Rape in the Civil War, Memory, and the Problem of Gender Bias

Yesterday’s post about sexual violence and rape in the Civil War led to a spirited exchange.  As always, I appreciate your comments even when the topics are emotionally divisive.  My wife, Michaela, read through the entire exchange and, as a result, formulated some strong opinions which she wrote up as a comment.  After reading it I convinced her to write it up as a guest post – her first one here at Civil War Memory.

First, I propose to define rape. Rape is defined as penile or non-penile vaginal penetration or sexual assault w/o penetration in some countries. So choosing that definition would increase the numbers compared to exclusively vaginal penetration rape. Thus the women being “surprised” in their bedroom might imply rape depending on what actually happened. Secondly, I am not sure whether rapists are more prevalent among one nationality compared to another. Thirdly  whether an army is “just” ordered to rape or whether the extreme psychological conditions lead to rapist behavior might give us different leads as to the actual numbers of rape. And lastly, this is a “Memory” blog. So going back to the idea of memory I don’t think that the rapist Union or Confederate soldier is a) a well documented picture and b) a wildly interesting subject to the community of CW historians (and the latter is not a judgmental comment). My uneducated guess is it would be rather analyzed in the comparative history of warfare.

Also, re: Memory, rape is historically under-documented. In addition, each participant in a war accuses the other side of having committed more crimes. That includes propaganda such as “all black slaves are potential rapists” etc. While historians are certainly at the front to distinguish between myth and facts I get the notion that there is a gender perspective in the above written posts and I am not sure, yet to what extent this is destructive to the discussion and analysis of rape in the American CW.

I also would be interested in references/evidence and an analysis of these sources re: the Victorian-era American being a lesser rapist in warfare than other nations such as the Soviet soldier. I have no stake in Don Shaffer’s comment as I lack information and education supporting or not supporting his claim. Therefore, I am not accusing him of having made an off-handed remark. But as a neurobiologist I assume this was meant as a cultural comment as we can agree that there is no such thing as  Soviet soldiers, for example, by genetics being more prevalent to rape than Americans, such as Ashkenazi Jews have higher incidences of certain genetic disorders than other groups. Then, along these lines, do we think of rape in war as a pathological behavior or as a cultural behavior. Or is both possible. Meaning: how many soldiers that rape have an underlying mental condition or are from a certain background, such as physical abuse, drug abuse, broken family structure, educational, social or religious background etc? I am sure not only the Pentagon has studied this. Furthermore, such a study can and should be translated into the 19th century re: the social structure and applicable cultural conditions then. And lastly, historians should (and I assume have) team up with medical professionals and psychobiologists on this subject.

In summary, while everybody here seems to acknowledge the occurrence of rape on both sides I am uncomfortably surprised by the emphasis in some comments on having to be very cautious to make an assumption on the number of rapes. Does that imply rape was not an issue of proportions that influenced the style of CW warfare and does it imply rape did not impact society in the Union and/or in the Confederates States or post CW America? Or does it imply that rape was influential enough to be a frequent or accepted behavior of soldiers and to have an impact on women in the CW, such as increasing births to single mothers and causing women to be outcasts or emotionally impaired in the postwar American society? If the former was implied how do you reach that conclusion re: the under-documentation? If the latter was meant then what is implied by “be careful to assume numbers”? And instead of concentating on rape numbers it might be a more interesting study to look at the perception and treatment of women that were raped in the CW and 19th century post war America and do a comparative study with other American wars. Add that to how Union and Confederate soldiers were remembered, meaning reports of actual rapes and mythology,  you can write a book about the American CW that even Mort Kunstler would be at a loss for a cover design. A book not meant for reenactment.

37 comments… add one
  • Tom Lowry Aug 26, 2009 @ 7:57

    Yes, my chapters on rape in SEXUAL MISBEHAVIOR IN THE CIVIL WAR (2007) attempt to compare rape in various wars.

    At a meeting, I was asked how many un-reported rapes occured.

    I answered, “Exactly 1,327,” an attempt by humor to show the impossibility of the question.

  • Mike Aug 25, 2009 @ 9:26

    Rape being used as a weapon goes back to Ancient History. I will have to get and read Toms Book.

  • Tom Lowry Aug 24, 2009 @ 14:31

    Kevin. I am writing about two completely different books.

    Different books.

    The Story the Soldiers came out in 1994 and is anecdotal.

    Sexual Misbehavior in the CW came out in 2007. All new material. This book is a compendium, a reference book, an encyclopedia. It does not repeat the material in the Story the Soldiers Didn’t tell. It is indexed by name and by regiment. The sections of the book include prostitution, rape (union & Confederate), masturbation, cursing, pornography, and a vast miscellany. The book does not repeat any second hand material of other authors. It is original documents, each fully cited.

    Tom Lowry

    • Kevin Levin Aug 24, 2009 @ 14:38


      Thanks for clarifying. I guess what I am wondering is whether you provide any analysis of these incidents in the more recent book since there isn’t much in the earlier study. Even if you do not it’s nice to know that those interested in this subject can follow up with your sources.

