Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson: Lovers?

Of course not, but why are you so disturbed by the suggestion?  Imagine we discovered a cache of letters from one of the two that suggested an intimate relationship.  Would that discovery seriously challenge our assumptions about their military careers, personal character, and battlefield heroics?  Would the fact of their sexuality negate all other accomplishments?

I’ve been thinking about General Pace’s silly comments about the immorality of homosexuality even as an estimated 65,000 gay men and women fight and die in Iraq.  The more I think the more I am convinced that the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is more about maintaining a certain perception of the armed forces and nothing to do with unit cohesion or other facts of the matter.  Simply put, we are invested in our gender assumptions about the military and the idea of gay servicemen and women challenges our central ideas and images of the uniform.  However, the war in Iraq clearly demonstrates that one’s sexuality has nothing to do with an ability or willingness to fight and kill.  As I listened to an interview on NPR with a gay veteran of Iraq who lost both legs I wondered why this topic is even an issue at all.  A recent Pew Research Poll suggests that more Americans are willing to allow gay men and women to serve openly in the military.  I assume it is just a matter of time.  Is this argument any different from the assumption that the color of your skin provides evidence of one’s ability to engage in combat?  We used to segregate the military based on the belief that unit cohesion would be compromised by the mixing of the races.

So, would there really be a problem if we learned that a prominent Civil War warrior such as Grant or Lee  turned out to be gay?  Would we look at that wonderful image of Grant leaning against a tree during the battle of the Wilderness or that rough image of Sherman differently?  Would a few of my fellow Civil War bloggers retreat to the position that since Lee and Jackson were both “Christian warriors” that they were incapable of such behavior?  I hold out hope that we have the intellectual strength and maturity to be able to stretch our concept of a warrior to allow individuals to be who they are/were and not force them into our preconceived assumptions that have little basis in reality.

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13 comments… add one
  • Richard Phillips Oct 25, 2007 @ 15:28


    I was curious about your post when you mention that there are 65,000 gays fighting and dying in the war in Iraq. Where does this figure come from?
    Having served in the US Army myself I think that it does not matter what your orientation is when the bullets start flying. What matters is do you have my back! President Clintons “dont ask dont tell policy” was just an incremental approach. We will eventually have openly gay people in the military.
    Let me switch gears and ask a question. You ask would we view these men differently if they were gay. I ask, would we view these men differently if they owned slaves, if they were Christians, if we labeled them as racists?
    I have been visiting your blog for awhile and it has made me come to some conclusions. The main conclusion is that we need heros. I made a response to your post about a gay Lincoln. My first thought was that we needed a gay hero so we will invent one. The South needed heros so we invented Lee and Jackson. No matter what ethnic group you come from you need heros, so you invent them.
    My idea of history is what has been done at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Historians went out and plotted where the bullets were found on the battlefield and from this you can see that the story told by the Indians was correct. Not the Custer that was created in the newspapers. Custer and his men were killed quickly. There was no Last Stand.
    My point in all of this is that history is myth. The people in the ivory towers create these myths and present it as fact. I dont think this is necessary bad because as I mentioned earlier we need our heros. I can give you an example. My son has been taught in school that Benjamin Banneker drew the plans for the layout of Washington DC. Benjamin Banneker was indeed a great man but my understanding of his accomplishemnts did not include this. But again we need our heros.

  • Carey Bankhead Oct 4, 2007 @ 10:27

    I’m currently reading Gene Smith’s “American Gothic,” a group bio of John Wilkes Booth and his acting family. In it he mentions Adam Badeau as a lover of Edwin Booth, a member of Grant’s staff, etc. I’m just wondering how accurate Smith’s work was since some of this book reads more like historical fiction than basic history.

  • Kevin Levin Mar 15, 2007 @ 17:57

    Brooks, — Thanks so much for taking the time to share that. I’ve dealt with these challenges in my Women’s History course when reading and analyzing the correspondence between women in the suffrage movement. Matt Gallman does an excellent job steering through this territory in his new biography of Anna Dickinson (Oxford University Press).

  • Brooks Simpson Mar 15, 2007 @ 17:44

    There’s been a lot of scholarship done on changing definitions of sexuality and sexual behavior, and I was well aware of that when I turned to the Wilson-Badeau correspondence. Frankly, the notion of a homosexual relationship between the two men was not on my mind when I began reviewing the letters. Moreover, when I started coming across comments in the letters that pointed in this direction, I reminded myself that it was unwise to project current notions onto Civil War-era figures, a practice I parodied elsewhere a dozen years ago on a usenet post about Dabney Maury’s recollections. After all, the same cautionary issues were raised in the Lorena Hickok-Eleanor Roosevelt correspondence. It was only after reading repeated intimate statements commenting on missing the warmth of another’s body, etc., that I reached the conclusion I reached, and I believe it’s a reasonable one. Badeau’s sexual identity was a major theme when he tried to get money from the Grant family for his assistance in gathering information for Grant’s memoirs.

