Rape and the Threat of Sexual Violence in the Civil War South + Gary Casteel

I came across an interesting little post at the New York Times’s Idea of the Day in which the question of rape and sexual violence during the Civil War is raised.  The blog post links to an essay by historian, Crystal N. Feimster, which recently appeared in Daedelus.  While the essay is worth reading the subject of sexual violence and the vulnerability that women felt during the war has been raised by a number of scholars, most notably, by Drew G. Faust in Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War.   The crux of Feimster’s essay is as follows:

Few scholars have addressed the sexual threat captured in this confrontation between Scarlett and the Union solider. In fact, historians have accepted without question the idea that Union soldiers rarely raped southern women, black or white, and have argued that sexual violence was rare during the Civil War. Yet Mitchell’s fictional account of one woman’s wartime experience makes clear that a perceived threat of rape during the Civil War was all too real for southern women.

I would be very interested to know the frequency of acts of sexual violence and rape committed against white and black southern women during the Civil War.  Feimster’s essay explores the consequences of Ben Butler’s infamous New Orleans that relegated unruly women as prostitutes rather than an analysis of cases of sexual violence/rape.  In fact, Feimster suggests that most cases probably went unreported.

While all of this is interesting to me, it was another short passage that grabbed my attention, which Feimster utilizes to help frame her study of sexual violence:

Wartime rape is an issue both ancient and contemporary, evident more recently in reports of mass rapes in the Yugoslavian wars of secession and the genocidal massacres in Rwanda, but equally present in accounts from the Torah, the Bible, Homer, Anglo-Saxon chronicles, and in mythological events like the rape of the Sabine women. Indeed, much historical evidence seems to suggest that whenever and wherever men go to war, rape and the threat of sexual violence against women are inevitable, even strategic components of warfare.

It may seem like a minor point, but it’s such a breadth of fresh air when our civil war is understood within a broader context.  It forces us to set aside our tendency to glamorize and reduce the conflict to comfortable images that that ignore the long-term consequences of the war.  As I’ve said before, we tend not to view civil wars elsewhere in the way that we view our own.

This brings me back to my problem with Gary Casteel’s sculpture.  It’s not that it doesn’t accurately depict documented moments where brothers fighting on both sides embraced one another on the battlefield.  It’s that we are being asked to view the sculpture as representative of the war and of the ease with which white Americans embraced reconciliation and reunion.  But is it true?  Does Casteel’s piece really capture a theme that is representative of the broad national experience of war.  I think not.  My problem is that it is too easy and plays to our tendency to celebrate all things Civil War, even the Confederate’s clenched fist. I want to see monuments and sculptures that force me to think and struggle.  I don’t want to celebrate, I want to understand.

21 comments… add one

  • Don Shaffer Aug 21, 2009

    Dear Kevin: interesting that Feimster uses Margaret Mitchell as her source of authority on the mindset of Southern white women in the Civil War–Mitchell wasn’t born until 1900. I’m not saying that women didn’t fear rape from Union or Confederate soldiers during the Civil War or that sexual assaults didn’t occur. But Feimster definitely needs better evidence. It also doesn’t strike me that Victorian-era American men used rape as an instrument of intimidation to the degree, say, of Red Army soldiers at the end of World War II or Serb troops during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Definitely a subject that bears more examination. Thomas Lowry would no doubt know something about this. I’m sure court martial records for the Union army would be a useful place to look for primary source evidence in this regard.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 21, 2009

      Don,

      I agree with you that the evidence for actual cases of rape are lacking, though I do think Feimster is more interested in the threat rather than actual cases. You are right that more work is needed here and I didn’t even want to imply that Faust addresses it directly. If I remember correctly, she was more interested in how slaveholding women dealt with various threats and its connection to Confederate defeat. Mark Grimsley suggests in his study, _Hard Hand of War_ that evidence of rape/sexual assault during Sherman’s March is very limited. Lowry is definitely a source to consult.

