In just four short years, the American Civil War greatly changed the demographics of the United States. With nearly 620,000 men killed at war, the previous assumption that every woman would one day become a wife began to seem less certain. Marriage was a very important part of the societal structure of American life and most men and women married in their 20s during the 1800s. The changes war would bring were real, however, they were not as dramatic as many expected. The age of marriage for men and women increased slightly during and following the war years, but most Americans would still eventually marry.
19th Century Marriage
In the 19th century, it was not common for young couples to marry, then continue to reside in their parents' homes. Couples were expected to move out and set up independent lives after they married, so the age of marriage for both men and women depended heavily on economic factors. The availability and price of land influenced marriage habits in America. During colonial times, when land was extremely cheap and readily available, most women married at 20 years old, while most men married at 26. By the 1800s, the marriage age had advanced slightly for both sexes, and spinsterhood rates had also increased, however the vast majority of men and women continued to marry in their early 20s.
More men were killed during the American Civil War than the combined number of those killed in every American war that took place from the start of the Revolutionary War through the end of the Korean War. As young American women watched the death and destruction from war surround them, they began to face a very real fear that marriage for their generation might not be as assured as it had been for their mothers. These fears were grounded in the reality that the war was leaving the number of marriage-age men and women dramatically unbalanced. The desire of women to marry quickly led to a wartime marriage boom among young men and women.
Post-War Marriage Realities
Despite fears, the vast majority of women did marry after the war. The 1890 census, taken about 20 years after the war, confirmed that marriage age had increased slightly. Most women who married post-war did so at the age of 23, while most men married at 27. In the hard-hit South, the 1860s saw a lag in marriage rates, but 92 percent of the women who came of marriage age during the war eventually married.
Causes for the Changes in Marriage Patterns
Most explanations for the increase in marriage age during the Civil War credit the change to the disruption of war, and the population changes that resulted. However, other factors also contributed to marriage demographic changes in the United States. The presence of alternatives to marriage made delaying marriage a viable option for many women. Studies have indicated that women married later and less in regions where work for unmarried women was available. Migration patterns also affected marriage rates and ages. For instance, men greatly outnumbered women in the West, leading to frontier women marrying younger, and at higher rates than their eastern counterparts.
- Brand X Pictures/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images