By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Brother against brother: The legacy of divided families during the civil war
3c063bb7b043bfedc8b50befda281b5689c25cfcb123a9fc7edc8a2eb8ab807c
'The Peacemakers" - photo by JJ Feinauer

"A house divided against itself cannot stand," Abraham Lincoln declared while accepting the nomination to run for the Senate as a representative of Illinois in 1858.

Lincoln was, of course, referring to the deepening political divide over slavery.

"I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free," he continued. "I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided."

But there was a literalness to Lincoln's metaphor. During the American Civil War, Americans were not only pitted against Americans, but also brothers against brothers, fathers against sons and even husbands against wives.

Lincoln was married to a Southerner. Marry Todd Lincoln was born to a family of slave owners in Kentucky, and many of her siblings sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War. Ulysses S. Grant, commanding general of the United States Army at the conclusion of the war, was also married to a Southerner, Julia Dent. Julia's father, Frederick Dent, was a prominent Southern Democrat.

On the Confederate side, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's sister, Laura Jackson Arnold, was an "outspoken Unionist." Though the two grew up close (the Virginia Military Institute says the young Jackson was "devoted to his younger sister"), Jackson advanced to lieutenant general of the Confederate Army, while Arnold cared for sick and injured Union soldiers at her home in West Virginia.

"We need not reach far into the vast library of Civil War history to find evidence of divided families," historian Amy Murrell Taylor wrote in "The Divided Family in Civil War America."

Division was everywhere, and the home was no exception.

The impact of the war

According to Taylor, the Civil War occurred at a time when Americans "idealized the family as the foundation of social and national stability." Emphasis on the family represented the youth and idealism of an invented nation. To help establish a common political identity, "Americans turned to the idea of family."

Taylor's book, which is an attempt to chronicle as many stories of family division during the Civil War as possible, brings to light the heartache and strife that accompanied political divisions during the war.

The crisis of politics quickly became a crisis of kinship for many Americans, Taylor explains, especially along the border states such as Tennessee, Virginia and Maryland. From the Civil War era, new social norms emerged, such as avoiding political discussions at the dinner table or during family functions.

According to Taylor, Americans sought to separate politics from family life more than ever during the war in an attempt to ease the stress that burdened family, extended or otherwise, divided by the Mason-Dixon Line.

"Their eagerness to defend a border between public and private," Taylor wrote, "may be one reason why this domestic ideology continued to resonate throughout the nineteenth century despite a much more complicated reality for most families."

But such deflections didn't always work. Families, particularly those in the border states, grew increasingly vulnerable to division as the war progressed.

It's all in politics

According to Civil War Trust, just over 2 million men fought in the Union Army during the war. For the Confederates, the number was closer to 1 million. Overall, 620,000 Americans died during the conflict, a body count higher than "all the nations wars combined through Vietnam," as historian James McPhereson pointed out.

But among those massive numbers was a family of three brothers, Joseph, Samuel and Edmund Hasley.

According to Taylor's account, Joseph had moved to Virginia during the 1840s "to purchase land and become a planter," leaving behind his two brothers in their native New Jersey.

For the brothers, politics became as much a separation as geography.

“Joseph sympathized with the South's growing disaffection with the Union," according to Taylor. "Whereas Samuel and Edmund were Republicans and firmly committed to the Union."

Over time, letters to each other became nothing short of political essays, diving deep into their political reasoning.

But in her research, Taylor noticed something curious and rather inspiring in the brothers’ correspondence. Like many of the other subjects included in Taylor's study, they fought hard to make sure their love and respect for each other was always acknowledged.

"If henceforth anything should be said that seems rather blunt," Edmund once wrote James, "remember it's all in politics."

"Any optimism that brothers had about containing their wartime divisions as just 'politics' was encouraged by another facet of their relationship," Taylor wrote.

That other facet was "brotherly love."

"Fraternal affection therefore acted as a yoke that restrained the competitiveness of male siblings," Taylor wrote.

That brotherly love is what led one Kentucky soldier, identified only by his surname Hopkins in Taylor's account, to stay with his mortally wounded brother, nursing him through the night, even though Hopkins had been the one who shot him.

"The confrontation of two brothers on a battlefield, ending in the death of one at the hands of the other, epitomized everything that divided families feared about the Civil War," Taylor wrote.

The fact that fear was realized on numerous occasions has solidified in the national memory the image of brother fighting against brother, losing the common ground of blood family over partisan disputes. The Civil War acts as a stark reminder that families being torn apart by ideas, petty or otherwise, can have devastating consequences.

150 years in hindsight

April 9 marks the 150th anniversary of when Robert E. Lee met with Grant to finalize the surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in a courthouse in Appomattox County, Virginia.

Though the official proclamation that "Peace, Order, Tranquillity, and Civil Authority Now Exists in and Throughout the Whole of the United States of America" didn't come until over a year later from President Andrew Johnson, historians often turn to Appomattox as the moment that sealed the fate of the Confederacy.

"The bleeding and dying were over, (the North) had won," McPhereson wrote of the event in his Pulitzer Prize winner, "Battle Cry of Freedom."

As the nation turns its attention to the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, the legacy of that division continues to echo through the minds of historians, political commentators and those who worry about headlines of increased polarity in American politics.

"A shooting war between huge formal armies did indeed end in the spring of 1865 after four years of physical, environmental, social and human devastation," historian David W. Blight wrote recently in The Atlantic. But according to Blight, the reasons for the war — divisions over the nature of freedom and equality — continue to rage on, still pitting brother against brother in a seemingly never-ending conflict.

In fact, a 2012 American National Election Survey found that 40 percent of respondents would be "upset" if their child married outside their preferred party. In 1960, that number was 5 percent. This type of partisanship is not unprecedented, but it's sobering nonetheless.

So among the many lessons of the Civil War, and there certainly are many, the stories and examples from families that weathered the storm of intense political partisanship seem as relevant now as ever.

Sign up for the Herald's free e-newsletter