Celebrating The Trials of Nineteenth Century Motherhood

It’s not groundbreaking to say that mothers during the Civil War played a secondary, supportive role to the men fighting on the front lines of both armies. Without mothers, there would be fewer letters written home about the soldiering experience – fewer primary sources for us historians. We wouldn’t have such moving songs as “Who Will Care For Mother Now?” and “Somebody’s Darling” with the lyrics, “Who’ll tell his mother where the boy died?” But what was it like to be a mother during the nineteenth century? How did they really feel about this huge transition from maiden to mother? As a soon-to-be mother, I find myself more drawn to this little-talked-about experience of the war.

To begin, what did it mean to become a mother prior to the war? Apparently, everything. Prior to the industrial era and reform movements of the late-nineteenth century, women were expected to marry, have children, and remain within the domestic/private sphere. With notable exceptions, family life seemed to be the destiny of most women in America.[1] While these women were once girls, trained from a young age to accept this destiny, how did they really feel about becoming mothers? Was it always a happy occasion or did they harbor some reservations about the event? In an age when simple medical complications meant life and death for mother and infant, it’s not surprising that expectant mothers would be hesitant, even fearful of the birthing experience. Persis Sibley Andrews wrote in 1847 during her final trimester that her “feelings are peculiar – as I anticipate the bright future… I am filled with the most lively emotions of joy – aye delight in the prospect, but I have suffered much in the last four weeks & often find myself indulging in forebodings of evil” regarding the possibility of ill health following labor, or death.[2] Pain in childbirth, something that contemporary women can escape through epidurals, was a guarantee for Victorian women unless they chose to take the risk of using chloroform to dull the agony. And due to a lack of understanding on how to properly combat infections, even a smooth birth can end in maternal death.[3]

Expectant mothers were never alone in the process, however. Andrews remarked later in her journal, “It has been a matter of surprise with me that so much interest has been manifested by the ladies – every married lady in the village having called since I was confined – all classes – ten or twelve who never called before.”[4] In the South, the birth of a new child and the continuation of the family line was a cause for celebration and mothers were supported by other female family members. Even husbands took their wife’s confinement (the equivalent of modern-day maternity leave) seriously, believing that their comfort and presence would be a steadying force during the birth.[5] Women in labor were attended by either a doctor or (perhaps more often in rural areas) a midwife and the birth would almost always take place within their home. Maternal wards at hospitals would not come until well after the Civil War, leaving homebirths as the only option.

For some mothers, they would need that support as they braced for the likelihood of losing their child. Again, because of the lack of advancement in the understanding of illnesses and the near-absence of vaccinations (crude smallpox vaccines were available) infant mortality was rampant during the nineteenth century.[6] The deadliness of common childhood illnesses caused many mothers great anxiety. Some mothers were dealt a cruel hand and lost more babies than they had in living children. One bereaved mother wrote in 1832, “The order of nature seems strangely reversed. Those who should have followed me to my long home have gone before. The Lord has taken faster than he gave them to me.”[7] Mothers turned to the support of their families and their religion to reconcile with the death of a child or infant.

So what if the mother and baby make it through pregnancy, childbirth, and the first nerve-wracking years of infancy? Raising a child in the nineteenth century and all the complications it came with are not so different than the present times. Though many mothers nowadays have unlimited access to educational resources on how to raise healthy, happy children, mothers of the Victorian age were at a disadvantage according to Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She writes, “Though motherhood is the most important of all professions, – requiring more knowledge than any other department in human affairs, – yet there is no sufficient attention given to the preparation for this office.”[8] Instead, women were expected to instinctively know what to do with a baby. Stanton recalled that she read everything she could find on taking care of a baby and child, though she encountered a similar problem that modern mothers have to face: unsolicited advice, which may sometimes be outdated or inaccurate. She especially struggled with one nurse who refused to change her opinions on the practice of “bandaging” an infant so that the malleable bones of the spine did not become disfigured or fall apart altogether.[9] As time and medical science tell, bandaging is completely unnecessary, but Stanton’s nursemaid refused to believe otherwise. Parents reading this blog may recall instances when they, too, were given outdated advice on childrearing.

Nursing – as today – became a popular point of contention between professionals and mothers alike. While today we have the argument of breastfeeding vs. formula, for Victorian women, the argument was whether to breastfeed their own babies or allow a wet nurse to do it for them. There were even mixed opinions on the frequency and safety of breastfeeding. In one book on the subject, Eugene Bouchut cautioned mothers to have “the interest of the nursling at heart, take care of themselves, and not exhaust their strength by too frequent lactation.”[10] Every mother of that age was encouraged to breastfeed their children, but circumstances did not always make this practice perfect. Some mothers did not have the strength or ability to nurse their own children. As some mothers in modern times have experienced, their supply was insufficient to keep the baby healthy. A maternal illness was said to contaminate breast milk and make it dangerous for mothers to breastfeed. It would be at this point that many mothers resorted to wet nurses, either upon the advice of other mothers or upon their own decision.[11]

First Born by Gustave Leonard de Jonghe, 1863.

