History Behind the Story #4: Violence Against Women in the Civil War
*Please note: This article recounts history involving violence, which may be disturbing for some. It is a good idea for parents of children under 18 to read first and then decide whether to let your child read. As always, let me know if you have any questions. Thank you!
THE HISTORY: When I first decided to write The Torn Asunder Series, I made the decision not to sugarcoat the past. This was a tough decision because so much of history can be disturbing for readers. Slavery was a rough and violent institution. The freedmen after the war faced extreme hardships and violence. Women, black and white, slave and free, faced horrors from enemy invaders during the war. I decided that to gloss over any of these truths would be to dishonor those who suffered and tell a falsehood about history.
While I do talk mostly about violence by members of the Union Army directed toward Southern women, it is simply the nature of history that women in war zones are vulnerable to enemy combatants, and most of the Civil War was fought on Southern soil.
The Confederate Armies did stray into Union territory on a large scale twice: for the battles of Antietam and Gettysburg. General Robert E. Lee issued orders that there was to be no violence or looting against civilians as a PR measure: a sort of “show that we are morally superior” plan. This seems to have also been his personal preference. But the novel, Widow of Gettysburg, by Jocelyn Green, imagines what it must have felt like for women in those areas who had escaped slavery, knowing that Confederate Armies were coming through and could round them up and take them back to their former owners. This did happen to hundreds near Gettysburg, and I am sure there were other accounts of Northern women who felt threatened or were abused.
There is still a lot of silence around violence against women, North and South, during the Civil War. I think there are several reasons for that. One is that the women themselves had various reasons not to be vocal about it. This was the Victorian Era, which placed a premium on a woman’s chastity and gave women few legal rights or redresses. And, of course, there are always political reasons for violence to be hushed up by militaries or governments.
But I think the main reason for the silence is that the history of the Civil War as we know it is the history of men, whether they be of the political or military persuasion. You can read an entire one-thousand-page book without a single woman ever being mentioned. In those books which do mention women, a woman’s role is usually considered in connection to men: seeing men off to war, how useful they were to men as nurses, whether they were supportive of their powerful husbands, etc. Rarely does a historical work ever focus on the actual life of a woman as she lived it during the war. Crystal Feimster, who wrote Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching, has said that we need to see women as combatants during the war. They were combatants. They were not safe. They were actively engaged in the struggle. And yet, very rarely are women viewed as active players or victims during the Civil War.
That being said, there are hints on the topic of violence if you look for them. Most are scant references to military history. You’ll see something like: “Rape, looting, and murder occurred as the army came through.” And then, of course, the narrative will continue with the army itself and move on. You usually have to seek out the whole story on your own, but a few individuals’ stories have made it to light.
Violence and the threat of violence against women drove more of what happened in the war than has been adequately stated. Of course, a lot of the fear of violence was fear of the unknown. For example, if you hear an enemy army is coming through your town, you know only two things: 1) That they are the enemy; and 2) That they could hurt you if they wanted to. So much of how things would go in the Civil War came down to the personality of the officers. Some Northern officers were almost gallant in their treatment of enemy women. Some were kind, some were indifferent. But, as in any population, some were cruel, and some looked the other way while their subordinates were cruel.
Anne LeClercq details a story from one of her family members’ diaries in An Antebellum Plantation Household. The woman, then a child, remembered a Federal soldier going up to her mother and ripping the necklace from her neck. The mother eventually convinced him to give it back, and she wasn’t physically harmed, but such events could definitely cause the imagination to spiral out of control.
And, unfortunately, women didn’t have to rely on imagination. Feimster, a Professor of African American Studies at Yale, has said, “that sexualized violence was ‘common to the wartime experience of Southern women, white and black. Whether they lived on large plantations or small farms, in towns, cities or in contraband camps, white and black women all over the American South experienced the sexual trauma of war.’”
Federal records show that there were over four-hundred-fifty federal court martial trials for rape or attempted rape committed during the Civil War. It would be a mistake to think that this number represented anywhere close to an accurate reflection of how widespread the violence was. Kim Murphy, the author of I Had Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War, said, “[When] I uncovered several hundred cases [of rape], I think that speaks loudly because very few women would have come forward. Very few women come forward during peacetime; it’s even fewer that come forward during wartime, so we know that this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what’s being reported.”
She goes on to make a point about how difficult it was to report even if a woman wanted to.