  • Thomas P. Lowry Aug 24, 2009 @ 10:50

    Everything published and/or documented about Civil War rape is in my 2006 book SEXUAL MISBEHAVIOR IN THE CIVIL WAR, the result of a decade of full-time research. The answer to manyof your correspondents is in that book. Amazon carries it.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 24, 2009 @ 11:14


      Thanks for the reference. I assume you are referring to the book that was originally published as _The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell_ from Stackpole publishers?

  • Sherree Tannen Aug 24, 2009 @ 7:21


    The following is the link to a recent article on this topic that may be of interest to your readers. It is by Maureen Stutzman, and is entitled “Rape in the American Civil War: Race, Class, and Gender in the Case of Harriet McKinley and Perry Pierson”:


    Thanks, as always, for the conversation. Sherree

    • Kevin Levin Aug 24, 2009 @ 7:28

      Thanks for the link, Sherree.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 24, 2009 @ 6:17


    Thanks for adding to the discussion. I am also looking forward to your upcoming book. It’s nice to see that your execution essay from a few years ago has expanded into a book-length treatment on discipline. Unfortunately, I still need to go back and revise my piece on execution/discipline/desertion in Confederate ranks.

  • Don Shaffer Aug 24, 2009 @ 5:54

    Dear Steven: thanks for adding the evidentiary observations to this discussion–they are much needed and much appreciated. I look forward to reading your book when it comes out. As with your book on the blacks in the Union Navy it sounds like a major contribution to the field.

  • Sherree Tannen Aug 24, 2009 @ 1:57


    I always enjoy your perspective as well! And again, the post is great and very insightful. We’ll have to disagree when it comes to the idea that a feminist perspective automatically implies that the tone of the conversation becomes sharp, however. (If that is what you meant. It is difficult to tell at times in this medium)

    A sharp tone, a shrill voice, an irritable demeanor, all have traditionally been ways and descriptions that have kept women from speaking out. It is the modern equivalent of the demand that women be “ladies”. In quite a few conversations on Civil War Memory that have involved mainly men, the conversation has become decidedly heated and close to what I would call an intellectual contact sport. Does that mean that the men are not comporting themselves properly? I doubt that most men would even consider such a thought. On the other hand, I agree that the tone of any conversation should be civil, as long as being civil means that the conversation is being heard. If not, it is time to scream (to paraphrase a feminist poet, but in this case metaphorically speaking) especially when it comes to a topic like rape and the continued exploitation of women in both reality and in memory. We are getting close, in this discussion and in my opinion, to beginning to understand the roots of continued racism in this country. Although historians know better, the general public deals with myths of history that can be reduced to what amounts to sound bites, and those sound bites translate into stock myths that become hollow archetypes over time.

    I have been talking for months now about the massacres of Indigenous men and women and referring to these massacres as stark evidence that the theory that a new republic was born after the Civil War does not always hold up. Kevin has patiently allowed the exploration of this topic, and he has indicated that the topic is not within his area of expertise, so he can offer limited information concerning it. Thus, we, the readers, have stated our opinions, and in stating them we always seem to end at a dead end, because the conversation becomes one that revolves around Lost Cause myth. For the first time, in this discussion, we have avoided that, and I find it to be constructive.

    In parts of this conversation, we have discussed the rape of black women by Union soldiers. The inclusion of Lost Cause theory is not relevant. As I stated in the first post on this issue, the south practiced the institutionalized rape of women who were slaves. For me, not much else needs to be said. There is no defense of slavery. There is no defense of the rape, and/or murder of women who were slaves, either. Historians have done a tremendous job over the past thirty years debunking Lost Cause mythology. The evidence is in, and it is conclusive.

    Black women who were raped by the very soldiers who came to free them from slavery, though, is a topic that needs extensive examination, and the more we discuss this topic; the more it appears to me that the topic needs to be discussed. I can also see how numbers would become important, to a certain extent, in this sense: were these rapes of black women the aberrant behavior of a few disturbed men, or do they reveal an underside of American history that has been ignored? The answer to that question is not yet known, to my knowledge. What about the rape and mutilation of Indigenous women? Again, the answers are not yet known, and often depend upon which side of history you find yourself.

    How we view these events of the past has consequences for today, as we have all noted. Black men and women are still attempting to be heard, as are Indigenous men and women, and not heard as “ethnic” minorities, but as men and women who overcame the nightmare of slavery and made America live up to its ideals; and in the case of Indigenous men and women, as the first and rightful owners of this country called “America”, and as the men and women who know this land longest and best. They all have much to say.

    Also, Michaela, I appreciated very much your observations about the rape of German women during World War II. I am certain you know a great deal about your country’s history.

    My best regards to you, to Kevin, and to Kevin’s other readers. I always learn something by participating in this blog.


  • Steven Ramold Aug 23, 2009 @ 18:32

    I would like to share a few things, if I may. I address this issue in my upcoming book “Baring the Iron Hand: Discipine in the Union Army” that is due out in October. I include a disussion of rape in a chapter on violent crimes committed by Union soldiers and how the Union Army disciplined the offense. I admit that my small portion of a chapter is certainly not the last word on the subject, which merits a fuller academic discussion, but I can offer some broad impressions based upon specific research. Several trends emerged in the historical reporting of sexual assault. My first observation was that rape was rarely reported. That is not to say that rape and sexual assault did not take place, but rather that it is relatively rare compared to other offenses. One could take that to mean that sexual assaults seldom occurred, or that, as has been already mentioned, the assault was not reported to avoid social stigma.

