Most American history books stick with the label “Civil War,” but the conflict that tore the nation asunder from 1861 to 1865 actually had many names including the War Against Northern Aggression, Mr. Lincoln's War, the War Between the States and my personal favorite, the Late Unpleasantness to name but a few. No matter the name, this Brother's War that was anything but civil no doubt had a long lasting impact on all aspects of American society, but there was one especially unusual custom that was spawned in the aftermath - a plethora of May/December marriages.
Despite the rapid growth of industry during the reconstruction years following the war, by 1893 the country was entering a serious economic depression. Over the next half decade, the unemployment rate rose to a staggering 12 percent leaving many families in dire financial straits. During that time, it was a common practice to encourage eligible young female family members to marry as soon as possible to alleviate at least a portion of the drain on the family coffers.
Enter the aging Civil War vet. Although a seemingly an unlikely pair, it was actually the perfect solution for the time. A father would simply marry his daughter off to a pensioned veteran. She'd be taken care of while the man was alive and eventually have her own steady income thanks to the pension upon his death if she didn’t remarry.
Prior to the War of the Rebellion, war pensions certainly existed, but on a very limited basis. In 1862, the Civil War pension program was enacted with the purpose of providing benefits to veterans who incurred injury during military action and after his death the pension would go to his widow and children. By 1890, the program was amended to include all disabled veterans regardless of the source of their disability. So now the elderly vet wasn't just an old man, he was an old man with money, which certainly had its appeal.
Daisy Graham Anderson
It wasn't exactly love at first sight when Daisy Graham laid eyes on Robert Anderson. The old man's bushy white beard made the young girl snicker, but she soon warmed up to the former slave from Green County, Ky. Graham, who was born in Hardin County, Tenn. in 1901, met Anderson at the church she attended with her family in Forrest City, Ark. Her family had relocated there in 1918 when Graham was 17 due to racial tensions in their home state.
Anderson, born in 1843, joined the Union Army in 1865 with his master's blessing. He never saw any fighting during the closing months of the Civil War and mustered out in 1867 after a stint in the western Indian campaigns.
He eventually made his way to Nebraska and after a couple of failed farming attempts, bought himself a 2,000-acre spread. This time he got it right and soon prospered. By the time he visited his brother in Forrest City in 1922, Anderson was quite a wealthy man. Just one month later, Anderson and Graham got hitched thanks to the matchmaking preacher. The couple traveled all over the west and Anderson showered his young bride with gifts. They eventually settled down on his farm in Box Butte County, Neb. Their happy eight year marriage was cut short when Anderson was killed in a car accident in 1930.
Unfortunately, Graham was unable to manage the farm and lost it in the Great Depression. After that, she struggled to survive living a life that was a polar opposite of the one she'd shared with Anderson. She eventually joined a sister living in Steamboat Springs, Colo., where she scraped up enough money to buy a small 10-acre farm. In her later years, she became somewhat of a local celebrity and gave lectures about her slave soldier husband. She even wrote a book about Anderson's life, "From Slavery to Affluence: Memoirs of Robert Anderson, Ex-Slave," which she self-published in 1927.
Graham died in 1998 at the age of 97. She leaves her own legacy as one of the last widows of a Civil War veteran.
Gertrude Grubb Janeway
By the time Lucie Gertrude Grubb was born in Grainger County, Tenn. on July 3, 1909, the War of Secession was long over. The oldest of four children, Gertrude, as she was called, struggled with physical disabilities, a right hand badly deformed since birth and her right leg shorter than her left. She was unable to walk until the age of seven. Despite her limitations, Gertrude was a pretty girl with lively green eyes.
At the age of 13, Gertrude's father died leaving the family in dire financial straits. The girl's mother, Halley "Hal" Grubb took in washing six days a week just to make ends meet. The work was hard and the pay was poor, just 50 cents a day, but it was all the Grubb family had to survive. While her mother worked feverishly over the washboard, it was up to Gertrude to watch after her three brothers, Arthur, 8, Rubin, 6, and Barney, 1.
Born and raised in the Corinth Community in Grainger County, 18-year-old John Janeway enlisted with the 14th Illinois Calvary on June 1, 1864 in Maryville, Tenn., under the name John January hoping his parents wouldn't interfere with his adventure. Two months later, Pvt. John Janeway found himself a prisoner of war alongside 700 other soldiers under the command of Gen. George Stoneman after a bloody battle near Macon, Ga. Janeway was one of the lucky ones as approximately 2,000 other Union soldiers were killed during the fight.