“Also, the thing that most people don’t recognize is that most of the records, like the court-martial records that we do have, were reported during times of occupation. That means that the troops were there, they weren’t in an active battle situation. That’s when women could find someone to go forward to. During times of battle, the chances of them even knowing who they could report to would be almost nil, and even if they did find someone, the chances that the officer in charge would be able to find enough officers to take on a court martial at that time would be next to impossible. In the book, I mention [a rape that occurred during] Sherman’s March, when the army was on the move. The victim did report it. But by the time the case made it to court martial, they were 100 miles away, so she could not testify. That’s what people don’t understand—it was totally against the women to even be able to report it.”Beck, Julie, “Gender, Race, and Rape During the Civil War.”
A few studies have shown that Southern black women were particularly vulnerable to violence during the war. Already, a lot of states had legal systems that offered them no protection from violence. So to the extent wartime psychology makes people think they can get away with crimes, that would have been multiplied tenfold when applied to an enslaved or a free black woman. Rape and violence of all forms against black women were already extremely common to slavery, making wartime violence all the more tragic.
A lot of times, there were isolated events when certain troops or groups of them would happen upon a home, commit violence, and then just get away with it. Sometimes, violations occurred in the chaos of a place being overrun by enemy invaders or during times of battle. Violence also continued during occupations of towns or regions. Other times, violence against women was used as an officer-sanctioned military tactic of suppression.
As example of the latter, General Benjamin Butler gave General Order No. 28 during his occupation of New Orleans. The text is, “As the officers and soldiers of the United States have been subject to repeated insults from the women (calling themselves ladies) of New Orleans in return for the most scrupulous non-interference and courtesy on our part, it is ordered that hereafter when any female shall by word, gesture, or movement insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation.”
A leap was made so quickly from insults to sexual violence. Logically speaking, there really isn’t a connection between the two things. But during the Civil War, a woman was most always defined in reference to her sexuality.
There was a huge outcry both in the United States and worldwide against Butler’s order. Even though the implication of sanctioned rape is plain, even some newspapers and commentators who condemned the order were unable to say so, pretending that being treated as a prostitute would mean that women would be imprisoned. However, if you look at rape trials from the time, to prove rape had occurred, a woman had to physically fight off a man even to the point of being killed or almost killed by him. And of course, during that time, a prostitute could never prove that by the very nature of her being a prostitute, so any “woman of the town plying her avocation” (read: asking for it) would be seen as open to sex and ineligible to claim rape. Butler himself said that he meant that the women should be ignored. If he had wanted them to be ignored, however, it seems more likely that he wouldn’t have issued the General Order at all. And a look at venereal disease rates (183,000 reported cases were treated) among the Union Army indicates that the automatic response to a prostitute wouldn’t always be ignoring her.
It is hard to know whether this Order led to heightened instances of violence. In keeping with Civil War history being mostly men’s history, most sources just state that the General Order solved the problem of women insulting the military and move on. But it seems likely that some violent episodes arose out of this. If it was happening when the government and officers had strictly forbidden it, violence seems much more likely when actively encouraged by authorities.
There are other examples of officer-sanctioned civilian suppression. General William Tecumseh Sherman’s promise to “make Georgia howl” was a promise of total warfare, a strategy to take the war to homes to finally bring the South to its knees. It may have been a sound military tactic, but it was women who ultimately suffered from it. A lot of individual stories of violence arise out of the March to the Sea. Sources debate whether the violence which ensued was sanctioned by General Sherman or simply committed by stragglers off the radar. I do think the plan to “make Georgia howl” certainly had undertones of civilian violence from its inception, and sometimes, that is all that is needed to set a mood.
President Lincoln did issue General Orders known as the “Lieber Code,” which laid down rules for dealing with enemy combatants and civilians. Basically, the gist was that “if you couldn’t do it at home, don’t think you can get away with it there.” The Lieber Code encouraged very strict punishment for violence against civilians, particularly women civilians. The part of The Code that got the most notice, though, was how to deal with prisoners of war.
Historians have suggested that Lincoln’s purpose in issuing the Orders was to send a message to the Confederate government. The Confederacy had made the decision to treat captured black Union troops not as prisoners of war but just as captives, which usually meant sending them back to slavery (if not killing them outright, as often happened). So while the Lieber Code addressed one huge problem well, the part that addressed civilian violence was a side-show. There is some evidence that many Union commanders never consulted the Lieber Code for rules on their actions toward civilians.
That isn’t to say that the effects were not good for women’s history: the Lieber Code was used as a template for international law moving forward, and with WWI and WWII not too far down the line, that was a very good thing. It also provided grounds for any court martials that did occur during the Civil War or after, and some did occur. Particularly, this was the first time many black women had any protection under the law at all, and some were able to prosecute their attackers successfully. However, whether the Code actually prevented violence during the war is more questionable.
