blessedness.” In addition to granting women increased independence as single women, the Civil War also increased women’s personal freedom within romantic relationships. The Civil War changed courtship customs in several important ways. The disruptions of the war years forced elite parents to relax the customs of chaperonage. As a result, elite men and women interacted in a more relaxed atmosphere than in the antebellum era. A surge of southern nationalism encouraged the adoption of a new set of standards for suitors as well. Family connections and personal wealth became less important, while military service and Confederate fervor became more important. Young women thus encountered – and formed relationships with – men from a wider range of backgrounds than in the pre-war years. As Kate Stone’s comments suggested, courtship conventions also became less strict in the Civil War years. Young women flirted shamelessly with southern soldiers and formed secret—and short-lived engagements with them. Taken together, these changes granted elite young women in the Civil War South considerably more latitude in courtship than they had possessed prior to the war. This paper uses the published and unpublished diaries, letters, and albums of well-to-do white women in the Civil War South to explore the ways in which the war “weirded” courtship, increasing young women’s personal liberty within the context of heterosexual romance.

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