  • Vicki Betts Aug 21, 2009

    See also “”Physical Abuse … and Rough Handling”: Race, Gender, and Sexual Justice in the Occupied South” by E. Susan Barber and Charles F. Ritter, in _Occupied Women: Gender, Military Occupation, and the American Civil War_, Louisiana State University Press, 2009, pp.49-64.

    Vicki Betts

  • Ken Noe Aug 21, 2009

    In _When the Yankee’s Came_, Steven Ash used the term “symbolic rape” to describe Union soldiers’ threatening activities against women. In my own work on counterinsurgency in West Virginia, I never found evidence of actual rape–I looked–but many examples of “symbolic rapes”–going into bedrooms and forcing women from their beds before burning the house down, for example.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 21, 2009

    Ken and Vicki,

    Thanks so much for the references.

  • Vicki Betts Aug 21, 2009

    You’re welcome. Last February I attended a conference at Texas Christian University on women in Texas history. Toward the end we went into short breakout sessions, mostly chronologically based, with a view toward making suggestions for research, conference topics, book chapters, etc. I went to the Civil War table, headed by Dr. Angela Boswell. We came up the phrase “gendered fear” as a possible theme. That could cover a multitude of topics, from the fear of slave insurrection during the Texas Troubles of 1860, in which rumors of “chosen young white women” circulated, to the fear of “vile Yankees” that had women pushing men and boys toward the east Texas border and beyond to face Banks in 1864. And the fears of German women left at home as their husbands and conscript age boys tried to make their way to the Rio Grande, and the fears of black women being forced to Texas with their refugee owners. We left it very vague, but in what ways did women’s fear differ from men’s fear, and how did the war affect it?

    Vicki Betts

  • Richard Aug 21, 2009

    Young men cut off from their supply lines, foraging locally, often coming up on isolated farm houses. Those Union soldiers must have had a high sense of morality. Columns of angels crossing the southern landscape. lol

  • Bob Pollock Aug 21, 2009

    Kevin,

    I must have missed something. Who is asking us “to view the sculpture as representative of the war and of the ease with which white Americans embraced reconciliation and reunion.”? And, if someone IS asking us to believe white Americans embraced reconciliation and reunion, I think white Americans, for the most part, did embrace reconciliation rather quickly, all things considered. This is not to say that I don’t understand the point Brooks makes, or that Blight makes, that reconciliation occurred by way of relegating civil rights to the back burner, so to speak, but as you say, the statue accurately depict[s]documented moments where brothers fighting on both sides embraced one another on the battlefield. Why do we have to only remember certain parts of the war?
    You say, “I want to see monuments and sculptures that force me to think and struggle.”
    I think this has caused you to think and struggle.

    Regarding the Fiemster article, I agree with Don, the GWTW reference is extremely weak, and I always have a problem with people who say there had to have been more rape that was not reported. Perhaps so, but there is no way to know, so we shouldn’t base interpretation on assumed facts. And if you want a different view on Butler, I recommend Benjamin Franklin Butler, the Damnedest Yankee by Dick Nolan.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 21, 2009

    Bob,

    I’m not really sure what to say in response. Artists typically use subjects to address broader themes, which is what I take Casteel to be doing. I never said that we should remember only part of the war. What I tried to suggest is that we’ve beaten to death the images of brother v. brother. Give me something that touches the rest of the spectrum of emotions related to what the war did to families. Why is that so difficult for you to understand?

    Re: the Feimster article I agree with you. There doesn’t seem to be much evidence for large numbers of rapes and other forms of sexual violence. As I stated in the post I was much more interested in the implication of the second passage quoted.

  • Larry Cebula Aug 21, 2009

    Part of the justification of slavery was that black men were supposedly sexual predators who would rape white women if not for slavery. Surely this narrative made southern women feel particularly vulnerable.

