Sunday, June 16, 2013

Civil War Sunday - The Fathers

 A reworking of my Civil War Sunday Post of Father's Day, 2011.  

Have you ever thought about Civil War figures as fathers?  Enough of them were.  And, fatherhood was and was not like being a father today.

1.  Infant mortality was high, and even if your child made it past infancy, the father was rare who did not lose at least one child in childhood or young adulthood.
2.  Fathers could forbid their daughters from marrying a prospective suitor - but then, it didn't always mean the daughter would obey. (and, obey was the word for that cultural context.) Jefferson Davis faced this decision with his daughter, Winnie, when she fell in love with a Yankee, the grandson of an abolitionist.  And, just like today, sometimes parents must watch their children as adults come to tragic ends.
3.  Then as now, many fathers had to be absent from home frequently, leaving their wives to be both mother and father.  (this hasn't changed, sadly, as many spouses hold down the "Home Fort" while spouses serve in the military - both men and women).
4.  Many fathers found themselves as single fathers when their wives died in childbirth. The solution, in many cases, was to marry again as quickly as possible.
5.  Although losing children was a fact of life, it caused great sorrow to the grieving parents.  Sometimes they didn't recover.  (One example, Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of Abraham Lincoln.)  There was not much that could be done in those days for depression.

The following information is taken in part from "After The War-The Lies and Images of Major Civil War Figures After the Shooting Stopped" by David Hardin.  

Abraham and Mary Lincoln had four sons.  Only two outlived their father.  One beloved son, Willie, died while Abraham Lincoln was in the White House and both Abraham and Mary took the death very hard.  (Abraham Lincoln's oldest son Robert Todd Lincoln grew up to be a Secretary of War under President James Garfield, who himself was a Major General on the Union side of the Civil War. R. Todd Lincoln witnessed Garfield's assassination. No, you can't make this stuff up.)  Lincoln has no direct descendents alive today (the last one died in 1985) but does have living cousins, including actor Tom Hanks.

Jefferson Davis and his wife Varina had six children, four boys and two girls.  None of the boys outlived their parents.  Jefferson Davis' son Joseph, died at the age of five in April of 1864 from injuries suffered in a fall from the Confederate Executive Mansion.  Jefferson Davis does have living descendents.

William Tecumseh Sherman and his wife, Ellen, had four children.  As with Lincoln and Davis, Sherman lost a son, Willie (was this a bad luck name?) in 1863 at the age of nine. (There is interesting speculation concerning how this impacted Sherman.)  A third son, born in 1864, died at the age of six months. Still another son, Tom, became a Jesuit priest but later descended into insanity and died in Louisiana.  Quoting from "After the War":  "The son of the despoiler of Georgia lies in the Jesuit cemetery in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, next to the Jesuit grandnephew of Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy's vice-president."

And finally, Robert E. Lee. Robert E. Lee and his wife Mary Custis Lee (George Washington's granddaughter) had seven children.  Unlike the other major figures above, Lee's children all lived into adulthood.  One, Custis Lee (a Major General in the Confederate Army), lived into his 80's.  Lee does have living descendents today (as does his Union counterpart, General U.S. Grant.)

On today, Father's Day, we should all be thankful that modern medicine spares many modern parents what these people of 150 years ago had to go through as fathers (and mothers).

If you are interested in the living descendents of various Civil War figures, this is a good source.


  1. Very interesting! Thanks for the history lesson. Enjoyed it very much. Best Regards, Wendy UBC

  2. What a timely reminder to those of us who are walking through a situation similar to those you described here. Tragically, many men (and women) walk away from their families/children/spouses rather than taking up a noble or patriotic cause.

  3. Very timely post and a good reminder that life has always been difficult and single parenthood is not a modern invention.

  4. Times must have been so hard back in the old days. I can't imagine losing a tiny baby or toddler. It must be so sad. And depression killed anyone unfortunate enough to suffer. We are so lucky nowadays.

  5. So tragic that these parents had to experience that kind of loss.

  6. I never thought of the men who fought during the Civil War as fathers in the ways that you pointed out. Fathers during that era had to give up a lot more than they do now.

  7. Great post! I hadn't even thought of a lot of your points! Times were hard, I can't even imagine being an orphan/ losing a child! Awful !

  8. Interesting post and great link at the end. As usual, I find myself wishing there were more hours in the day....

  9. Alana,
    Fascinating stuff! I had no idea that Tom Hanks was a cousin to Pres. Lincoln. I would imagine that parents who were able to raise their children in those days into their adulthood probably felt very blessed, indeed. We take so much for granted these days, don't we?


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