Elite women of the South often resorted to allowing enslaved mothers to nurse their babies. For some, the idea of allowing a black woman to nurse a white baby was taboo. Along with imparting nutrition to the child, it was thought that breastmilk transmitted “moral and racial essences” and allowing a non-white woman to breastfeed a white baby aroused “fears of contamination” and became a strong argument to not allow enslaved women to nurse.[12] However, necessity, ill-health, and cultural tradition sometimes overpowered these points and many plantation mistresses or even middle-class Southerners would either force enslaved mothers to suckle their babies or put up advertisements for their services in newspapers. In the latter case, the position of the wet nurse was open to any women needing the work, including other ethnic minorities or “wayward” or “fallen” women who had recently had a child and could supply enough milk for two.[13] Sometimes, health, supply, or ability contributed less to the decision to hire a wet nurse than vanity or personal interests. Breastfeeding can be considered a full-time job for new mothers and employing a wet nurse, whether free or enslaved, allowed them greater mobility and independence. Mattie Logan, the daughter of an enslaved wet nurse, remarked that the practice “was a pretty good idea for the Mistress, for it didn’t keep her tied to the place and she could visit around with her friends most any time she wanted ‘thout having to worry if the babies would be fed or not.”[14]

Above all, Victorian women were admonished to align themselves with the typical notion of womanhood, to practice, “gentleness, patience, and love” in the care of their children. Lydia Maria Child, a noted abolitionist, wrote that mothers should always “govern her own feelings, and keep her heart and conscience pure,” and that mothers “take the entire care of her own child.”[15] She, like many other professionals of the time, advised mothers to not give in to emotional impulses and be proficient in self-regulation for the sake of their children. Today, we can see this advice as a great goal, but not always obtainable, because mothers are still human and not the angelic beings they were supposed to emulate every waking hour. For many mothers, especially in the patriarchal South, the tough job of disciplinarian fell to their husbands and they would be present to coddle and comfort in their role as nurturers, leaving their ethereal reputation intact.[16] Regardless, the loss of a mother was a tremendous blow to the family dynamics. One adult planter who grieved the loss of his mother wrote, “the loss of a tender and pious mother at such a tender age is always irreparable.”[17]

The Young Mother by Charles West Cope, 1845

So, how did the Civil War change the role of motherhood? As their world was thrown into conflict, the act of bringing a child into it was loaded with new fears and anxieties. Not only would giving birth be painful and risk the lives of both mother and child (in the worst-case scenario) the future had to be considered. What if their husbands died in the war? How would she support the baby and children without the patriarch of their family? Most women – ideally – had the support of friends and family to fall on, but even the security of this support system could be jeopardized by war. In the South, financial hardships and the possibility of losing their enslaved labor that could support having large families (losing the Mammy) could especially deter women from having more children. One Louisiana woman penned a peculiar blessing to her newly married cousin, “I wish you peace, security, and happiness, and few children in this time of war.”[18] By the 1860s, forms of contraception allowed women some control over their reproductive choices. Though imperfect, these practices could relieve the minds of nervous wives who either did not want to risk birthing a child or could not afford to. For those women who did fall pregnant, they lamented the possibility that their soldier husbands would not be present for the birth. Morgan Callaway, a chaplain in Virginia, tried to assuage his wife’s demands that he obtain a furlough for the birth of their child by trying to compare her suffering to that of the men he ministered. “I know you suffer. But dearest, could you see, as I see daily hundreds of sick men, burning with fever… tortured with pain,… you would see that your suffering was light.”[19a] Morgan eventually gave in to his wife’s wishes and requested a furlough, but was denied. Leila Calloway gave birth to a baby boy in November 1862 without the emotional support of her husband. Her plight was likely shared with thousands of other mothers, who had not envisioned themselves to be so alone during their deliverance.