    My second observation was that it was difficult to ascertain with any certainty the frequency of the crime. Many incidences, like those reported during Sherman’s March for instance, appear in letters and diaries as second-hand reports or repeated accounts heard from a third party. I came across no first-hand account of a Southern woman describing her own assault. One of the sources I usedi in the book was Lisa T. Frank’s Ph.D. thesis “To Cure Her of Her Pride and Boasting: The Gendered Implications of Sherman’s March,” (University of Florida, 2001), which included a lengthy discussion on the threat of sexual assault as a psychological weapon, but even in Frank’s research I do not recall a first-hand account.

    Next, my research found that in many instances, especially in occupied areas of the South where local courts were in operation, the Army was content to turn those accused of sexual assault over to local authorities for prosecution. This may have been based upon a theory that a crime against a civilian was best tried by a civilian court, or it was simply means for the Army to dispose it self of a soldier of whom they were ashamed and wanted no association. But it does mean that an accurate count of sexual assaults, or even of proscution of the offense, will likely never be fully known.

    My next observation is that, when reported and prosecuted, the Army came down on convicted rapists with a vengeance unknown to any other offender, with the possible exception of bounty jumpers. My research found that in a sample pool of courts-martial, about one quarter of those accused of crimes were found not guilty, but those accused of rape were found innocent by a considerably lower rate. Moreover, while the army was hesitant to impose the death penalty for every offense that warrented it, there was no compunction about executing those convicted of sexual assault. I found one instance where, in the midst of his Carolina campaign, Sherman found the time to conduct a public execution of a convicted rapist. The Army’s attitude about executed rapists also reflects the common soldier’s attitude about the crime. While soldiers experienced a wide range of emotions when witnessing the execution of, say, a deserter, with some soldiers justifying the punishment while others rejected the Army’s power to take their lives, no one expressed sympathy for the condemned rapist. With no exceptions, soldiers felt that a convicted rapist got what he deserved.

    • Kim Murphy Oct 29, 2010 @ 8:50

      I found these comments long after the discussion. As it turns out, I am researching and writing a book about rape in the Civil War. I have been researching for several years already and have finally begun to write. There is much confusion on this topic. First off, rape was rarely prosecuted in the 19th century, and the historians that maintain the Civil War was a low-rape war have not studied rape during the era.

      A woman essentially had to prove that she did not consent to the act. It was generally believed that a woman would guard her virtue with her life. If she survived the rape, then jurors tended to believe that she had consented. A young, unmarried women would also be considered unmarriageable. An elite woman was more likely to be believed, especially if the man was of lower standing in society. Rich, white men were rarely prosecuted. The same holds true during the war.

      It’s no coincidence that black men were prosecuted as rapists more often than white men. It’s certianly not because they did more raping. It’s because women were believed more often when raped by a black man. It’s also no coindence that of the soldiers executed for rape, the majority of them were either black or foreign born. The remainder were poor white soldiers. I found an entry in a private’s diary complaining about a colonel. He said that if he carried on the way the colonel did, he would be hung. Yes, he was talking about rape. Not only did this colonel never have charges brought against him, he was made a general.

      I have a database that can give examples of almost any kind of scenerio imaginable, including women tortured. War has not changed over time. It’s rarely reported now because of humiliation and lack of belief in the justice system. There is no way to prove whether rape may or may not have been rampant because those who were raped weren’t likely to talk about it–same as today. Those who cling to the belief that the Civil War was a low-rape war are romanticizing the era. Women (black, white, Indian) got raped in greater numbers than people care to admit.

      • Kevin Levin Oct 29, 2010 @ 8:51


        Thanks for taking the time to comment and for sharing a bit from your own research.

  • Michaela Aug 23, 2009 @ 16:36

    Don, Thank you for your kind response! First, let me assure you that my enthusiastic half-education in history would not suffice to even write a paper. And I definitely leave the writing about history to the more qualified member of my family; )

    Your argument is clear to me now and it very well may be that we find with a little further research that the hypothesis you formulate in 2) holds true for the American CW. It might also be more constructive (as already suggested) to give the analysis of the military versus the social culture of rape in America a broader platform than the CW. For example, one could start with the American Revolution, the wars overseas that had American involvement and leading up to the Civil Rights and Women’s Movement. I am sorry that my own ignorance does not allow me to suggest books potentially already written.

    I agree rape is a complex and difficult subject and I value your stand on it. But I would add, and you as a historian probably agree, that any reasonable study needs to be conducted by a historian like the medical doctor treats his patient: a step removed from the human suffering. We should not study ourselves and self-analyze, but ask difficult questions that may be uncomfortable for us as men and women, Americans and Germans, etc. But so be it for the sake of seeking the truth, the one we can reach within our hermeneutic circle. The most infuriating comments on history by historians or history buffs are those that cannot separate this. The voices of primary sources are, of course, in a different league.

    Thank you.