  • Sherree Tannen Aug 22, 2009

    Hi Kevin,

    If Union soldiers did not rape white and black women in the South during the Civil War, then certainly the American Civil War was the first war in history in which the violence of rape and the violence of war did not go hand in hand. The same would have been true of southern soldiers invading Northern territory. Once men (and women) engage in violent acts during war and boundaries of behavior are crossed, some men (and some women) don’t stop and they engage in more violence. Also, for women not to report rape is commonplace, even in times of peace. During war, racial atrocities occur, rape occurs, mutilation occurs, executions occur. Not only is war hell. All wars are hell. The American Civil War is no exception. So yes, you are right. We need to move beyond adolescent narratives of the war on all sides. I know men who are good men–honorable men–and men who have done things in war that they would rather not talk about, except to a doctor, priest, or rabbi, in hopes of finding some peace of mind again, and maybe absolution. Thanks, Kevin. Sherree.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 22, 2009

      Larry,

      No doubt.

      Sherree,

      I don’t think anyone is suggesting that rapes did not occur. The question is whether they occurred frequently or not. Feimster noted that in many cases women fail to report rape/sexual assault and I mentioned it as well. Yes, I agree with you that “war is hell” which is why I made it a point to mention the international context in which Feimster frames her essay. Thanks for the comment.

  • Craig Aug 22, 2009

    It seems to me I read some diary entries recently by a northern soldier serving under Banks in the occupation of New Orleans and vicinity. He described a woman who came into their camp wearing what seemed to him warmer clothing than the weather really required, for the apparent purpose of concealing bottles of liquor carried on strings slung over the neck and attached at each end to a bottle. Concealment of the bottles would seem to imply contraband. A hoopskirt, worn in tropical weather, does seem like something that could arouse the suspicion of a diligent and dutiful sentry.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 22, 2009

      Craig,

      Thanks for the comment, but I’m not sure what your point is.

  • Sherree Tannen Aug 22, 2009

    Kevin,

    Basically, I am agreeing with your overall point, as I understand it–ie, that adolescent views of the American Civil War are limiting and false. I then am venturing further to make another point: adolescent views are held on all sides, and those views are limiting and false. That said, I am not defending the Confederacy, now or ever. I am not sure why I must state that, but I must, or the discussion will immediately go into areas in which neither I, you, nor your readers are interested. In one online discussion by reputable scholars concerning brutal racial atrocities that were committed by southern soldiers, the scholars began to discuss numbers. In other words, how many dead USCT constituted a massacre became the core of the discussion. For me the discussion ended and became moot, when one scholar countered that numbers were irrelevant. One massacred USCT soldier constituted a massacre. I agree. I also would apply the same concept here, except as is necessary to counter Lost Cause mythology. How many rapes must be documented to prove that rape did, in fact, occur? The apparently accepted documented rape of a black girl who was under ten years old by multiple Union soldiers would seem enough. That does not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that I am defending the institutionalized rape of women who were slaves. Why must I make that distinction? In my view, because we have romanticized our Civil War and locked ourselves into dead end arguments, and some have (unbelievably) romanticized the history of slavery as well.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 22, 2009

      Hi Sherree,

      I think we are pretty much in agreement, though we will have to part ways on the question of how to define a massacre. While it may be impossible to define how many executions constitute a massacre my guess is that most people would need more than one. Again, I am not denying that women (North and South) were not raped as a result of the presence of the two armies. The numbers do matter to the extent that they allow us to properly characterize and explain the culture of war in the United States during the 1860s.

  • Sherree Tannen Aug 22, 2009

    Thanks, Kevin.

    I understand that, as an historian, you must concentrate on numbers at times to explain broader issues. One critical number that I can think of right off that puts matters into perspective would be that there four million slaves in the south at the start of the Civil War. That fact, along with a multitude of other reasons, is why I truly have no patience for Lost Cause adherents.

    As an ancillary observation concerning the nature of war, while I was in Rome, I had an interesting experience. For me, Rome has always been a magical city, and still is. (I first contemplated visiting Rome when I was around eight years old sitting on my grandmother’s pine floors reading an encyclopedia about world history) Anyway, I first actually went to Rome in 1985. It was truly an overwhelming experience to be in a city that I had dreamed of visiting since childhood. To add to this, one of my sisters lifelong friends, who is Italian, took us above the city at night and we were able to see Rome in all its glory.

