Monday, May 9, 2011
I find this ad both charming and a little weird. There's something a little...romantic and even heroic, I guess...about what this man is trying to do, but I have to wonder what lady would take him up on this offer. See for yourself:
Matrimonial. - A young unmarried cavalry officer, who intends to serve his country till "this cruel war is over," desires, should he be slain during the war, to leave an heir to his name and inheritance. He therefore wishes to open correspondence with a view to matrimony with a patriotic young lady of intelligence, accomplishments, common sense, &c. Address K, Nineteenth New York cavalry, Manassas Junction, Va.
The quote in here, "this cruel war is over," is the title of a song of the same name, "When This Cruel War is Over", which apparently at one time the most popular song in America, possibly because it was sung by both Confederate and Union soldiers. In any event, there's so much I want to say about this!
First, I think it's funny that he says he's "unmarried." Yes, K, that should be fairly obvious given you're publishing an ad in a matrimonial column. But I suppose he just means he's a bachelor, not a widower. But I love how patriotic he is. Man, these Civil War soldiers were the best. He's not only saying he'll fight till the end of the war, but he's also saying that he knows he might die in the war and he's still determined to stay the course anyway. There's something so honorable about that to me. I know that there are people who still feel that way today, but here's the thing, this ad was published toward the end of 1863 by which time the casualties of war were unbelievably high. American soldiers were much, much, much more likely to die during this war than in any other conflict the country has ever been involved in. So when he's saying that, he and everyone else have to be aware that it's not just hyperbole. He really, truly has high odds of actually dying. Now, of course, soldiers were more likely to die of disease than being "slain," but you can't blame a guy who, if he's going to die, would rather die fighting the good fight then die of dysentery.
Anyway. It's also so fascinating to me the impulse to leave his name behind. That makes sense too. I think that's a desire many people still have today, though I doubt it's something anyone would articulate or think about consciously much. (But it is the reason why so many people name their sons after themselves, like the guy I knew in college whose name was followed by V!) I think especially a soldier who knows he might die wants to leave a piece of himself behind. Because you want to fight for your country, of course, which was what most Union soldiers wanted - but you also want to fight for something more tangible: your family. That's why this is so romantic and heroic to me.
But...on the other hand, I'm not sure how this would go over to women. They would probably see the romantic impulse too, and admire this soldier enormously, but I don't think many girls are going to think to themselves, I want to get married to someone who just wants me to have his kid. You want to marry for love, of course, even if you're the most patriotic woman in the world. I guess she has something to gain: respectability, avoiding being a spinster in an era when a lot of young men are dying, and if he really is going to leave an inheritance, that is some nice security. On the other hand, if he lives, which you would obviously want him to do, you want to make sure you spend the rest of your life with someone who you care about and who cares about you. I dunno - I'm sure there were plenty of women who responded, but they must have had at least some misgivings.
On a final note, however, the letters are addressed to "K." K? Don't you think there might be more than one soldier in the Nineteenth New York with the initial K in their name - since that could be first or last? There were at least a couple hundred men altogether, and although there were fewer cavalry officers, he doesn't actually specify that in the address, so the "K" could be anyone in the entire outfit! Right? I guess during mail call they'd just say, anyone expecting mail for "K"? But most soldiers did include their names in these ads so it seems odd to me.
Well, I hope he survived the war after all, but it's unfortunate that I'll never know if he managed to make his name immortal...
©2011 Pam Epstein