  • Don Shaffer Aug 23, 2009 @ 13:46

    Dear Michaela: thanks for your extended comment. I really appreciate it. You raise some excellent points. In no way was I trying to imply that the rape or sexual exploitation of African American, Native American, or any other group of women is unimportant. Neither was I downplaying the moral repungnance of rape as a crime because of the relative prevalence of the phenomenon in the war. Rape is loathsome crime whether it happens to one person or one million. My points are, to the best of my knowledge: 1) historians know little about the phenomenon of rape in the U.S. Civil War because they haven’t studied it a lot and because it was a sensitive subject that was likely concealed at the time more than it was pursued (meaning that little documentation has been left behind); 2) my best guess is that compared to other conflicts rape was less common in the U.S. Civil War, especially as a mass phenomonon particularly involving white on white victimization. But I just don’t know for sure though. It sounds like there is a book there for someone with the tenacity to track down the sources such as they are. I’d pursue it myself if I wasn’t engaged in another project at the moment. Maybe you should pursue it. I’ll be the first one in line to buy the book.

  • Michaela Aug 23, 2009 @ 13:11

    Don, Let me get back to two of your comments because I do not quite understand what your point is. And I am sure if we had a conversation in person this would be clear to me by now. Or maybe I didn’t make myself clear:

    From the previous post you wrote: “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.” and in this thread: ” I’m still looking though for accounts of mass rapes by white soldiers of either side on white women.” Are you saying that the rape of women that were not accepted in society is a subject or an atrocity that has nothing to do with war, should not count because it was not a strategic tool warfare (and I am being a little provocative here)? Let me clarify my argument: black women that were raped as property need to be considered as part of the warfare strategy (see James Bartek’s and Peter’s expl. which I support).
    I also wonder whether the “casual” rape of women of ethnicity in the CW does not count as “mass rape”.

    Secondly, I still fail to see your argument with the Victorian era American man. While contemporary manners and respect for white women might have curtailed atrocities against them, the ownership of black women, children and men (with the limited source we can only guess the atrocities committed by homosexual slave owners) and the consequently occurring increase of sexual abuse of slaves or any people that were at the periphery of “socially acceptable” in war times does not make the Victorian era American man a poster child of war.

    Thirdly, the common abuse of these minority women in peace times did certainly increase in war times. While this might not have to do with the CW outcome it is part of history and it is part of the Victorian era American man’s past. More importantly, it shaped the role of women of different ethnicity in the American society far into the 20th century.

    Further, the repeated reference here to the Red Army soldier (and I am well aware of the atrocities against women by members of the Red Army) is starting to sound too broad for me, particularly when we make such painful distinctions between who the American 19th century soldier raped and who he did not rape because of “respect”. If we want to have a more in depth discussion we have to acknowledge that the Red Army had also soldiers that served honorably and never touched a woman despite the “institutionalized rape” as we defined it earlier, like the Confederate Army and the Union had soldiers that did not rape women of different ethnicity in a culture of “institutionalized racism”. The reasons for the atrocities of the Red Army are also more complex than Stalin’s quote. Not minimizing the suffering of women in the Soviet occupied zone and Eastern European countries I would like to add that the American and British Allies got a better reputation not always because they deserved it, but because there was a certain level of politically shaped memory going on in post WWII Germany.

    Again, my main concern why I wrote this post was that I wanted to point out that it is dangerous and maybe irresponsible to judge the numbers of rape in war. Instead the culture of it needs to be analyzed to have a complete picture of the Civil War as well as of any other war. Along those lines 100 times more rapes in one war compared to the other tell us nothing. I can only agree with the point of length of war that James Bartek made. Regarding “gender bias” women might be less interested in the “numbers” of rape while men are more likely to look at that. However, I do think that that is the nature of the beast of this topic and that everybody in this thread has been aware of it and at least tried not to fall into that trap.

    Sherree, thank you! I always love to hear your perspective. While I do appreciate your point about feminist thinkers and while I agree with the importance of that perspective I am happy to see that in this particular thread women and men could hear each other without having to sharpen the tone.

  • James Bartek Aug 23, 2009 @ 8:19


    I think you’re right that if something analogous to Sand Creek had occurred among the white population, it certainly would have been reported (histrionics of the propagandists aside). The New York and Richmond papers were certainly not on a 24 hour news cycle, but something of that magnitude would not have been missed. Barring some mass conspiracy of silence, I think it would be safe to assume it never happened. Johnny Reb and Billy Yank, whatever their flaws, were certainly not Red Army soldiers, comrade! (at least not when it came to white women . . . )

    I have often wondered, though, about the cultural restraints which prevented such atrocities during four years of war, and to what extent, if any, they began to fray toward the end. What if the war had gone on for another year, two years, three? Soldiers were apt to handle “impudent” women in a fairly rough manner by 1865. Was that a trend that would have continued?

  • Don Shaffer Aug 23, 2009 @ 7:29

    Dear James: thanks for the references to mass rapes by Union and Confederate troops, which clearly occurred with populations both groups considered inferior. That very much ties into Sherree Tannen’s highly appropriate remark that rape is an expression of power rather than sexuality. The sexual exploitation of black women by white soldiers also fits into this power dynamic. I’m still looking though for accounts of mass rapes by white soldiers of either side on white women. Does anyone have any evidence of such occurences? As I’ve written before, if they would have occurred you’d think they’d be well known and notorious. Southern propagandists, in particular, would have had a field day with such stories. I haven’t come across anything like this and I would be highly interested if anyone else has. In any case, I’m highly enjoying this discussion.

