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.

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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.

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Please Stop Using Our Civil War To Satisfy Your Own Fantasies

20090814_Casteel_DSCN4132Gary Casteel’s previous projects include a sculpture of Jefferson Davis holding hands with his biological son and “adopted” black son, Jim Limber.  That project satisfied the fantasies of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which as far as I know still cannot find a home for it.  From the fantasy of southern paternalism we move to one of the most popular narratives of our Civil War memory: Brother against Brother.  Not surprisingly, the inspiration for this latest piece stems from a story handed down through the Casteel family:

Casteel says that his own family had two ancestors – brothers – who actually fired at each other from opposing armies during the Battle of Gettysburg, according to family history that has been handed down through generations.  It was not until about a year after the War that the brother who fought as a Confederate eventually showed back up at the other’s farm.  It had apparently taken a year for him to come to grips with the fact that the South had lost. But the delay in returning apparently was not long enough to heal the emotional wounds; the two brothers began to fight about the War’s outcome and eventually parted ways forever.  The Union soldier in “Brothers” is wounded and wearing a head bandage, and is clutching his brother. The Confederate soldier is shown in a reciprocal embrace, but his one fist remains clenched. Casteel says that he portrays the Confederate as the one who finds it hard to let go of the fact that his brother is a Yankee. “Hard to accept the fact that his world is now changing.”

I also heard stories from my parents and grandparents of relatives fighting one another during the Civil War, even though the family didn’t arrive at these shores until the early twentieth century.  At least one Levin had his home burned down by Sherman.

Why can’t we move beyond this ridiculous little narrative thread that tells us nothing about the horrors and consequences of war?  Let’s stop playing Civil War and get serious; after all, this is supposed to be art.  It looks like something out of a Civil War soap opera or Mort Kunstler painting.  Does anyone know if this statue is going to be placed on NPS-owned land?

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“History Through the Veil Again”: A Response to Ta-Nehisi Coates

The latest post by Ta-Nehisis Coates beautifully captures the frustrations that many African Americans experience when visiting America’s Civil War battlefields and specifically those places where African Americans participated.  A recent visit to the Petersburg battlefields, including the Crater, by Coates and his children highlights the continued challenges facing museums, the National Park Service, and other historical organizations in working toward a narrative that acknowledges the contributions of African Americans and situates the Civil War within the broader history of freedom and race.  When you take a moment to step back it is shocking to think that a war that resulted in the end of slavery and emancipation of 4 million people would be remembered in a way that divorced the descendants of those very people from being able to fully engage and consume the historic sites from that struggle.  And yet, that is where we are on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  Before proceeding here are a few passages from Coates’s post:

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“A Bloody Affair”

[My review of John Schmutz's recent book on the Crater is now up at H-Net]

The last several years has witnessed a sharp increase in the number of studies focused on the final year of the Civil War in Virginia and specifically the Petersburg Campaign.  Much of this can be traced to a renewed scholarly interest in the evolution of the conflict from “limited” to “hard” war, the role of emancipation in redefining the purpose of the war, and a general consensus among historians that the post-Gettysburg period cannot be understood simply as leading directly to the Confederate surrender at Appomattox in April 1865.  Given this sharp increase in attention to the Petersburg Campaign–plus the popularity of the movie Cold Mountain (2003), which included a vivid recreation of the battle–it should come as no surprise that historians would take a much closer look at the Battle of the Crater, which took place on July 31, 1864.  The novelty of the mine explosion, the use of an entire division of United States Colored Troops (USCT) in the attack, and the close-quarter fighting that ensued present the historian with the ideal case study for understanding the broad parameters of the war in 1864.

This study by John F. Schmutz is the most recent and the most thorough contribution to this growing body of literature on the Crater.[1]  Readers looking for a detailed account of the ebb and flow of battle as well as the broader strategic and operational decisions involved will be pleased.  Schmutz has mined an extensive amount of archival sources as well as published accounts and provides a minute-by-minute account of the battle.  His account includes the challenges involved in the construction of the mine, the destruction of the early-morning explosion of the mine, and the bloody fighting which followed.  Although the author’s attention to tactical detail is impressive, the lack of detailed maps that might have focused on the regimental level and taken into account the complexity of Confederate defenses renders the narrative at times difficult to follow.

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