Book Review: Marriage on the Border

Marriage on the Border: Love, Mutuality, and Divorce in the Upper South

during the Civil War

By Allison Dorothy Fredette

University Press of Kentucky, 2020, $60 hardcover


Reviewed by Meg Groeling


Allison Dorothy Fredette’s Marriage on the Border: Love, Mutuality, and Divorce in the Upper South during the Civil War is proof that yesterday’s folks behaved as poorly as JLo, ARod, and Ben Affleck. By looking at court records in the border states of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, the author has identified some critical social trends that give readers a better concept of the “homefront” reality for Southern women.

For example, before the 1860s, few unhappy couples actually went through the legality of getting divorced. Instead, elite women went back home to escape cruelty and alcohol abuse, angry that the promise made to “protect and cherish” had been so carelessly tossed aside. Poorer women rarely had this option. Instead, many just endured or sent their children to relatives. As a result, low rates of divorce remained constant throughout the region until about 1866, when men returned from the battlefields of the Civil War. After several years of enforced absence, Southern women realized that they could “get along” without a man. Some preferred that status. Divorce rates rose as more women either left their veteran spouses or asked them to leave. Again, cruelty and alcohol abuse were the most cited reasons.

However, women were not the only victims. Several men brought court divorces against their wives for infidelity. The number of men who had been absent from home for over a year and returned to wives with tiny babies was interesting, as were the number of women who denied their infidelity even while holding the child in question. Other men claimed they were forced to flee their former homes by a wife who had experienced things differently for a few years and was unwilling to turn over total control of the household to a person she barely knew anymore.

Marriage on the Border makes two things very clear: men and women misbehaving is nothing new, and the end of the Civil War was also the end of several marriages and relationships. Author Fredette’s graphs and tables further clarify the situation. These charts, however, bring to light the actual numbers of divorces and divorce cases examined in the book. How many? Very few. For instance, on p. 157, a table of the number of divorce petitions before the war by Virginia counties never goes higher than 48. The average of the six counties is only 18.7. After the war, the statistics change. The average among the counties is 32.07, but the range of actual cases goes from 65 (Franklin County) to 7 (Amelia County). A look at similar tables for other states also has low numbers of divorce petitions. Unfortunately, Fredette never tells readers what the percentage of divorces is compared to the number of marriages, so there is no way to tell (from this book) just what percent of the county’s marriages actually failed.

In 2021, readers are used to large population numbers. That Amelia County, VA only went from 2 to 7 divorce petitions sounds minimal–nothing a judge couldn’t arbitrate by lunchtime. Is this because the actual populations were so small or because most marriages found ways to resolve differences? Of course, readers will have questions, but this aside, Marriage on the Border is a compelling look at how the war impacted romantic relationships. Even with all the math, it is a “sweet read.” Some incidents ring all too true for today, and some that make the reader laugh out loud. “How did she NOT see that coming??” is one of my go-to comments for several of the divorces. I recommend this book for those interested in the Confederate homefront and women’s history. There are no red or blue lines–just a little sorrow and some humorous moments in the lives of those whom we claim as ancestors. Little has changed.

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