The Legend of Widow’s Weed

Mrs. Lee and Mrs. Jackson at General Jackson’s Grave.

Mrs. Lee and Mrs. Jackson at General Jackson’s Grave.

As a reenactor and living historian, I must admit that I am mesmerized by seeing a lady wearing Widow’s Weeds. She appears so mournful, yet filled with dignity and demands respect. She represents a day gone by and offers a tribute to those ladies of yesterday that honored their loved ones by wearing such an apparel. She represented the best of women during the worst of times.

For some reason I associate the song, Long Black Veil, whenever I see a lady in Widow’s weeds. The folk song, though only written in 1959 by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin, captures the essence of the Victorian period as well as the mourning of a lady in love. The lyrics resonate across the ages and touch the soul.

The chorus is haunting, just like the image of the lady in black. “She walks these hills in a long black veil. She visits my grave when the night wind wails. Nobody knows, nobody sees, nobody knows but me.” Wearing of the Widow’s Weeds is now interwoven into our history and represents so much of our past. DPC

Mrs. Janice Busic, who has portrayed Mrs. Lee for years, shared the following regarding the mourning rituals of the day. Mourning is defined as grief over the loss of a loved one. The outward expression of mourning rituals differ by religion, nationality, and location. Those customs are currently much more relaxed than they were in the past. Locally, today, a widow or family member may wear dark colored clothing to the funeral or may not. Today, it is acceptable for ladies to dress more casually and to even wear pants. Veils are seldom worn now, even though the emotion of grieving remains unchanged. Victorian mourning customs demanded a very strict fashion code.

It is estimated that 620,000 lives were lost in the line of duty during the Civil War. Approximately 258,000 were from the south. This does not include the numerous other deaths among civilians as a result of war, disease, and other causes. Almost every family in the south faced grief and mourning as the war ravaged the land and destroyed a way of life.

As widows and families struggled during the War, they also grieved and mourned. During the first year of the war, ladies in the south followed mourning rituals, as much as possible. As the war continued, the dress code was followed but was determined by what was available. Fabric was scarce and money was often unavailable. Ladies of the south still mourned, still wore black, and became the epitome of the “grieving widow.” Their clothing might have been dyed and their veils may have been fashioned from a courser material. They were often struggling to take care of family and farms, and mourning customs became less rigid.

Rules of etiquette demanded that a widow went through three stages of mourning. The first year was the strictest and was called heavy mourning. A widow was expected to dress in all black, with no jewelry. She would wear a veil made of crepe when in public. She seldom spoke and was not spoken to but was acknowledged by a nod. After a year, she moved to the deep mourning phase where she might add a lighter shade of lace and cuffs to the black dress. The next phase, half mourning, began at the two-year mark. She might begin to wear grey, lavender, or some shades of purple. As a widow, her jewelry was limited to jet or hair. She was expected to refrain from taking part in social events.

Realistically, many widows could not follow the expected rituals and were forced to survive as best they could. Providing food for a hungry family became more important than dress codes. Southern women mourned while they became the provider. Their strength and courage cannot be underestimated even though they may have oftentimes mourned in patched calico. JB

But what about the emotions and feelings of losing a loved one?. How are they addressed by the mourner and those who mourn with her? Mrs. Joan Howard, who has portrayed Mrs. Davis as well as Mrs. Lincoln, has captured the essence of such a loss.

When the love of your life passes from this life to the next, either suddenly or after a long illness, your life changes forever. Your world is gone and you have to face every day on your own. Sure, family and friends try to help but they cannot walk in your shoes. For a short time the Mourning Veil can cover the sadness in your eyes. Then every widow has the stress of settling the legal points and the personal items left by the loved one. During all these decisions you still have to function.

The Mourning Veil cannot hide all the memories that flood your heart. People are not perfect but you still continue to keep the good times close to the front of your mind while putting the less wanted memories close in the back. Special moments like the time you met, your wedding day, the births of your children and then the last birthday, Christmas or special conversations pop up at the most inconvenient times. Tears stain the Veil so easily.

