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  • "If Heart Speaks Not to Heart"Condolence Letters and Confederate Widows' Grief
  • Ashley Mays (bio)

On May 6, 1863, Leila Habersham strolled through her wealthy family's well-tended garden in Savannah, Georgia, chatting with a friend. A shout from the nearby house shattered the calm. Running home, Leila discovered terrible news—her husband was dead. Confederate lieutenant Frederic Habersham had been struck in the head by a shell fragment at the Battle of Chancellorsville and was killed instantly. For the next few weeks, Leila went through the motions of mourning in a daze; even the funeral seemed but a blur. As the shock began to wear off, she clung to one particular form of comfort: the flood of letters that poured in over the ensuing weeks. The funeral service and black crepe might have been more visible signs of mourning, yet Leila selected these letters as representative of her own loss, each one saved, reread, and pasted with the others as the highlight of her memorial to Fred—a memoir.1

The letters Leila Habersham saved were primarily condolence letters, a highly stylized form of writing intended to comfort the recently bereaved. This article will examine changes in both literary form and message of condolence letters written to Confederate widows immediately after their husbands died during the American Civil War. Popular in the rising postal culture of the antebellum era, particularly among the well-to-do, condolence letter writing relied on sentimental rhetoric and religious arguments to sympathize with the bereaved and promote spiritual growth. Yet some of the letters within Leila's memoir hinted at an evolution in condolence letter format. As the American Civil War tore loved ones apart, white southerners of all backgrounds participated in condolence letter correspondence and adapted the format to the needs of war.2 Nurses, soldiers, and other witnesses at the front wrote to express sympathy but also to communicate with brevity the practical details of deaths that occurred far from home. Notification letters, as this article terms the new format, took on a different tone and duty and therefore also developed a different approach to grief, one that emphasized the memory of the dead. As deaths increased over the [End Page 377] course of the war, notification letters overtook the condolence letter format through sheer volume, though condolence letters remained popular among upper-class white families on the home front.

Why were these letters so important to widows like Leila Habersham? Certainly the intimate writings quantified the community's love for Fred and Leila, both within the meaning of the words and in the sheer number of letters. Each letter assured Leila of her place within her network of loving family and friends even without her marriage. Yet they also took on another significance: while acknowledging Leila's past love and present tragedy, they provided her a roadmap for the future. Public mourning rituals prescribed widows' outward behavior, but these private letters allowed friends and family to articulate clearly how white southern society expected widows like Leila to feel about their losses.

An interplay between compassion and coercion permeated the carefully written—and carefully read—pages. On the one hand, the intimate and private conversation permitted great freedom of expression to both writer and reader that allowed two individuals to explore the depths of compassion in a time of crisis. Authors could open their hearts and freely express the depths of their grief and their expectations for grieving without fear of public embarrassment. On the other hand, the intimacy and privacy inherent in letter writing also lent coercive power to the instructions the writers offered on how to grieve and interpret loss. Writers were often close family and friends to whom readers, especially widows, might turn for future financial or social support, so widows had vested interests in complying with these recommendations.

Historians have examined condolence letters both as impeccable examples of epistolary writing and as one source among many revealing the experience of war. In many ways, they epitomized the mid-nineteenth-century cultural movement to view letters as an important avenue to maintain personal connections and to share authentic emotional experiences. Condolence letters not only communicated sympathy but also...


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pp. 377-400
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