In Northern Fire, I chose various ways to represent what women lived through during the war. [The following contains a few spoilers for Northern Fire. Skip the next five paragraphs if you would haven’t read the book yet and hate spoilers!]
Shannon and Phoebe met with Confederate troops who assumed they were prostitutes on their way back to South Carolina. Prostitution was so widespread during the Civil War that one soldier called his camp “a perfect Sodom,” and it is known as one of the few professions to cross enemy lines. And Shannon and Phoebe were crossing enemy lines where there were numerous camp followers who were prostitutes, as well as brothels nearby. Therefore, there was a real danger that women travelling alone and unkempt from travel could be deemed prostitutes and taken into camps as such or sent back across to the lines to the enemy camp.
Another depiction of this history is that Phoebe is tragically killed during the chaos of the takeover of Santarella by Union troops. After all of my research indicated the depth of violence black women faced during the war, I knew I had to convey that truth. Even though I cried, along with readers, I think Phoebe’s story translates the extent to which the law was no protection for women in her situation. Which, sadly, was nothing new, since slavery had perpetuated violence and nonchalance for it under the law for decades.
The other instance is that Shannon and her sister-in-law, Elizabeth, have their heads shaved by Union officers during the confiscation of Santarella. You may have only heard of this form of wartime violence in relation to French women in WWII. But this was a common practice perpetrated against women who were considered traitors dating far back in history. I first learned that this was the case when I read Grant, by Ron Chernow. Ulysses Grant witnessed Mexican women’s heads being shaved during the Mexican American War. I knew immediately that I wanted to use this little-remembered piece of history in Northern Fire, so I set out to find if there were specific instances of head-shaving during the Civil War. But as I said, much of the violence against women has been covered in silence. It is hard to track down specific instances because they were muted so thoroughly. So I found no recorded instances of head-shaving during the Civil War in my research.
I think it is possible, and even likely, that this did happen, however, given the widespread violence that was occurring. For one, many officers and soldiers of the Civil War had been in the Mexican American War. They, too, had seen this happen to Mexican women for giving aid to the Americans. There are many instances of officers drawing on their Mexican wartime experience during the Civil War.
This particular type of violence is a little different from outright revenge violence or lustful violence. It is driven by a desire to humiliate and subjugate the victim and the populace, so the psychology is a bit more nuanced. In fact, it is psychological warfare. Even though I wanted to use head-shaving as a plot device, I decided I wouldn’t do so unless I could find specific instances of that kind of subjugation psychology during the war. I found plenty. There are numerous reports of Union troops forcing white women to watch while they raped black enslaved women. Feimster says, “Just as the rape of white women implied that Southern men were unable to protect their mothers, wives and daughters, the rape of slave women told whites they could no longer protect their property.” This was violence for a purpose: to get into the enemy’s head. A message of subjugation was sent. I think that is very similar to the message sent by head-shaving, except that head-shaving has an added ingredient of woman-shaming—sort of this idea that you have stepped out of your role as a lady, and you’re going to be punished for that. We see a lot of that in the Civil War, too.
I want to reiterate that I do not mean to degrade whole armies on account of the acts of some men who were in those armies. There are always two dangers to any researcher of the Civil War. There is the Lost Cause Theory, which was a body of history that developed after the war to make the Southern cause appear noble and heroic in every aspect, while conversely degrading Northern causes and actions. Conversely, on the other side of the coin, Feimster, writes that “there are people who work on the Civil War and Reconstruction who have been committed to writing the narrative as one of progress, of liberty, and of freeing the slaves.” Particularly, as it relates to violence, she adds, “and to suggest that the soldiers would have raped black women goes against this narrative. It’s hard for historians to grapple with this because it changes the way people see the war, and most people don’t want to see the war as one of occupation.” Please know that I am always cognizant of both theories and vet every story I come across for the taint of each.
I think the greatest danger on this particular topic is that women’s stories have been covered up, whatever the reason for doing so. The more we can uncover, the more we will know about women’s experiences and about the war itself.
PERSONAL SPOTLIGHT: Minerva Cook lived at Hardtimes Plantation near Vicksburg, Mississippi during the Union occupation. The situation during occupation was volatile between the civilians and the military. General Grant gave the Cooks a paper guaranteeing safety from harassment. However, orders do not always translate to individual soldiers’ behavior. Union soldiers came to the house at night to loot, tossing the Cooks’ young sons out of bed to look in their mattresses. Minerva and her husband, Jared, were dragged out of bed, and arguments escalated to the point that Jared Cook was shot in the shoulder, a wound from which he survived, and Minerva was shot fatally. The perpetrators were dealt with swiftly: they were court-martialed and executed. While this story is little-known today, it must have loomed large during the war. One report calls it the largest mass-execution of Union troops during the war, so I have a feeling the story would have been widely circulated.