We do not always know what to say when someone dies. The Veil over the face dictates that you only nod when meeting a lady behind it’s shadow. But after several weeks you put the Veil behind your head and then you take it off. The person you loved, the person who provided for you, the person you depended on is gone and so is the Veil. One cannot hide behind it indefinitely. Many women wear black for a year after the death of a spouse or child. Some even wear black for the rest of their lives in honor of their deceased loved one. During the 1860s many women had to find ways to support themselves and their families. The Veil could not protect them.

Now you put on an invisible Veil so that you cannot be so deeply hurt again. People can still say things that are harmful. Maybe they will never understand because they really cannot walk in your shoes. With each passing day, month and year the Veil fades. You will always love and miss those special people. But on one of these days you will find that you can face the world and just maybe you can let others into your heart around the Veil.

The two First Ladies of the Civil War shared many similarities, one being the Widow’s Weeds. Mary Ann Todd Lincoln (Mrs. Abraham Lincoln) lost three sons to sickness; her oldest son being her only child to marry and have children. Varina Anne Banks Howell Davis (Mrs. Jefferson Davis) lost three sons and one daughter to sickness plus one son in an accident; her oldest daughter being her only child to marry and have children. Both First Ladies outlived their husbands wearing black for the rest of their lives. In some of the images you can see the Veil as they honored their husbands. JH

Exactly what are Widow’s Weeds and where did the term originate? The term Widow’s Weeds refers to the garment. The word is allegedly ‘Old English’ derived from waed (or wede), which has been interpreted as garment or robe. The name is applied to the black clothing worn by ladies who lost their husbands. Widow’s Weeds consisted of a heavy black dress with a weeping veil over the head and face. They also wore a ‘widow’s cap’ when venturing outside. Jewelry was not to be worn the first year. Lockets or cameos were worn containing a lock of hair or image of the lost loved one. The Widow’s Weeds were worn as a sign of mourning and could be worn up to four years! Depending on the circumstances and individual a lady could be in full or later, half mourning. The stages of mourning defined by coloration of the outfit, such as gray, blue, lavender, etc.

The practice of wearing the weeds was popular during the Victorian age. Upon the death of Prince Albert (1861), Queen Victoria entered into a period of mourning. She wore the clothes of mourning for the next forty years. Basically all of her accessories were black or dull in color. Her jewelry was even black (jet).

Then there was Flora Cook Stuart. She was the wife of the famed General J.E.B. Stuart. Their love story is one of legends. During their time together, they had three children. Unfortunately little Flora passed away when she was five and her mother wore the veil of mourning. On May 12, 1864, she received word that her beloved husband had been wounded at Yellow Tavern. The wound proved to be mortal. Mrs. Stuart had only been married for nine years and at the age of twenty-eight, she found herself to be widowed. For the next fifty-nine years, Mrs. General Stuart, the Widow of the South, wore Widow’s Weeds. Such was her love and devotion to her husband.

Also noted was the story of Mrs. Jackson. In 1857 Mary Anna Morrison Jackson married the love of her life, Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson. Anna lost one daughter in infancy; her second daughter did marry and have children. When Anna received the news that her husband had been wounded she immediately went to his bedside where she remained until his death. She was known as “The Widow of the Confederacy” until her death in 1915. Again the Widow’s Weeds were worn.

I do not even like the word “Widow”! Each lady wore black to show respect for a deceased loved one and a Veil to cover the pain they were feeling. It took such courage to fight a war, care for the family left at home and mourn the loved ones they had lost. JH

Interestingly, there were certain social etiquettes that had to be followed. Mourning was a time of being withdrawn from social events. The time line for reentry was usually twelve months. Also the widow was to have the veil lowered over her head and face whenever she went outside. This was usually practiced for the first year.

Today the practice of wearing Widow’s Weeds has all but disappeared. But the influence of the age still lingers. The wearing of black to indicate mourning and a sign of respect at funerals is still carried on today. The veil worn at a wedding (usually white) and one at a funeral (black or dull in color) continues in different settings. The legends of old and the etiquette of yesterday is a reminder that the past always influences the present if we will simply listen and learn.


By Joan Howard, Janice Busic and Dave Chaltas