How common were divided loyalties in the Civil War among American families, and what issues did this pose for reconciliation?

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Answered by: Diane, An Expert in the Civil War Category
Divided Loyalties in the Civil War: Brother Against Brother

“Brother against brother” is a term that not only described the North and South citizens divided in the Civil War, but also is a deeper symbolic phrase that represented families at odds with each other – brother against brother, father against son, siblings and in-laws against each other, and even wives against husbands. As the nation divided, so did many families, as they grappled with divided loyalties and conflicting ideologies on the home front. Many families fought a war on two fronts.

Origin of the American Family Unit

The ideal of the model family evolved from the American Revolution, with aspects of Republican motherhood and raising ideal citizens for the nation complementing the model. These cohesive, honorable, and loyal units were not meant to divide; but then again, the country was not meant to divide either. With the family unit held in such high societal esteem, it is little wonder that the Civil War rent asunder not only the United States, but also the foundation of its society: the family unit.

Issues Faced by Divided Families with Conflicting Loyalties and Ideologies

Despite countless accounts of bitter protestations of disownment, fierce and angry accusations, and highly contentious situations that tore rifts in many families, many families never simply abandoned each other, even at the beginning of the war, regardless of the existence of conflicting ideologies within the home front. This was particularly true of border state families, where much of the most gruesome and grueling battles occurred, driving home the devastation and tragedy of war. Regardless of political and ideological chasms, the knowledge alone of the possibility that their relatives were being maimed and killed helped outweigh even the strongest of divided loyalties in the Civil War.

Common Patterns of Divided Loyalties in the Civil War

It is difficult to ascertain a predictable pattern in families whose loyalties divided. Studies and surveys have attempted to collect certain demographical information in antebellum America to determine patterns and statistics, such as birthplace and longevity of residence. However, the best that can be garnered from this information is common patterns, but never predictable. In divisions between father and son, the predominant pattern was the Unionist father and the Rebel son. Brother against brother, literally, was more common than some Civil War material might imply. Countless families, even notable or prominent ones, were afflicted with some degree of division. Mary Todd Lincoln had four brothers and three brothers-in-law (one a general) in the Confederate army. Of the Todd family sons, only one served in the Union. Of the Todd family daughters, five were loyal to the Union and four supported the Confederacy.

Aside from brother against brother, and father against son, were other similar situations, although usually less contentious than the household males pitted against each other. There are many accounts of wives opposed to husbands, sisters turning around or removing pictures of their brothers viewed as fighting on the “wrong” side, a husband who had his wife committed to insane asylum because of her opposing views, and many who sent relatives off to great distances. This latter situation was common as spouses and relatives were sent to distant places or relatives’ homes, even overseas, sometimes not just for safety but also because of the embarrassment of divided loyalties in the household.

Reconciliation of Divided Families in the Civil War

In the Reconstruction era, as the nation began healing, so did divided families, as they forgave, compromised, and healed the many wounds. Many families proved to be remarkably resilient, as the nation also proved to be. Some attempted to keep some peace during the war, some began during the war to mend fences, some would be unable to make peace after the war, and still others would never reconcile. The numerous families affected by these divided loyalties in the Civil War would endure and often reconcile, albeit be forever changed, as was the nation.

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