Sex in the American Civil War

During the American Civil War, sexual behavior and attitudes, like many other aspects of life, were affected by the conflict. The advent of photography and easier media distribution, for example, allowed for greater access to sexual material for the common soldier.

In camp

At camp, "barracks favorites" were available. These were inexpensive novels of a sexual nature. Photographs of nudity were available as well, and were purchased by both enlisted men and officers. These twelve by fifteen inch pictures cost $1.20 for a dozen, or ten cents for a single picture. These were usually pictures of nude women doing innocent things; nude women that were engaging in actual sexual activity were usually not white, but either black or Native American. With the soldiers being far away from their wives and sweethearts, it is speculated these were used for masturbation, and not just for entertainment.[1] Only three of the novels are still known to exist; they are located at the Kinsey Institute of Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.[2]

However, this is not to say females were not available for sex. Prostitutes, as always, were among the camp followers following behind marching troops. Popular legend has it that they were so common around the Army of the Potomac when Union general Joseph Hooker was in command that the term "hooker" was coined to describe them; however, the term had been in use since 1845. The number of prostitutes around Hooker's division only "cemented" the term.[3]

This led to many cases of venereal disease. Among white Union soldiers there was a total of 73,382 syphilis cases and 109,397 gonorrhea cases. The total rate of VD among the white Union troops was 82 cases per 1000 men, where before and after the war the rate was 87 of 1000. Union black troops, however, had rates of 34 per 1000 for syphilis and 44 per 1000 for gonorrhea.[4] Cases were most prominent around larger cities like Nashville, Tennessee; New Orleans; Richmond, Virginia; and Washington, D.C. Numbers for Confederates are unknown, but are assumed to be less, due to Confederate soldiers being less likely to be in cities.[5]


Prostitution experienced its largest growth during 1861–1865. Some historians have speculated that this growth can be attributed to a depression, and the need for women to support themselves and their families while their husbands were away at war. Other historians considered the growth of prostitution to be related to the women wanting to spread venereal disease to the opposing troops.[6] The term "public women" was coined for the women that became prostitutes. There was moral outrage at this rising employment, and law officials classified the people they arrested as such.[7] The word "hooker" predates the Civil War, but became popularized due to Union General Joseph Hooker's reputation of consorting with prostitutes.[8] After the outbreak of war, the number of brothels skyrocketed. "In 1864 there were 450 brothels in Washington, and over 75 brothels in nearby Alexandria, Virginia. A newspaper estimated there were 5000 public women in the District and another 2500 in Alexandria and Georgetown, bringing the total to 7500 by the war's third year".[9] However, it was the towns located just outside the camps where prostitution was most prominent. These small towns were overrun by the sex trade when army troops set up nearby camps. One soldier wrote home to his wife, "It is said that one house in every ten is a bawdy houseit is a perfect Sodom."[10]

The most notorious area for prostitution was in Tennessee. Before the outbreak of the war, Nashville recorded 207 prostitutes; however, in 1863 reports claimed to have at least 1500 prostitutes. The area where these prostitutes could be found was known as Smokey Row.[11] In an infamous campaign to rid the city of the "public women", Lt. Col. George Spalding loaded the women on to the steamboat Idahoe. The women were sent to Louisville, where they were not allowed off the ship and sent further along to Cincinnati. Many of the women became sick due to lack of food and were forced to turn around and return to Nashville. Once they arrived back in Nashville, Lt. Col. Spalding created a system of registration similar to European ones. He inadvertently created the first legal system of prostitution.[12] This is the set of regulations he set up:

  • That a license be issued to each prostitute, a record of which was to be kept at this office, together with the number and street of her residence.
  • That one skillful surgeon be appointed as a board of examination whose duty it was to be to examine personally, every week, each licensed prostitute, giving certificate soundness to those who were healthy and ordering into hospital those who were in the slightest degree diseased.
  • That a building suitable for a hospital for the invalids was to be taken for that purpose, and that a weekly tax of fifty cents was to be levied on each prostitute for the purpose of defraying the expense of said hospital.
  • That all public women found plying their vocation without a license and certificate were to be at once arrested and incarcerated in the workhouse for a period of not less than thirty days.[13]

Prostitution experienced a large growth and spread across the North and South, and was one of the few industries to cross enemy lines throughout the duration of the war.

