Aged Veterans and Younger Wives
June 19, 2020
Last week I wrote about veterans from America’s earlier wars who still had surviving children decades after the wars ended. Irene Triplett, whose story I mentioned in my last blog, was the daughter of a Civil War veteran; she just died this month in spite of the fact that her father’s service was more than a century and a half ago. Her story got me wondering about the circumstances that might have led to other such cases, particularly ones involving Civil War veterans since there were so many of them. A quick Google search reveals that as recently as 2014, there were a number of surviving children of Civil War soldiers; apparently, Irene Triplett was the last of them. My own family tree includes a number of collateral lines featuring veterans from the Civil War, and I decided to see whether any of them might have fathered children at advanced ages, or at least married late in life.
Although I didn’t find any veterans who fathered children in their old age in my tree, I was surprised to find that at least four men on my tree who were Civil War vets did marry after 1900 when they were older than 70 years. One of my great grand uncles actually married twice after the age of 80! He didn’t manage to father any children with these younger wives, but according to his Civil War pension file, he was not in very good physical condition by the time he married these women. He was nearly blind and deaf and suffered from a severe hernia and had some sort of palsy that caused him to shake so severely that he couldn’t walk for more than a step or two. In spite of this, he was able to find women who agreed to marry him, even though he was forty or so years older than they were. The other three vets in my tree had similar stories.
From our vantage point, it’s hard to imagine what would have caused these relatively young women to marry into circumstances where their lives would have more closely resembled that of a full-time nurse than that of a wife. It’s true that in the early 20th century when most of these marriages occurred, women’s ability to support themselves was restricted. Respectable jobs for women were scarce, and women were trained to expect that their lives’ work would be taking care of men. In the cases in my family, the women were past their first youth and were often widowed or divorced when they married the much-older veteran. Since being a housekeeper was one of the few respectable jobs a woman might take, perhaps some of the women who married these old men, who were often widowers, met when the woman became the man’s housekeeper.
Whether true love entered into the equation or not, it seems likely that money definitely did. I was surprised to note that all of the men who married at advanced ages in my family were men who were collecting a Civil War pension. By our standards, the pensions were measly – usually less than $80 per month – but they were guaranteed and came regularly. Some of the women may have hoped that after their husbands died, they could continue to collect their husband’s pensions, but in most cases that did not happen since the government restricted when a woman had to marry the pensioner in order to qualify for his posthumous pension, usually before about 1900.
In the years before Social Security and Medicare, marital arrangements such as the ones some Civil War veterans made were probably just a practical way for a woman to gain some security and for an older man to gain the household help he may have needed. It’s always worth checking whether any of the older veterans in your tree might have contracted these types of marriages. It may take a bit of searching for these later-in-life marriages because they often are omitted from published or online family trees. A vet’s family may have been less than thrilled when Grandpa married a woman less than half his age and conveniently “forgot” to include the late marriage in the family tree. For us, the situation is less personal and more a matter of interest and can add insight into the lives of our ancestors.
Researcher/Director at Large