Reports say that there were as many as twenty-five men who went to the plantation that night. Most say that they were all USCT (United States Colored Troops), although I think that would be hard to say at this distance. Ultimately, nine USCT soldiers were executed. Race was instantly a factor in the discussions. There is no evidence that USCT troops were more violent than regular army troops. But I imagine this incident was used by people already inclined to prejudice to promote the idea that the populace was especially endangered by the USCT. I speculate that the perpetrators were dealt with so swiftly and comprehensively to soothe the populace. Possibly, the swift reaction was even to protect other USCT who would have been more at risk for something like Fort Pillow (where USCT troops were killed after they surrendered) happening if the populace didn’t feel that the Union had fully punished the perpetrators.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: There seems to be a deep political connection to violence against women and how prisoners of war would be treated. One historian has suggested that the killing of the men who should have been treated as prisoners of war at Fort Pillow was motivated in part by violence against local women. We already discussed how the Lieber Code addressed both prisoners of war and women civilians together. Another connection was that Jefferson Davis issued a statement that General Butler and his officers would be executed if captured following the General Order about treating women as prostitutes. Again, there is the same link between violence against women and treatment of male prisoners of war. This is a perfect example of women being combatants, or active participants, in the Civil War.
What do you think? Were women being used as political pawns, or was the link made to prisoners of war an honest effort to police violence against women? Perhaps it was considered to be the only way to protect civilians in that era?
ANALYSIS OF PHOTOGRAPH:
Photo Credit: The Library of Congress: https://www.loc.gov/item/2006691867/.
In Benjamin Butler’s Orders, he shamed women for not acting like ladies (he sneers: “calling themselves ladies”). There was overwhelming societal pressure for women to be docile, and this political cartoon from Harper’s Weekly illustrates that well. This is a depiction of New Orleans before the Women’s Order and New Orleans after the Women’s Order. The women in the first, one of whom is turning her back to the Union soldier and the other of whom is spitting in his face, were drawn to look ugly, and, of course, the whole thing is unflattering. In the picture on the right, after women are acting submissively, they are drawn in a flattering light—pretty and meek. The implication was: if you make noise, you are ugly and socially unacceptable; if you are submissive, you are pretty and accepted. What a tough world it was!
Beck, Julie, “Gender, Race, and Rape During the Civil War,” https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/02/gender-race-and-rape-during-the-civil-war/283754/, February 20, 2014.
Chernow, Ron, Grant (New York: Penguin Books, 2017).
Feimster, Crystal M., “Rape and Justice in the Civil War,” https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/25/rape-and-justice-in-the-civil-war/, April 25, 2013.
LeClercq, Anne Sinkler Whaley, An Antebellum Plantation Household (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006).
Mitcham, Jr. Samuel W., “Bust Hell Wide Open,” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016).
Paterson, Kerry K., “Q&A: A Fresh Look at Rape During the U.S. Civil War,” WMC: Women Under Seige, May 9, 2013.
Perry, James DeWolf, “What, to the slave, was the Battle of Gettysburg?,” http://www.tracingcenter.org/blog/2013/07/what-to-the-slave-was-the-battle-of-gettysburg/, July 1, 2013.
“The Civil War: Sex and Soldiers,” https://artsci.case.edu/dittrick/online-exhibits/history-of-birth-control/contraception-in-america-1800-1900/the-civil-war-sex-and-soldiers/
 There are also many incidents of recorded violence against civilian men, which I do not seek to ignore. Those incidents are merely beyond the scope of his paper.
 Paterson, Kerry K., “Q&A: A Fresh Look at Rape During the U.S. Civil War,” WMC: Women Under Seige, May 9, 2013.
 Paterson, Kerry K., “Q&A: A Fresh Look at Rape During the U.S. Civil War.”
 Beck, Julie, “Gender, Race, and Rape During the Civil War.”
 Feimster, “Rape and Justice in the Civil War.”
 Historically speaking, a woman’s hair was regarded as caught up in her womanhood. So when her head is shaved, she is “unwomaned” in a way, or defeminized, which would have been a penance to a Victorian woman. She had to wear her shame for all to see.
 Mitcham, Jr. Samuel W., “Bust Hell Wide Open.” This may or may not be true. The book does not go into great detail or explore the charges of violence. Still, the connection was made.