After mustering out of the army on July 1, 1865 in Nashville, Janeway traveled around the country a bit. In 1872, he married Martha Ann Stolsworth. The couple settled in Marshall, Mo. and had 10 children. After Martha's death, Janeway returned to Grainger County in 1925 and went to visit old friends, the Grubb family, where he asked Hal Grubb for Gertrude's hand in marriage. She told them they'd have to spark (court) for three years until her daughter was old enough to marry. They only lasted two. On June 9, 1927 at 9 a.m., Gertrude Grubb, 19, became the bride of John Janeway, 81.
Despite their age difference, Gertrude adored her husband and he in turn was very kind to her and her family. The couple lived together for 10 years until Janeway's death in 1937. He is buried in the New Corinth Baptist Church Cemetery on Smith Hollow Road in Grainger County. His marker reads, "John January. CO E. 14 Ill. Cav." In that same year, Gertrude lost her mother and her youngest brother, Barney.
Gertrude received her widow's pension of $70 a month until her death in 2003 at the age of 91. For all those years, she never remarried and lived in the little cabin in Grainger County she'd shared with her husband.
Helen Dortch Longstreet
The practice of old groom/young bride wasn't limited to enlisted men. There was a general or two who also benefited from the Civil War pension program in more than just a financial capacity. It should really come as no surprise that one of the Civil War's most controversial confederate generals, James Longstreet, also participated in this somewhat unusual marital practice.
Although Longstreet's visit to the city of Knoxville in the winter of 1863 was memorable, it was something Old Pete would never live down. In fact, the events that unfolded when Longstreet and his Confederate troops marched on Fort Sanders were nothing short of disastrous. On November 29, 1863, Confederate troops under the command of Gen. Longstreet launched an assault on Fort Sanders. However, due to a gross miscalculation of the size and depth of a ditch encircling the fort, the Confederate army lost about 813 men in approximately 20 minutes. Most had fallen into the ditch and were unable to climb up the muddy sides to escape. They were then shot "like fish in a barrel." Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside stopped the fighting for 30 minutes so the Confederates could retrieve their dead. On December 4, Longstreet and his troops retreated leaving Knoxville in Union hands.
After the war, Longstreet and his family settled for a time in New Orleans before returning to his native Gainesville, Ga. in 1875. He served as Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and U.S. Commissioner of Railroads, but his outspokenness about the failures of the war earned him an unsavory reputation. In 1889, the Longstreet home burned and most of the general's personal letters and papers from the Civil War were lost. In December of that year, his wife, Marie Louise Garland, died and Old Pete was alone.
Not long after his wife's death, the widower Longstreet met Helen Dortch, who just happened to be his daughter's roommate at Brenau College in Gainesville. The feisty vivacious Helen would later be remembered for her "unflagging work as a Confederate memorialist, progressive reformer, and local librarian and postmistress" according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia.
The couple married on September 8, 1897. She was 34 and he was 76. Longstreet died six years later on January 2, 1904. Even after his death, Dortch worked tirelessly to restore her soldier's good name. Throughout the remainder of her life, she continued to defend her husband's military career both in print and on the lecture circuit. She published a book the year he died, "Lee and Longstreet at High Tide" to battle the scurrilous remarks made about him by his critics.
On December 27, 1943, Life Magazine found the 80-year-old Dortch living in a tiny RV and commuting back and forth to her job at a Bell Aircraft plant in Atlanta in her Nash coupe. She worked a daily 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. shift as a riveter. In the article, "Confederate General's Widow," Dortch says she had held many jobs during her lifetime including reporter, free-lance writer, editor, post-office mistress, farmer, librarian, disbursing agent and politician.
According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, Dortch was admitted to the Central State Hospital in Milledgeville for mental illness in 1957. She remained there until her death on May 3, 1962. She outlived her general by 58 years and is buried in West View Cemetery in Atlanta. The couple had no children together, although Longstreet fathered 10 with his first wife.
As the remaining few wives and children of Civil War vets pass on, the human links to this tumultuous time in American history fade away with them. The details are now mostly consigned to books, stories and artifacts once held by the soldiers of blue and gray. They may be gone but are not completely forgotten.