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.