  • James Bartek Aug 23, 2009 @ 7:06


    I have come across scattered accounts of Confederates raping black women. The problem is, they were not reported as such by those who committed or observed them. Antebellum slave laws made it pretty clear that, because black women were both “naturally” licentious as well as property, they were considered to be “unrapeable.” No court would hear a case concerning a master or a white man raping a black woman, because it wasn’t considered a crime.

    On the other hand, private property was protected with a vengeance. A white man who assaulted another man’s slave might not be charged with rape, but he could find himself in legal trouble for “enticing” away another man’s property. That, and he was liable to be horsewhipped by an angry owner. This might actually have served to mitigate assaults against slave women. Free women, however, were left with little protection. Before the war, it was common for white males to dally with black “wenches” before marriage, as it allowed them to sow their oats, so to speak, without sullying the purity of white women. Black “prostitutes” accompanied Lee’s army, suggesting the trend continued into the war years. But again, how many of them were there of their own volition (comparatively speaking), and how many were forced against their will?


    In regards to mass rapes committed by Union soldiers, I’d point to the Bear River massacre of January 1863, when California troops attacked a band of Shoshoni in Idaho and, again, Sand Creek.

    As for Confederate troops, New Mexican sources make it pretty clear that Texans used women in and around Mesilla pretty much as they pleased in late 1861 and early 1862.

    Granted, these weren’t white women, which is precisely why so few (white) people chose not to make a “big deal” out of it.

  • James F. Epperson Aug 23, 2009 @ 6:12

    “James: Are we to assume, then, that Confederate soldiers did not rape black women?”—I didn’t mean to suggest that. There aren’t a lot of accounts of this, which doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. I don’t pretend to know.

  • Sherree Tannen Aug 23, 2009 @ 4:52

    Brava, Michaela! Great post!

    If you are still open to comments on this post, Kevin, I would like to add a few observations.

    It is not necessary to reinvent the wheel with each generation. It seems to me that if studies by feminist thinkers were ever truly included within the mainstream of academic thought, rather than relegated to what we women of another generation used to call the “ghetto”, then some of these issues would already be understood. The same, no doubt, can be said of studies of race. (I have not been in a university setting for a long time, Kevin, so I am sure much of this has changed. It hasn’t changed enough, though, in my opinion. I still see references made to “women’s studies’”, as if the study of women in history is somehow the study of a different universe than that which men inhabit )

    Yes, this topic is uncomfortable. Yes, this topic is ugly. And yes, this topic has everything to do with a discussion about war; about how war is remembered; and even about why we continue to have war. (I am thinking here of Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade)

    Rape is not about sexuality, as has been noted in this discussion. Rape is about power–absolute power–power over another individual and complete humiliation of that individual. Thus, rape is always present in war, since the goal of war is to defeat and subjugate to the point of death that abstraction known as “the enemy”. Rape is a concomitant behavior that all too often accompanies the behaviors necessary to achieve the goal of killing in war.

    There was a study done in the 1980s by a feminist thinker who analyzed the psychology of rape and war. (I am still looking for this essay, and when I find it, I will email it to you, Kevin, if you and your readers are interested. For now, I will have to work from memory) In this study, the scholar examined how British soldiers on their way to the Falklands were shown violent pornographic movies in order to prepare them for battle. The incident was striking, of course, because the unstated connection between the violence of rape and the violence of war was no longer unstated, but made quite clear.

    In war, men (and women) who are ordinary functioning human beings must alter their state of mind, and even their psychology, in order to cross the threshold of behavior that allows them to kill. For some men it is not that difficult to rape once that threshold is crossed, regardless of the era. For other men, this is not true. When the government of an invading army sanctions rape, all hell truly does break loose, as history proves.

    Not to study the act of rape as a vital area of inquiry in the study of nations and societies at war does indeed reflect what is not necessarily gender bias, but gender ignorance. I am not saying this to be confrontational. I am saying it because it is so. Wars are still studied, to some extent, from the point of view of proving manhood. No war can be romanticized when the rapes that occurred in that war are considered. There is no such thing as a civilized war in which rape does not occur, or in which the rapes that did occur are not significant because they occurred infrequently, thus making that particular war a more humane war. The words “civilized” and “humane” within the same phrase as the word “war” is a falsehood to begin with. Maybe we could start from there. Thanks, Kevin, thanks to your readers, and thanks, Michaela. Sherree

    • Kevin Levin Aug 23, 2009 @ 4:57

      Yes, everyone should feel free to continue the discussion. This has given me quite a bit to think about. Thanks to all.

  • Michaela Aug 22, 2009 @ 20:24

    Thank you Kevin for inviting me to post my take on this complex subject. And thanks to everybody who engaged in this discussion. I do appreciate the reserved tone as James Epperson put it.

