Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Behind the Curtain: Rape and Other Horrors

Throughout history, itself a story of war, wayward warriors have used rape as a weapon.  The ancient Greeks even looked the other way.  When it comes to the Civil War, historians – historically male – have generally assumed that rape was rare, compared to wars America has waged overseas. Does this assumption reflect facts or merely mirror 1860s sensibilities?  

William Gilmore Simms, the antebellum South’s literary luminary, wrote in 1865, “There are some horrors which the historian dare not pursue. They drop the curtain over crime which humanity bleeds to contemplate.” 

William G. Simms
Convoluted wording, indeed, but Simms wrote during the genteel Victorian era. It’s clear Simms was writing about the rapes and sexual “outrages” he witnessed during Union Gen. William T. Sherman’ occupation of Columbia, South Carolina’s capital.  Simms’ account was first published serially in his hastily assembled newspaper, the Columbia Phoenix, an amazing feat considering Sherman’s troops had burned three-fifths of the city, including its newspaper offices. (Controversy still rages about whether it was Sherman's men or others who burned much of the city.)

Simms explained that most of the “horrors” against women had taken place away from Columbia. He wrote that Union soldiers and Sherman’s hangers-on might have threatened white women, but they actually targeted black women in rural areas.  In the city, Simms’ on-the-ground reporting, however, revealed what we can only call a gang rape:

The poor negroes were terribly victimized by their brutal assailants, many of them . . . being left in a condition little short of death.  Regiments, successive relays (emphasis by Simms), subjected scores of these poor women to the torture of their embraces, and – but we dare not farther pursue the subject – it is one of such loathing and horror. 

…Two cases are described where young negresses were brutally forced by the wretches and afterwards murdered – one of them being thrust, when half dead, head down, into a mud puddle, and there held until she was suffocated. 

This Harper's Weekly image during the Civil War
depicts women as angels of mercy.  It's said
no war was as much a woman's war as the
American Civil War. 
Did Simms witness an anomaly in Columbia, where Sherman’s soldiers’ pent-up anger against the cradle of rebellion triggered especially heinous aggression, or did Civil War soldiers commonly wield weaponized sex?  Facts are hard to come by. In the Victorian 1860s, sexual crimes against women were kept behind a curtain of silence to protect reputations of the delicate sex. Family males would exact punishment. Even in today’s sexually explicit society, experts estimate that more than 60 percent of rapes go unreported.

Still, we can find a few documented incidences of sexual crime in the Civil War.  Most occurred during Sherman’s March to the Sea, when angry white Southerners wanted to point out Union “depredations.” Here are some examples:

In North Carolina:
               - A Union soldier "ravished" a black woman in Raleigh during Sherman’s occupation, documents show. 
             - Pvt. James Preble of the 12th NY Cavalry was court-martialed in Kinston for the rape of Letitia Craft near Whitehall.
             - A Union soldier was tried and hanged for the rape of a 58-year-old woman in Wayne County.  Reports indicate army “stragglers ravished” women between Kinston and Goldsboro.

In Georgia: Near Milledgeville, two Union soldiers raped Kate Nichols, wife of a Confederate captain.  Women diarists wrote that Nichols went insane and spent the rest of her life in an asylum.  The rapists, possibly a pair among the horde of ravaging “bummers” following Sherman’s troops, were not captured.

In New Orleans: When the Union took New Orleans in 1862, Major Gen. Benjamin Butler ordered his men to treat the taunting Southern white women as if they were prostitutes. We might guess the results of Butler’s order.

Fear of rape surely chilled the hearts of white women in the South, where most Civil War battles erupted, but the scant documentation available indicates African-American women, usually slaves or freed slaves, suffered most.  The pages of history remain largely blank on this subject.
Today, at least one female historian is attacking the blind eye cast toward sexual violence during the Civil War. In the academic journal Daedalus, Crystal N. Feimster asserts, “hundreds, perhaps thousands of women suffered rape” during the war. For details, go to http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674035621.
If we fail to acknowledge the sex crimes Americans commit during war, then rape and other sexual crimes – even in our own military ranks – can continue behind the curtain without proper scrutiny, punishment and binding of psychological wounds.

A U.S. Department of Defense report in 2008 stated that nearly 3,000 female soldiers were sexually harassed, assaulted or raped by their American comrades during the War in Iraq, in some cases by their commanding officers. Americans should find this unacceptable, especially the men who serve or have served our country honorably.

At minimum, we should be talking publicly and loudly about the price women pay in war, now and in the past. 

RESOURCESSimms, William Gilmore. A City Laid Waste, The Capture, Sack and Destruction of the City of Columbia, 1865.  Barrett, John G. Sherman’s March Through the Carolinas. UNC Press, 1956. Catton, Bruce and McPherson, James. M. American Heritage New History of The Civil War. Barnes and Noble, 2005. Benedict, Helen. The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq. Beacon Press, 2010.