Terminology: Update on the scarf & vail

Confederate bushwhacker Bloody Bill Anderson

In the second post of this blog, I asked if anyone had an insight into why my ancestor Isaac Dickerman, in 1756, wrote in his will that his wife was to receive a “scarf & vail [sic]”, in addition to various worldly goods. My first thought was that he was consigning her to a nunnery, but that seemed rather unlikely in colonial New Haven.

My Torontonian friend Sara T. has proposed that the scarf & vail might be garments of mourning that he is encouraging her to wear for a length of time and/or symbols of a request that she not remarry. These thoughts sound plausible to me, and I wonder if he is also signifying that he has provided for her so handsomely that she has no need to remarry.

In any case, Sara’s is the most sensible guess I have come across, and I thank her for conveying it.

More recently, I quoted an entry from my great great grandfather’s Civil War diary in which he refers to the “Secesh cavalry”. I had never heard the term “Secesh” and wondered if it might be an Indian tribe or a particular region of Mississippi. This time, the Internet came to the rescue, informing me that “secesh” was short for “secessionist” and could either describe a Southerner’s political leanings or serve as slang for Confederate soldiers.

A Random House “Word of the Day” website notes that the term was common during the Civil War—used more frequently in the North than in the South—but died out soon after, with the last citation the writer can find dating from 1892 (“Secesh is played out”).

In the same diary entry mentioned above, William Davies writes:

a Bushwacker from across the River fired at our men around the fire the ball proved to be from a Skuirrel Rifle struck into some blankets on a stump

It turns out that a bushwacker (usually spelled “bushwhacker”) was a civilian guerilla, common in rural areas of the South but also found in the North. Bushwhackers conducted raids on opposing forces and on civilians in border states who sympathized with the opposition. Because a bushwhacker was not a uniformed soldier, it would not be surprising to discover that his weapon was a squirrel rifle.

The more I read, the more I discover worlds of hidden meaning in the words of my ancestors.

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2 Responses to Terminology: Update on the scarf & vail

  1. claire says:

    Scarf and veil – I know that in Victorian times part of the costume – the widow’s weeds – included a veil, scarf or shawl; a hat with a veil attached if you were wealthy and which one was expected to wear for up to four years. In the 1970s in the very south of Ireland older peasant and working class widows still wore traditional garb including a black woolen shawl – a garment that hadn’t changed for hundreds of years. The shawl covered them from head to below the knee or even to the ankle, and they worn them every time they went out in public including in the public houses – they were so out of time by then that they were known locally as “shawlies.” In earlier times, wealthier women wore black cloaks with elaborate hoods – a friend of mine had one that belonged to her grandmother. The idea for these “weeds” probably came to Ireland not just via the [Catholic] Church but influence from England and this, the latter I mean, was true of America too. What seems strange to me is that the stricture would have been included in the text of the will since it was surely something that “went without saying.” One possibility is that, as special widow’s clothing was a big expense, Mr. Dickerman wanted his wife and other relatives to know that his widow having the clothing befitting her status was something that he approved and wanted. Maybe he was concerned that she would be made to feel extravagant.

    Fascinating stuff btw – xxClaire

    • visnow77 says:

      Claire, what a wealth of information you have provided here! That sounds like a very likely explanation. Thanks ever so much for your enlightening comment. And for reading my blog.

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