Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell In The Civil War

At some point I need to get to a movie theatre and catch up on new releases. One of the movies that I am looking forward to seeing is Brokeback Mountain. I love movies that challenge stereotypes, especially as they relate to race and gender. A few days ago I noticed my copy of Thomas Lowry’s, The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War on the bookshelf. Here is a brief survey of some of the evidence for homosexuality within the ranks.

Towards the end of the war, two seaman John C. Smith and Louis Grant were charged with “improper and indecent intercourse with [each] other.” A witnessed testified that he viewed an act that was “indecent, immoral and a violation of nature.” (Poor guy) At about the same time two additional seaman were charged with committing “an unnatural crime.” A Virginia artillerist wrote home to his sister in 1865 and noted that, “The boys…rode one of our company on a rail last night for leaving the company and going to sleep with Captain Lowry’s black man.” Confederate general James J. Archer was known as “Sally” according to Mary Chesnut. Archer was imprisoned after his capture at Gettysburg, but while imprisoned engaged in behavior that attracted the attention of Capt. Robert Bingham of the 44th North Carolina: “We had a jolly party in our room tonight. Captain Taylor got some whiskey in a box under other things and so not noticed and we had General Archer down and they all got drunk together and got to hugging each other and saying that they had slept together many a time. Taylor called Archer and hugged him—cursed at every word, much to old [Chaplain] Allen’s discomfort.”

In the weeks leading up to the beginning of Grant’s Overland Campaign Massachusetts soldiers put on a ball. Since there were few women willing to take part drummer boys dressed as ladies for the occasion. In a letter home one of the attendees noted that “some of the real women went, but the boy girls were so much better looking they left…no one could have told wich [sic] of the party had fell on a hatchet.” From the perspective of another soldier: “We had some little Drummer boys dressed up and I’ll bet you could not tell them from girls if you did not know them…some of them looked almost good enough to lay with and I guess some of them did get laid with.” Of course it is difficult to know whether any of these passages can be interpreted in a straightforward sexual manner. That said, my guess is that given our phobia about sexuality few people are interested anyway—better to picture “Johnny” rather than “Sally” Reb.

Note: Lowry was recently interviewed on Civil War Talk Radio

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