Even those wartime mothers who managed to “dodge the bullet” of dealing with a new pregnancy may have had to cope with an established brood of their own as they sent their men off to war. Another woman who remained childless through the war remarked, “I think any one who is free from the ‘little animals’ can scarcely be thankful enough in these days of war. It is hard enough for a woman to take care of herself, without assistance.”[20] Southern women in particular would have to take on the role of both mother and father, to be the nurturer and the administer of discipline to her children. Not every mother took this new role in stride, admitting to their husbands that the children “are about to run me crazy” and that disciplining their children was “no fun to me.”[21] Others were honest that they were “a miserable manager of children.”[22]

After the war, for the South, motherhood changed dramatically, even for the former elite class. Gertrude Thomas and her husband suffered from insurmountable debt and hardships, enough that when her newborn child died, she wrote, “if I could have [the baby] back again I would not.” Even though they had three more children after the war, the addition to their household did not elicit the same joy as it once might have before the war. Thomas lamented about her husband’s attitude that “he has so morbid a dread of our having more mouths to feed, and little feet to cover that he chills my womanly heart and makes me untrue to my better nature.”[23] Women who were trained since childhood to believe that their whole existence and purpose of living was wrapped up in maternal bliss, mentally struggled with the new “normal.” The promise of continuing the family line was no longer a priority for those who were still adjusting to their new post-war existence, fraught with financial insecurity.[24]

Of course, it almost goes without saying that mothers, just as much as wives, sisters, and daughters, were impacted by the war in devastating ways. Just as mothers dreaded the death of a newborn or young child, they dreaded receiving that condolence letter in the mail or seeing their son’s name on a list of casualties in the newspaper. Herds of elderly women draped in black mourning gowns became a common sight across America as the death toll rose between 1861 and 1865.

The life of a Victorian-age mother was blessed with indescribable joys and maternal fulfillment, and equally haunted by the threat of grief at nearly every stage of their journey. When compared to the role of mothers in today’s world, it looks like we have it much easier, though our society comes with its own unique challenges and debates. To go back to work or stay at home. To breastfeed or rely on formula. To vaccinate or not to vaccinate. Let the kids have ice cream before bed or risk a temper tantrum. While the women of today have so many more options available to them, mothers of the nineteenth century and the twenty-first century are not so different as they both strived to love and do what was best for their children with what they had.

So today, let the mothers in your life know that you appreciate their silent struggles and what they do on a daily basis.

“Maternal Admiration” by Bouguereau (1869) captures the idealized beauty of Motherhood.


[1] Catherine Clinton, The Plantation Mistress: Women’s World in the Old South, (Pantheon Books, 1982), p. 38-40, 46

[2] Persis Sibley Andrews Black Journals, 1847, Main Historical Society – Quoted in Erna Olafson Hellerstein, Leslie Parker Hume, and Karen M. Offen, ed., Victorian Women: A Documentary Acount of Women’s Lives in Nineteenth-Century England, France, and the United States, (Stafford University Press, 1981), p. 218-219

[3] Clinton, p. 40, 154, 151

[4] Andrews, p. 219

[5] Clinton, p. 153, 154

[6] Clinton, p. 156

[7] Margaret Brashear to Frances Brashear, July 10, 1832, Brashear-Lawrence Papers, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill – Quoted in Clinton, p. 156

[8] Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences, 1815-1897 (New York, 1898), p. 112

[9] Ibid, p. 115-116

[10] Eugene Bouchut, Practical Treatise on the Diseases of Children and Infants at the Breast, tr. Peter Huickes Bird, F.R.C.S. (London, 1855), p. 12, originally published in Paris in 1845.

[11] Clinton, p. 156; Alfred Donne, Mothers and Infants, Nurses and Nursing (Boston, 1859), p. 48-50

[12] Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, (Yale University Press, 2019), p. 103

[13] Ibid, p. 105, 109-110

[14] Mattie Logan, George P. Rawick, ed. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Vol. 7: Oklahoma Narratives, (Westport, Conn. 1972), p. 187

[15] Lydia Maria Child, The Mother’s Book, 2nd edition (Boston, 1831), p. 4

[16] Clinton, p. 40

[17] Larkin Newby Autobiography, 1:11, SHC

[18] Quoted in Drew Gilpin Faust, Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War, (Vintage Books, 1996), p. 129

[19a] Morgan Callaway to Leila Callaway, May 7, 1862, Callaway Papers, Special Collections Department, Robert E. Woodruff Library, Emory University, Atlanta, GA – Quoted in Faust, p. 128-129

[20] Emma Crutcher to Will Crutcher, December 28, 1861, Crutcher-Shannon Papers, Center for American History, University of Texas, Austin, TX – Quoted in Faust, p. 129

[21] Mary Bell to Alfred Bell, May 22, 1862, Bell Papers, Manuscript Department, William R. Perkins Library, Duke University, Durham, N.C. – Quoted in Faust, p. 130

[22] Ellen Moore to Samuel Moore, May 1, 1863, Moore Papers, SHC

[23] Quoted in Stephanie McCurry, Women’s War: Fighting and Surviving the American Civil War, (Harvard University Press, 2019), p. 189

[24] Curry, p. 190

2 Responses to Celebrating The Trials of Nineteenth Century Motherhood

  1. Great article on a subject not often discussed with relation to the war. Thank you for your insights.

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