    I conclude that when looking at the question of “institutionalized rape” we cannot neglect to talk about racial and cultural bias, especially in 19th century American history. I also appreciate the repeated suggestion to look at comparative studies when it comes to this topic (thanks for the book suggestions). We qualified the issue of “numbers” and added the analysis of the rather complex culture of rape. I agree with Peter that not including “marginalized women” gives a false sense of the culture. And again, great point made about the issue of reporting it (thanks to Heather, too).

    Regarding the racial profile of rape in the CW I agree with both, James Barteks’s argument that it “did much to undermine their [the Southerner’s] sense of masculinity (or manliness)” and Peter’s argument of a threat against white women. But that provokes another question that would fill a new post. (If white women empathized with black women that were raped by Union soldiers wouldn’t that challenge the idea of black men and women being regarded as “property”? I doubt that it is possible to acknowledge a person’s humanity in one case, but not in the other (slavery). Thus, did whites agree to enslave another human being they silently acknowledged to be of the same identity rather than of “property” status? It does not make the institution of slavery better or worse, but it puts a different moral twist on it).

    I would still argue for also acknowledging the “pathology” of rape. And some scenarios that may lead to the pathology are described by Heather Michon: sexually inappropriate behavior in individual cases as a potential response to i.e, chronic stress, the change of adrenalin and hormones due to the experiences in war times beyond cultural limits.

    Thank you, it was a great discussion.

  • Tim Abbott Aug 22, 2009 @ 16:13

    I would recommend Sharon Block’s “Rape and Sexual Power in Early America” for a scholarly treatment of this subject in America between 1700-1820. As the first comment in this thread notes, there are quite a number of examples of rape from the Revolutionary War period.


  • Don Shaffer Aug 22, 2009 @ 16:05

    Dear Kevin: my comment about rape being less prevelant in the U.S. Civil War is an educated guess. I do not know it for a fact. Your comments about rape being under-reported in Victorian America is well taken. No doubt a lot of women kept such assaults secret for fear of the social repercussions. However, I’m pretty sure that neither the Union or Confederate soldiers engaged rape on the mass scale seen in some 20th century conflicts. I think if it had been as prevelant as, say, in Germany at the end of World War II, one side or the other would have made a big deal about it. I’ve never run across claims of mass rape in either Union or Confederate writings. Has anyone else?

  • Will Hickox Aug 22, 2009 @ 15:16

    James: Are we to assume, then, that Confederate soldiers did not rape black women?

  • Peter Aug 22, 2009 @ 15:14

    The other thing to ponder is whether or not rapes during the Civil War represent any deviation from the norm. Does the apparent increase in rape during the Civil War represent a true increase in rape, or only an increase reporting it (usually by Union officers who thought it hurt discipline)? We could easily point to any number of marginalized women, who were therefore outside of the protection of the law, where rape would be invisible from our vantage point today, or even at the time (Native Americans, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, any woman on the frontier, immigrants in large cities, or even house servants).

  • rhapsodyinbooks Aug 22, 2009 @ 15:12

    Kevin, thanks to you and Michaela for sponsoring a rational and intelligent discussion about a very sensitive topic. As usual, you are to be commended for bringing these issues to the attention of readers.

  • James F. Epperson Aug 22, 2009 @ 13:27

    This is an ugly topic to be discussing, but I think I am learning a lot from it, and I appreciate the reserved tone everyone is using. My unprofessional “gut feeling” is that rape was rare in the Civil War, the common exception (and this by no means excuses it) being the almost casual rape of black women by white Union troops. None of it should have happened.

  • Heather Michon Aug 22, 2009 @ 13:15

    The more you try to wrap the head around this, the more complex it becomes — and it dosen’t help that there are few real figures to back up any hypothesis or supposition. So with the caveat that this is all purely hypothetical and suppositional, I’ll jump in.

    For the sake of argument, let’s define rape beyond just penile penetration without consent. It’s an act of violence or dominance that seems to flourish in certain situations. So what about the wartime atmosphere leads to rape?

    Some possible (and probably overlapping) causes:

    1) Most men go to war at the time in their lives when their sex drives are at their highest. Yet by going to war, they are removed — often for years at a time — from their normal sexual partners.

    2) The removal from their communities allows a sexual freedom that they don’t have in their “normal” lives. This makes it easier to justify actions they might not take were they back in their placid little hometown.

    3) The job of a soldier is to kill the enemy. Once you’ve taken lives, or watched other people die violently “lesser,” non-lethal crimes don’t seem so much like crimes.

    4) While rape may not be a institutionalized weapon of war, it seems to be universally understood as an effective way to injure and humiliate the enemy — both the woman AND her male kin.

    We also have to look the possibility that the intent of wartime rape could be different for different groups.

    For example, in the context of the Civil War, it’s logical to assume that the rape of black women was driven more by a desire to get one’s rocks off with a female that was already seen as sexually licentious or not-quite-human; whereas the rape of white women could be seen as a way to not only release the aforementioned rocks AND metaphorically stick it to the enemy at the same time.