    This time, it was different. My love of Rome is certainly not changed, but my understanding is, and it an understanding that has led to an even deeper love of the city and its people. At the Coliseum (which is so much smaller than I remembered from my trip in 1985) I first became aware that some of the actual stones used to build the structure were brought from Jerusalem. Then, outside of the Coliseum, I learned for the first time that the triumphal arch that I had found so beautiful in 1985 has depicted upon it the defeat of the Hebrews by the Romans. Suddenly I saw the history of Rome in a different light. That, of course, is partially because I am married to a Jewish man whose name was Tannenholz until World War II when the family changed the name to Tannen, since my husband’s family on his father’s side were German Jews, and this was my husband’s father’s request. I now understand the history of Rome in its beauty, and in its brutality. One of my favorite moments on the trip was when a local Roman man translated for me a news story that had the Italian men and women glued to the TV. A man had drowned as he tried to save his children in nearby Latina. There was a feeling of a small town and community within this ancient, modern city, as Rome grieved for this man and his family, and for a few moments, I was part of that small town that is an ancient, modern city whose residents know all about the intricacies and paradoxes of history, as do you, Kevin, a person whom I consider a true intellectual–true intellectuals being hard to come by these days. Sherree

  • Kevin Levin Aug 22, 2009

    Sherree,

    Let me add one point that I am in no way negating moral import of a single murder or execution.

    Sounds like a wonderful trip to Rome. My wife and I had Rome on our schedule during our honeymoon, but we had such a good time in Sienna that we decided to stay.

    Thanks for the kind words, but I’m not sure my New Jersey background qualifies me for anything approaching the title, intellectual. :)

  • Craig Aug 22, 2009

    I imagine soldiers had opportunities to patronize bars and other establishments under circumstances that did not interfere with their duties as soldiers, just as I imagine that a certain amount of liquor was kept on hand under the quartermaster’s lock and key for distribution as part of regular rations. But I don’t doubt that demand sometimes outstripped supply and that meeting that demand sometimes required ingenuity. The soldier’s description drew my attention in relation to a poem I translated, written about New Orleans by a German commander of an infantry regiment that was camped in Algiers across the river from the French Quarter. He used a phrase that I translated as “tied by no strings stronger than the earth’s girdle” in alluding to some of the temptations to which some of his men had been subjected. Sentries would have little difficulty searching men who might attempt to bring unauthorized liquor into an army camp, but a woman wearing a hoop skirt could be more problematic. A legitimate search in the interest of maintaining camp order could easily be misconstrued if it involved a too judicious examination of a woman’s skirt and petticoats. It would be interesting to know what army policy was with regard to female visitation to camp precincts. Were women allowed to freely wander in and out of an army camp? Or did they require authorization of some sort based upon established protocols? How effectively were those protocols observed? Wouldn’t it depend on the ability of the officers to establish and maintain a standard of propriety? If getting caught smuggling liquor to the enlisted men could entail sanctions, then fear of disclosure of that activity might be leveraged into activities requiring even more discretion. Disagreements that might ensue under such circumstances could easily manifest as sexual violence.

  • Sherree Tannen Aug 22, 2009

    Kevin,

    I did not think that you were negating the moral import of a single rape or execution. If you had, you would not be a true intellectual. Also, true intellectuals are not bound by geography. True intellectuals are not bound by anything, but the limitations of the human mind.

    Maybe Rome would be a great place for you and Micheala to go on your anniversary. If you ever do go, please throw another coin into the Trevi fountain for me!

    Have a good one, Kevin. I miss Rome, but it is good to be home, at the same time. Sherree

  • Recca Taylor Jun 7, 2010

    I was told by people all my life that soldiers on north and south of the civil war raped white and black women. Now when looking it up no one wants to admit there soldiers raped any white women. Rape is rape and it doesn’t mater the color of the female skin it is all wrong. Why since we all know war brings out the worst in men. Why can’t men admit it. And why is it acceptable to say that they raped black women and not whites. Is this just another racial indignity tword Black women.

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