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.