    The amazing — and amazingly depressing — thing to me is that wartime rape does not seem to differ much from culture to culture or era to era. As Feimster notes in her essay, there are historical references to rape going back almost to the beginning of the historical record. Hundreds of female soldiers serving in our military today have been raped by their fellow soldiers. Statistically speaking, women are no more inclined to report rape than they were hundreds of years ago. Does this mean that rape as a tool of war and rape as a weapon of shame/humiliation is somehow hard-wired into as part of our social evolution as humans?

  • Michaela Aug 22, 2009 @ 12:03

    Peter, Great point about the “institutionalized rape”. And reading Stalin’s quote I would further distinguish among the “institutionalized rape” where an army has an explicit written or spoken order different from where it is “culturally acceptable in the military” to rape, but not openly addressed. That is also different from “culturally acceptable in the society”. The last would address black woman being raped as a form of dehumanizing black people in the time of slavery. While I understand your point of Union soldiers raping black women in front of white women being perceived as a “threat”, I wonder to which degree this is true. Did white women that were aware of white slave owners raping slaves and not perceiving or ignoring that as a crime because of the dehumanization of slaves change their perspective when the assault against the black woman was suddenly committed by a Union soldier? Also, how do we treat rape of a slave woman compared to a white woman? This is a difficult issue because a 21 century perspective would be “rape is a crime against any woman and thus needs to be counted as such”. In the context of 19th century American history raping a black woman has a different impact than raping a white woman because of their different position in society and the magnitude of institutionalized racism (this disregarding the emotional perspective of the woman that is not the focus of the question).

    Treating the issue as a cultural phenomenon might work depending on the question that is asked. If we ask who the participating parties are and what their history and their cultural differences are we can analyze the respect or disrespect toward their own and the others’ women. As the American CW divided people that were considered citizens of the same cultural and, broadly speaking, ethnic background rape might have been less acceptable. But then we fall into the trap of exclusive history by ignoring black Americans. You write “hatred never descended to this level”, but racism apparently did. So while I understand from your sources that it was unacceptable to rape a white woman, I assume it was more acceptable to rape a black woman. To what degree were these crimes legally and culturally dealt with differently? And when a Union soldier raped a black woman was this done of racist motives independent of war, i.e. it is “culturally acceptable” to do this to her, or did it actually have a warfare motive? It is amazingly complex and I think once we include women of all races we get closer to see what was part of the deterioration of common law during war and part of the history of race which do not have to be mutually exclusive.

    So far for the cultural question. Still, the pathological rapist might be still an issue in warfare. The question here is whether severe trauma can lead people to lose their inhibition and thus commit a crime such as rape. This would exceed cultural boundaries as mental disorders cannot be treated by cultural preference or military orders.

    Becky, Rape of men is a whole different topic. Considering that rape among men is a more frequent crime than reported, I wonder how much rape among men at any institution where exclusively men work together occurs. How much rape is an issue between opposing armies would be a tough study now and in the near future considering the level of openness to discussing and reporting sexual crimes in any military institution world wide or among men culturally.

    James, Agreed, I am not concerned with numbers, that was my point. I actually prefer the idea of comparative studies like the one Peter suggested or the analysis of cultural perception and legal treatment of rape in the CW because that tells me more than unreported numbers. And as Peter mentioned we would find ourselves again in the territory of race relations.

  • James Bartek Aug 22, 2009 @ 11:09

    I’m not particularly certain of the direction of this thread, so apologies in advance if I’m off topic.

    I agree with Peter that we should view the issue of rape in the Civil War as a matter of “culture” – an Anglo culture with very specific notions as to gender and race. Others, too, have noted the prevalence of white on black rape, and how black women served as a proxy in the war against white Southern women. I would add that the rape of black women in front of masters also did much to undermine their sense of masculinity (or manliness), as a significant component of Southern male identity rested upon their ability to control and protect dependents – women, children, and slaves.

    That said, I think it was Susan Brownmiller in “Against Our Will” who put forward the idea of the Civil War as a “low-rape war,” and I’ve never seen any evidence that contradicts this assertion. For the Victorian-era Anglo soldier, self-control was seen as a hallmark of manliness. To rape, therefore, would have undermined their sense of self-worth. Women, furthermore, were integral to the Victorian-era male’s identity. In their patriarchal world, they defined what a woman was, and how she should act. If she abided by the those rules, she deserved to be defended and protected. When they violated male notions of propriety – say, by spitting on a soldier – they were no longer acting as “ladies,” and therefore whatever protection they may have been accorded was forfeit.

    Still, no matter how unladylike their behavior, their whiteness assured that any mistreatment would be limited. A slap would have been seen as excusable. Rape would not.

    The rules were drastically different when white soldiers encountered “women of color.” I don’t think its a coincidence that Northern soldiers considered black women to be lascivious, nor that Confederate Texans thought the same of native New Mexican women in 1862, nor that Union and Rebel thought the same of Native American women. Non-white women were not considered “true women,” therefore they were not accorded the same protection as Southern “belles.” Compounding the issue, if they were not true women, Victorian-era soldiers could assault them, if not with impunity, then at least without risking the same stigmatization as if they has assaulted white women. Just look at Sand Creek.

    I think it would be correct to say that it was never culturally “acceptable” to rape any woman, and the fact that soldiers were brought up on charges for assaulting blacks, Indians, or New Mexicans supports the idea that gender continued to trump race. In a country where some men were “more equal” than others, however, so too was it “more acceptable” to rape certain women.