    Geoffrey Perret made a great deal of homoerotic attractions among members of Grant’s inner circle in his biography, notably John A. Rawlins, whom he compared to River Phoenix and James Dean. See Perret, Grant, 292-93. One of the few new things Perret got right in that book was the Wilson-Badeau relationship: as for the Rawlins/Dean/Phoenix/homoerotic thing, well, you’ll have to read it for yourself. 🙂

    The issue of sexual identity arises every several years over Abraham Lincoln, especially his relationship with Joshua Speed, and a recent book suggested that Lincoln had a homosexual relationship with a member of Company K of the 150th Pennsylvania while he was president. The evidence seems rather flimsy, especially so about the latter tale.

    Again, however, Kevin’s right on the mark: what do we make of this? What would we make of this?

    As for Grant himself, well, in the spirit of projection and inference, Julia Grant in her memoirs declared that she had named one of her bedposts for her beau Ulysses (page 49). When my wife and I visited White Haven, the guide (who did not know who I was, because I don’t like to identify myself, in order to see what visitors see) asked my wife which room she’d like to see. My wife and I both suspect he anticipated that she’d answer the kitchen; instead, she smiled and said she’d like to see the bedroom to take a look at that bedpost Julia named after Ulysses.

    I didn’t know NPS guides could blush that shade of red.

  • Kevin Levin Mar 15, 2007 @ 16:10

    C.B., — Thanks for the reference. Tom Lowry published a book some years ago titled _The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War_ (Stackpole Books). He covers a number of the topics that you point out.

  • Clio Bluestocking Mar 15, 2007 @ 16:01

    In addition to the issues the other commenters raised, I think you might also want to investigate the ways in which masculinity, femininity, homosexuality, and homosocial behavior were understood in those days. For instance, the language and behavior of the day permitted expressions of affection between people of the same sex in ways that fell out of fashion in the 20th century, or at least raise eyebrows.

    Carroll Smith-Rosenberg (if I remember correctly) discusses some of this in regard to women in the late 19th century. It’s an older work, but she makes some cogent points about how we interpret that language today. Also, how women and men tended to turn to members of their own gender for emotional support, rather than members of other gender (all of which could be refuted, of course).

    Additionally, in same-sex environment, behavior that both we and they would define as “homosexual” might be permitted due to circumstances. I’m thinking of places like or boarding schools or (yes, gasp!) the military.

    Sorry to write so much!

  • Kevin Levin Mar 15, 2007 @ 14:54

    Thanks Richard and Brooks. You both have given me some things to think about.

  • Brooks Simpson Mar 15, 2007 @ 12:15

    The fact is that we’ve had able warriors in the United States service who were gay. One of them was James H. Wilson, who was entwined with Adam Badeau, who served on Grant’s staff in 1864-65. The correspondence between the two at Princeton’s Firestone Library makes clear the sexually intimate nature of the relationship.

    So let’s take this discussion from the hypothetical to the real. Wilson, a man who had been involved with another man, later prevailed over Nathan Bedford Forrest at Selma; he was in command of the forces that captured Jefferson Davis on May 10, 1865, with reports that Davis was clothed in interesting garb (the notion that he was dressed as a woman has long been discredited, and nowhere more indignantly than at the Museum of the Confederacy’s display of the incident). Wilson has been credited with being a master at combined arms operations in the Selma campaign. Now that we know what we know, does that change our estimate of him?

  • Richard Mar 15, 2007 @ 12:09

    I would have to say that such a revelation would in fact change the way we look at their actions in combat. If Jackson and Lee were lovers then one may be able to extend to the military relationship a desire on the part of Lee to “be a bit more careful” with things he orders his lover to do. Though it could be argued that Lee would be even more likely to allow Jackson to do what ever he wishes out of personal deference, which may well have been the case just due to friendship.
    However, we must then consider Jackson’s death after the Battle of Chancellorsville. If Lee had “sent his lover” into that situation would the subsequent death impact him emotionally to such a degree that he would no longer function as effectively as a leader? Maybe yes, maybe no. But the fact is that it would be a point that would REQUIRE examination. So to question if it would “seriously challenge our assumptions about their military careers” not only sells short your argument against Gen. Pace’s comments, it does not take into consideration that such an emotional relationship (certainly deeper than friendship) would be cause for examining a person’s actions.

  • Matt Mar 15, 2007 @ 11:52

    Great post! Very thought-provoking. I agree completely. This brings me to a couple of questions though, one general, one specific. First, as a high school teacher, what’s your take on “what ifs” in the classroom? Second, have you (or would you) discussed this particular “what if” with your students? As a future teacher, I’m interested in the classroom applicability of these sorts of things.

  • Clio Bluestocking Mar 15, 2007 @ 11:37

    Yeah, he couldn’t quit Lee.

  • Kevin Levin Mar 15, 2007 @ 10:32

    Hi C.B., — Glad to hear you got a few laughs out of the post. Perhaps a newly-discovered letter would lend itself to rethinking what some people meant when they referred to Jackson standing there like a “stone wall.”

  • Clio Bluestocking Mar 15, 2007 @ 10:23

    Thank you! First of all, for very good and thoughtful post. Second of all, for giving me much amusement in how such a cache of letters would read (and make my job so much more interesting) and how so many people might react.

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