Female soldiers

The number of female soldiers in the war is estimated at between 400 and 750, although an accurate count is impossible because the women had to disguise themselves as men.[14] A Union officer was once quoted regarding how a Union sergeant was "in violation of all military law" by giving birth to child, and this was not the only case where the true sex of a soldier was discovered due to childbirth. A captured Confederate officer whose true gender was previously unknown by the guards gave birth in a Union prison camp.[15]

The Civil War was generally a time of challenges to traditional gender norms, as women mobilized themselves to participate in the war effort and left the home in droves to serve as charity workers, nurses, clerks, farm laborers, and political activists.[16] Across the Confederacy, upper-class women assembled all-female home guard militias, drilling firearms usage and training to protect their plantations, properties, and neighborhoods from Union invasion. Military training became mandatory at some private girls' academies.[17] One female militia in LaGrange, Georgia--a uniquely militarily vulnerable city, poised halfway between the industrial powerhouse of Atlanta and the original Confederate capital at Montgomery, Alabama--engaged in diplomatic negotiations with the invading Union army in April 1865, using the threat of violence to obtain a promise that their city would not be ransacked.[18] As concerted a challenge to gender norms as these all-female militias would seem to pose, however, the participants were careful to otherwise keep well within gender norms, and to avoid the impression of usurping male protective roles.[19]

The most dramatic and extreme challenge to gender roles, then, came with those women who participated in the Civil War as fully enlisted combatants. Though not particularly well known today, it is estimated that there are over 1000 women who enlisted in both the Union and Confederate armies under assumed male identities.[20] The female soldiers were not operating within a vacuum, responding blindly to the stimulus of war. Unlike the members of the all-female militias, the female enlisted soldiers were drawn disproportionately from working- and lower-middle-class backgrounds—and therefore represented a radically different cultural milieu. Mid-nineteenth-century working-class culture, for example, was generally familiar—if not comfortable—with female cross-dressing, with the phenomenon being prominently featured in popular theatrical and literary pieces with mass audiences.[21]

Women had different motivations for joining the army, just as did their male counterparts. A common reason was to escape pre-arranged marriages. Sarah Edmonds, for example, left her home in maritime Canada and fled to the United States to avoid marriage—but took the ultimate protective step of dressing as a man and enlisting in the Union Army to avoid detection.[22] Loreta Janeta Velazquez, on the other hand, was driven to enlist by more personal motivations; inspired by the example of Joan of Arc and other historical women warriors, she was idealistic about feminine potential on the battlefield, insisting that, "when women have rushed to the battlefield, they have invariably distinguished themselves."[23] Sarah Rosetta Wakeman had been living as a man long before the outbreak of the war, hoping to find better-paying work on the riverboats of New York rather than as a female domestic servant. She was, therefore, compelled to enlist by an economic imperative; the prospect of steady pay as an enlisted soldier in the Union Army appeared to be preferable to the instability of day labor.[24] Whatever the original motivations of the individual female soldiers, however, they ultimately took part in the war on similar terms as their male brothers-in-arms.

The existence of illicit female soldiers was an open secret in both the wartime Union and Confederacy, with stories commonly shared in both soldiers' letters and newspaper articles.[25] Awareness trickled out into the general public--and civilians were fascinated by these women warriors. This curiosity is reflected in the literature of the period. Wartime romance novels idealised these women as heroines sacrificing themselves for love of country and menfolk, while Frank Moore's popular 1866 history Women and the Civil War: Their Heroism and Their Sacrifice prominently featured an entire chapter on the female soldiers of the war.[26] Although it establishes the fact that women warriors were objects of curiosity for the American public, Moore significantly softened and romanticised their experiences in order to make them more palatable to a general audience. For instance, Moore refers to one particular female soldier as an "American Joan of Arc", attempting to frame her wartime exploits within a recognisable paradigm of holy war and divine inspiration.[27]

Regardless of generally warm popular opinion, however, female soldiers actually faced significant suspicion and opposition from within the armies themselves.[28] Female soldiers were generally successful at physically disguising themselves; their shorter height, higher voices, and lack of facial hair escaped comment in an army heavily dominated by adolescent boys, while their own feminine shapes could be obscured through breast-binding.[29] Recruits deemed to be of ambiguous gender, for example, were often subjected to improvised tests to check their gendered responses. One such test was to toss a soldier an apple; if he held out his shirttails to catch the apple as if in an apron, he would be deemed to be a woman, and would be subject to further investigation.[30] Female soldiers who were most successful at blending into military life were those who had been presenting as male even before they had enlisted: Sarah Wakeman, for example, had been living as a man and working on canal boats in New York prior to joining the Union army,[31] while Jennie Hodgers had likewise assumed a masculine identity long before the outbreak of the war.[32]