    And no, I have no idea how Mort would fit that into a painting.

  • Peter Aug 22, 2009 @ 10:16

    A central question here, at least in a comparative framework, is “was rape ever institutionalized within the army?” All of the examples from the 20th Century we have seen pop up (Red Army, former Yugoslavia) and others we could offer (Japanese Army during World War II, any number of conflicts in Africa) have as a common thread that rape was institutionalized as a weapon the armies could use. By way of example, I think in Max Hasting’s “Armageddon,” he discusses how Stalin was told of the prevalence of rape by Soviet troops, and Stalin chuckled and said something along the lines of “Boys will be boys, and look at what the Germans did to our country, so now it is their turn.” The reasons for this “instutitionalization” as I have called it usually revolve around notions of cultural superiority or revenge (Eastern Front was a race war, Japanese in China, etc). During the Civil War, as far as I can tell, hatred (in most post places) never descended to this level. Furthermore, Union officers generally attempted to control capital crimes, primarily rape and murder. So, I don’t think we’re going to get any evidence of a massive rape spree during the Civil War. My inclination (based on fragmentary evidence I’ve made mental note of when researching other things), is that white women were relatively safe in the South, but white Northern soldiers often raped African-American women.

    If we think along cultural lines, it becomes obvious that African-American women were at much higher risk for being victims of rape. And evidence of this appears often enough to be more than “rare,” but perhaps less than “common.” I’ve seen letters referencing “going out after Negro wenches,” which admittedly is a touch ambiguous, but it does seem ominous. The testimony for Basil Turchin’s court-martial, for instance, records that his troops raped a mulatto, but left the white women alone.

    Here, as well is a bit from OR XV p.373 from April 14, 1863: “negro women were ravished in the presence of white women and children.” AsI interpret it, the real emphasis lies on the “in the presence of white women and children” more than “negro women were ravished.” We can draw a few conclusions from this sentence. First, in the context in which it appeared, the Union officer making the report was complaining about how undisciplined the troops were. Second, African-American women were,to some degree, culturally acceptable targets of sexual violence. Third, while the white women were not violated, witness a rape would offer the explicit threat “We can do this to your slave and you can’t stop us, so who would stop us if we tried to do it to you.”

    In sum, I think we should probably treat this issue in terms of culture (where notions of race and gender are articulated).

    • Ann Carter Aug 1, 2017 @ 6:38

      there were indeed rapes of white women during the Civil War, however the knowledge of such crimes were more often reported in family history since who would the women have reported it to? Especially, if at the end of the rape was execution.
      Tragic story passed down in the Virginia Pearson family from the time of the Second Battle of Bull Run in late August 1862. Several of the Pearsons were in the 43rd Virginia — Mosby’s Rangers. The Union forces were having so much trouble with Mosby’s Rangers that a Union Cavalry unit rode into the Pearson place looking for Mosby’s men. They did not find Elias Crouch, husband of Cumberland Pearson’s grand daughter Martha Ann Pearson Crouch. With unspeakable hatred they took her into the barn, raped her and shot and killed her. She was 20 years old. About that time Elias Crouch rode in. He was shot and left unconscious but recovered. Their daughter grew up and married William Steele. My family are those Pearsons.

      http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=62942949 -{Martha Ann Pearson Crouch)

  • James F. Epperson Aug 22, 2009 @ 9:46

    OK, first, I am not an historian, just a poor dumb country mathematician with pretensions to some historical knowledge. Rape is not mentioned a lot in Civil War literature. There have been a couple of books which remarked on the “lack” of rape in the war. Was this because there really wasn’t much rape, or because it went unreported and no one has wanted to suggest it occurred much? I don’t know. I don’t have the background to evaluate whether or not the average 19th century American boy in uniform (blue or gray) might actually be less inclined toward sexual assault than other soldiers. I confess I *want* to believe that Civil War soldiers were less guilty of this kind of thing than the Red Army was, but my understanding of World War II tells me this is a pathetically low standard.

    We just don’t know a lot. I can easily believe that more rapes occurred than are generally acknowledged, and I can believe that many victims would simply not talk about it. But I don’t like to assume crimes—any kind of crimes—were committed without some evidence.

  • Rebecca Aug 22, 2009 @ 9:25

    I’ve often wondered why we haven’t paid more attention to rape during the American Revolution. I had a student two years ago who wrote a fantastic term paper on rapes perpetrated by British soldiers upon both Revolutionary and Loyalist women during the New Jersey campaigns of 1776-1777; she uncovered some very interesting evidence that suggested, at the very least, that rape was far more common during the Revolution than scholars have previously recognized. British officers, according to her research, attempted to blame Hessian mercenaries for the incidents she uncovered.

    The evidence was very difficult for her to work with–I found it pretty challenging myself. But in any war where large numbers of civilians are involved (and isn’t that practically every war?) rape is going to be a problem. It’s clearly a topic that requires more research than an undergraduate paper can cover.

    Incidentally, rape can also be anal/sodomitical in nature. I suspect finding male victims of rape during the Civil War is far more difficult than identifying female victims…

Now that you've read the post, share your thoughts.