Marriage and the Experience of the 5th New Hampshire Part 1

George Bucknam was 25 years old and affianced to Rose Smith when he enlisted in Company A of the 5th New Hampshire on September 6, 1861. At the Battle of Fair Oaks (June 1, 1862) Bucknam, to use his own words, was shot “in the lower part of my left side and back the ball striking me a little to the left of my back-bone.” After a long and painful recovery Bucknam rejoined the 5th New Hampshire in late November 1862. His letters reveal that he was much discouraged by his treatment in various hospitals and by the general course of the war. The one bright spot in his letters to his sister were his descriptions of his fiancée. “My Rose,” he wrote, “sheds forth an odour once in awhile which revives me. She has been very elven to me in the way of communication. She always answers my letters very promptly and generally they are worth reading. They are as bracing as the clear Scotch air, fragrant with flowers of speech, and sweet sentiments.” Sadly, Bucknam was never to see his Rose again. On July 2, 1863, during the second day at Gettysburg, while the 5th New Hampshire fought in the Rose Wood, Bucknam was struck in the head by a bullet and died almost instantly. Had Bucknam survived the war, how long would he have waited to marry Rose? How would they have fared together? (Image courtesy of David Morin.)

Today, I’ll be discussing the influence of marriage on the behavior of volunteers and the influence of the war on marriage. And just as I have over the last several weeks, I’ll use data garnered from the pool of 300 veterans from the 5th New Hampshire that I have thus far assembled.

Marriage by the Numbers

Out of the 300 men in my pool, I’ve found that 243 were married and 22 were never married (I cannot with any certainty determine the status of the remaining 35). The mid-nineteenth century was a different time, for sure, but it is impressive that 91.6% of the men whose status I could establish with certainty were married.

Of the 243 men who were married, I’ve been able to find the date of first marriage in 181 cases. Of these 181 men, 73 were married in 1861 or earlier. The war may have inspired several men to get married (I’ve found several who were married in September and October 1861—right when the original volunteers were recruited), but the numbers were not high enough to skew the results below. The number who were married in 1862 or after amounted to 108 men.

The Influence of Marriage on Volunteering

In an earlier post, I had remarked that in comparison to the great many teenagers and men in their early twenties who volunteered for the regiment in 1861, the number of recruits in their later twenties was substantially smaller. I speculated that perhaps marriage accounted for this pattern.

The average age of men who volunteered in 1861 and who survived the war was 25.4. The median age was 23.0.

The chart indicates that there were more 19-year-olds among the original volunteers than from any other age group. The number of volunteers in the second half of their twenties, however, tailed off substantially; the number of men in each cohort between the ages of 25 and 30 amounted to half of the number of 19-year-olds. Did marriage account for this phenomenon?

Among the men who survived the war and who were married in 1861 or earlier, the average age at first marriage was 24.0. Take a look at the chart again—that’s right at the age where volunteering tails off. It would take more research (I need to look also at the volunteers who did not survive the war to make sure they do not change the average), but the correlation is interesting. Was marriage a significant inhibitor against volunteering? Was it among the most important?

The Influence of Marriage on Military Experience: The Men Who Married before 1862

There are also several interesting features associated with the men who were married before 1862. On average, they were quite a bit older when they enlisted (32.4) and they were wounded at a lower rate than the unmarried men (of the 73, only 22 were wounded—that’s 30% compared with the average for surviving veterans of the regiment at 41.3%). The relatively low number of wounded men in this group was not due to a substantially shorter length of average service; the men married before 1862 served, on average, for 18.9 months (slightly less than the regiment’s average of 19.8). The foregoing makes me wonder: were older, married men more risk-averse than their younger, unmarried comrades? Or is there some other means of explaining these discrepancies?

The Men Who Married after 1861: The Impact of the Civil War

For obvious reasons, the men who survived the war who married after 1861 present a very different profile. These men were much younger when they enlisted: 20.5 years old, on average, which was well below the average age of marriage at the time. Of the 108 men in this group, 50 were wounded (46.3%). The most stunning difference between these veterans and those married before the war is that the former, on average, were married for the first time at 28.9. This discrepancy is worth stressing. Veterans married before the war, on average, said their wedding vows at age 24. Those who married during or after the war waited until they were about 29. That’s almost a five-year difference.

The length of service alone cannot explain this difference; the veterans who married after the war served, on average, 22.2 months (almost 2 ½ months longer than the regiment’s average). In other words, wartime service accounts for only a third of the five-year difference. It appears that one can detect here an important and lingering impact of the conflict on men’s lives. It seems fair to speculate that soldiers returning from the war needed time. They needed time to recover from wounds or illness. They needed time to pick up where their old lives had left off—or to start a new path in life. And they needed time to reforge connections with family, friends, and potential marriage partners.

The war maimed and sickened men, and it also tortured their minds. Anybody who has studied Civil War veterans knows that. But here is evidence that the experience of conflict gave young men a much later start in life than they would have otherwise experienced.

The Men Who Never Married

And what of the 22 men who never married? Almost all of them were quite young when they enlisted, and their average age upon volunteering was 22.3 (two years older, roughly, than those who married after the war). Their average length of service was 18.6 months. Ten of them, or 45.5% of the total, were wounded. In other words, they were wounded at roughly the same rate as the men who married after the war, but over a shorter length of service.

The most stunning fact I could discover about this group, though, is that they had an average lifespan of 43.7 years—that is, their lives were 19.4 years shorter on average than those who were married (63.1 years). As always, determining cause and effect is difficult. I must admit that six of the men in this group died before the war was over and a seventh died in 1866 (which suggests they must have died of a war-related illness or wound after their discharge). Even if we remove these men from the pool, we find an average lifespan of 52.9 years which is still almost ten years below the average of married men. We are left, as usual, though, with the same type of chicken-and-egg question that we have encountered before. Did they not marry because they were disabled by the war (which obviously seems to be the case with the men who died during the war or shortly thereafter), or did they suffer from shorter lives because they didn’t marry, or both? This pool of unmarried men is rather small, so I hesitate to make any larger claims until I’ve completed my study.

NOTE: The quote in the caption to the image above comes from the following: George H. Bucknam to Susan Bucknam (sister-in-law), March 28, 1863, Bucknam Family Papers, Box 1, Folder 5, University of New Hampshire Special Collections and Archives.