Women who passed the scrutiny of their fellow soldiers, however, were nonetheless expected to perform to the same standard--and so female soldiers largely blended in with their male fellows-in-arms, performing the same duties with fairly minimal risk of exposure.[33] Those who were caught typically were exposed while wounded and receiving medical care in battlefront hospitals.[34] Others, however, escaped detection for the entire war, and returned home to resume their normal lives and feminine gender expression--with a few notable exceptions. Female veteran Sarah Edmonds, the runaway Canadian bride, lived under the masculine identity of Franklin Thompson for the rest of her life, and even was granted a pension for her service by Congress in 1886,[35] while Jennie Hodgers continued living as Albert Cashier before being discovered and forced back into feminine dress after having been institutionalized for dementia in 1913.[36] The participation of so many women in the Civil War, however, was an uncomfortable subject for the US Army for many decades; the fact of female service was officially denied by the army until well in the twentieth century.[37]


Some soldiers engaged in acts of rape. The Confederate records were destroyed, but a perusal of only five percent of Federal records reveal that over thirty court martial trials were held due to instances of rape; hanging or firing squad being the usual punishment if convicted.[38] Sometimes, offering money for sex to a white woman of good standing was considered almost tantamount to rape; in the case of an Illinois private at Camp Dennison, for example, the perpetrator spent a month at the guardhouse for offering a mother a dollar and her daughter three dollars for sex. Federal troops who committed rape while invading the southern states mostly took advantage of black rather than white women, and black soldiers were usually punished more severely for the crime than their white counterparts.[39] Even so, the fear of rape was omnipresent among white Southern women facing the prospect of invasion without male protection; although specific numbers of victims are difficult to trace, the threat of sexual violence committed by Union soldiers lingered in Southern cultural memory long after the war ended.[40]


The term "homosexuality" was not coined until thirty years after the war ended. However, no army soldiers were disciplined for such activity, although three pairs of Union Navy sailors were punished, all in 1865.[41]

There was only one case of male prostitution reported during the war. The Richmond Dispatch reported on May 13, 1862, that since the moving of the Confederacy's capital to Richmond that "loose males of the most abandoned character from other parts of the Confederacy" had moved to Richmond and "prostitutes of both sexes" openly displayed themselves in carriages and on sidewalks.[42]

In 1864, a ball was put on by a Massachusetts regiment stationed in Virginia featuring young drummer boys dressed as women. One man wrote to his wife that he had slept with one of the "boy-girls."[43]

Scholars have tried to ascertain if certain Civil War figures were homosexual. The most notable of these was Confederate major general Patrick Cleburne, although it is still disputed.[44]


After the war, many Southern men felt their manhood diminished in a manner some historians dubbed a "crisis of gender"; a crisis exacerbated after Confederate president Jefferson Davis was apprehended by Union soldiers wearing his wife's shawl for warmth. The false rumor quickly spread in the North that Davis was caught during his escape while dressed as a woman. Period drawings depicting Davis in full women's dress (bonnet included) were used to ridicule the Confederacy's former President.[45]

One thing that came from the spread of pornography during the war was the rise of anti-pornography forces; in particular, the Comstock laws.[46]


