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.

“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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Steven Hahn Gets It

My summer break is quickly winding down as I try to put the finishing touches on a chunk of my Crater research, including an article on understanding the battle as a slave rebellion from the perspective of Confederate soldiers for one of the Civil War magazines. With that in mind, I came across a very interesting essay by historian, Steven Hahn on the lack of scholarly attention concerning Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association. Hahn offers two points of reassessment that are needed if we are to better understand the dearth of scholarship. First, we need to move from viewing emancipation as two separate events – one in the North following the American Revolution and the other one in the South during the Civil War.  According to Hahn, it “should be be viewed not as two discrete events but as a single protracted process (more protracted than anywhere else in the Atlantic world), associated most closely with state formation—the rise, developing capacity, claims to authority, and consolidation of a nation-state—rather than with an “irrepressible” conflict between free and slave societies.”

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Can a Rape on the Northern Neck Explain the Crater Massacre?

It seems fitting to offer a few thoughts about the Crater on this the 145th anniversary of the battle.  On Monday Brendan Wolfe posted a fascinating entry on the Crater massacre over at the Encyclopedia Virginia blog.  In the process of putting together their entry on the battle, my friend, VFH Intern, and UVA graduate student, Peter Luebke uncovered an important story out of the Northern Neck of Virginia in June 1864.  In the summer of 1864 reports circulated in Richmond newspapers of the raping of a white woman 11 times at the hands of soldiers from the 36th USCT.    Peter rightly inquires whether these newspaper reports help to explain the massacre of large numbers of black Union soldiers following the battle on July 30.  In citing a recent study by Jason Phillips (a book all of you should read) Peter notes the extent to which the men in Lee’s army exchanged news in the trenches around Petersburg and Richmond and helped to encourage all kinds of rumors.  The important point here is not whether the rape in fact occurred, but that those who heard of these stories would have given them legitimacy.  At no point does Peter ever suggest a direct causal connection between the stories of rape and the Crater massacre.  I’ve spent the past 5 years reading the letter and diaries of Lee’s men through the summer of 1864 and I have not once come across a specific reference to this incident on the Northern Neck.  That said, I agree with Peter that it’s enough to suggest that to the extent these stories filtered through the ranks they would have contributed to the intensity of the response by Confederates.

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Southern Heritage Meets Southern History

bildeIt’s such a breadth of fresh air to read this story in light of the recent attempts by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other heritage groups to distort the past by honoring slaves as Confederate soldiers.  Finally, a story where the historical record justifies the placing of a marker acknowledging the military service of Amos McKinney, a former slave who served voluntarily in the 1st Alabama Cavalry USV.  McKinney’s granddaughter, Johnnie McKinney Lester, remarked that her grandfather “would be so proud of all of this.”  Well, we have no way of knowing what he might think, but at least this recognition reflects the historical record and doesn’t have to distort the past (as in the case of so-called “black Confederates”, which ignores the fact of coercion) to satisfy our own emotional need to remember and commemorate our past.