  1. Abramson p. 180, D'Emilio pp. 131,132
  2. Lowry p. 56
  3. Davis p. 280, Goldstein p. 342
  4. Lowry p. 104
  5. Davis pp. 231, 232
  6. Clinton p.9
  7. Clinton p.10
  8. Clinton p.16
  9. Clinton p.14
  10. Clinton p.20
  11. Clinton p.25
  12. Clinton pp.25–26d
  13. Clinton pp.27–28
  14. "Female Soldiers in the Civil War". 2013-01-25. Retrieved 2015-08-09.
  15. Goldstein p.110
  16. Jessica Ziparo, “Northern Women, the State, and Wartime Mobilization,” in Women and the American Civil War, ed. Judith Giesberg and Randall Miller (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2018), 72-73.
  17. Anne J. Bailey, “The Defenders: The Nancy Harts,” in Confederate Women, ed. Muriel Phillips Joslyn (Gretna, LA: Pelican, 1996), 45.
  18. Erin Blakemore, “An All-Woman Confederate Militia Guarded Their Georgia Hometown,” History, 25 June 2018, accessed 1 December 2018.
  19. Bailey, “The Defenders,” 46.
  20. Bonnie Tsui, She Went To the Field: Women Soldiers of the Civil War (Guildford, CT: TwoDot, 2006), 1.
  21. See Fraser Easton, “Gender’s Two Bodies: Women Warriors, Female Husbands, and Plebeian Life,” Past and Present 180 (August 2003), 131-174.
  22. See Sarah E. Edmonds, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army (Hartford, CT: W.S. Williams & Co., 1865).
  23. Tsui, She Went to the Field: Women Soldiers of the Civil War, 24
  24. Eggleston, Larry. “Women of the Civil War: Extraordinary Stories of Soldiers, Spies,  Nurses, Doctors, Crusaders, and Others.” (McFarland, 2015) pgs 12-15
  25. DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook, They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2002), 145-46.
  26. Frank Moore, Women of the War: Their Heroism and Self-Sacrifice (Hartford, CT: Scranton & Co., 1866), 529-535.
  27. Moore, Women of the War, 533.
  28. Ziparo, “Northern Women, the State, and Wartime Mobilization,” in Giesberg and Miller, 73.
  29. Larry G. Eggleston, Women in the Civil War: Extraordinary Stories of Soldiers, Spies, Nurses, Doctors, Crusaders, and Others (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015), 2; Michael Bronski, A Queer History of the United States (Boston, Beacon Press, 2011).
  30. Eggleston, Women in the Civil War, 2.
  31. Adam Gabbatt, “What Trans Soldier Albert Cashier Can Teach Trump About Patriotism,” Guardian 22 August 1017. Accessed 10 November 2018,
  32. Michael Bronski, A Queer History of the United States (Boston, Beacon Press, 2011).
  33. Lisa Tendrich Frank, “‘With Hearts Nerved by the Necessity for Prompt Action’: Southern Women, Mobilization, and the Wartime State,” in Giesberg and Miller, 56.
  34. Richard Hall, Women on the Civil War Battlefront (Wichita, KS, University Press of Kansas, 2006), 49.
  35. Blanton and Cook, They Fought Like Demons, 167-68
  36. Michael Bronski, A Queer History of the United States (Boston, Beacon Press, 2011).
  37. Ziparo, “Northern Women, the State, and Wartime Mobilization,” in Giesberg and Miller, 73.
  38. Lowry p.123
  39. Lowry pp.124,131,132
  40. Feimster, Crystal M. "General Benjamin Butler and the Threat of Sexual Violence during the American Civil War." Daedalus 138, no. 2, 126-127.
  41. Lowry p.109
  42. Lowry p.110
  43. Confederate and Union: The untold history of gay Civil War soldiers
  44. Lowry pp.113,118
  45. Goldstein p.275
  46. Abramson p.180


  • Paul R. Abramson (2002). With Pleasure: Thoughts on the Nature of Human Sexuality. Oxford University Press US. ISBN 978-0-19-514609-7.
  • Bartek, James M. "The Rhetoric of Destruction: Racial Identity and Noncombatant Immunity in the Civil War Era." (PhD Dissertation, University of Kentucky, 2010). online; Bibliography pp 515–52.
  • Brown, Alexis Girardin. "The Women Left Behind: Transformation of the Southern Belle, 1840–1880" (2000) Historian 62#4 pp 759–778.
  • Cashin, Joan E. "Torn Bonnets and Stolen Silks: Fashion, Gender, Race, and Danger in the Wartime South." Civil War History 61#4 (2015): 338-361. online
  • Clinton, Catherine (1999). Public Women and the Confederacy. Marquette University Press. ISBN 978-0-87462-332-1.
  • Clinton, Catherine, and Silber, Nina, eds. Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War (1992)
  • D'Emilio, John (1997). Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-14264-7.
  • Davis, Kenneth C. (1999). Don't Know Much About the Civil War. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-380-71908-2.
  • Goldstein, Joshua S. (2003). War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-00180-9.
  • Lowry, Thomas Power (1994). The Story the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell: Sex in the Civil War. Stackpole Books. ISBN 978-0-8117-1515-7.
  • Lowry, Thomas P. Sexual Misbehavior in the Civil War: A Compendium (Xlibris Corporation, 2006).
  • Stokes, Karen. South Carolina Civilians in Sherman's Path: Stories of Courage Amid Civil War Destruction (The History Press, 2012).
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