Sex and the Civil War

By Doug Coleman

[Reprinted with permission from: The Old Town Crier, December 1, 2014]

L.P. Hartley once wrote: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” And so it is with the Civil War and American sexual morality during the 1860’s. Things we outlaw, they tolerated. Things we tolerate, they regarded as monstrous crimes.

Start with the notion that Americans in the Victorian age were prudes. Not so, unless one is willing to overlook the large families of that age. Domestic terrorist John Brown managed to sire twenty children before Virginia broke his neck on the gallows for trying to start a national slave revolt.

Thomas P. Lowery relates in his The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War an incident occurring in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, a few days before Gettysburg. It seems a North Carolina regiment captured a good supply of Yankee whiskey and were soon helping themselves to it. One of the Tar Heels reported “some of the Pennsylvania women, hearing the noise of the revel and the music, dared to come near us. Soon they had formed the center of attention and joined in the spirit of the doings. After much whiskey and dancing, they shed most of their garments and offered us their bottoms. Each took on dozens of us, squealing in delight. For me it was hard come, easy go.” “With malice towards none, with charity for all”, our friendly Pennsylvanians rattle the stereotype of Victorian prudishness…

Civil War soldiers, or at least the Yankees, had pornography and dirty books. We know this because the Federal provost marshal complained what a chore it was to have to burn the mountains of the stuff his postmasters intercepted. So, pornography was forbidden, but, apparently, it was okay to have the government go through your mail. We have all heard of bullets stopped by Bibles, but at least one soldier claimed to have been saved by a dirty novel concealed on his person.

Prostitution was more or less legal in Alexandria. The 1860 census reflects that Alexandria had seven “soiled doves” and two bawdy houses. Not surprisingly, business boomed in Alexandria once the war was on, our city being described as “a perfect Sodom” with perhaps 75 brothels and 2500 prostitutes. The Federal authorities tolerated the sex trade and, generally, speaking those arrested at bawdy houses were arrested as AWOL or for drunk and disorderly conduct, not for patronizing the girls.   In Richmond, on the other hand, humorless First Families of Virginia (FFVs) consistently cracked down on disorderly houses, at least according to the Dispatch.

When the army moved, the prostitutes moved with them. In 1863, these “camp followers” were given the nickname “Hooker’s Division”, ostensibly after the lifestyle of General Joseph Hooker, who had a reputation for keeping his headquarters well-stocked with whiskey and entertaining women. Actually Hooker was not a big drinker, nor was he much of a womanizer. Similarly, the commonly held belief that “hookers” take their name from General Hooker is probably mistaken, as the term was already in use at least as early as 1845.

If Hooker had kept mistresses, he would not have been out of the mainstream. Confederate general Jubal Early allegedly kept two white mistresses having four children each, plus a mulatto child with a black woman. Custer is alleged to have had an ongoing relationship with his mulatto cook, an escaped slave who was pushed over a cliff in Custer’s carriage when captured by Confederates. Custer’s letters between him and Mrs. Custer were also captured and raised Confederate eyebrows, being described as “vulgar beyond all conversation and even those from his wife would make any honest woman blush for her sex.” Even McClellan was alleged to have lived with a young mistress for the duration of his command. However, one doubts this story, at least for the time when he was in Alexandria headquartered at the Seminary, as an engraving pictures him in front of Cazenove family’s Stuartland with his wife and children in the background.

Occasionally, ordinary soldiers would share their tents with their wives. In the Confederacy, Keith Blalock signed up with “Sam” Blalock, a good-looking sixteen year old boy, actually his wife Melinda. Melinda fought three engagements before she was wounded and found out by the regimental surgeon. Upon discharge from the Confederate army, they continued to soldier on together as Union partisans. In the Army of the Potomac, Kady Brownell and Mary Tepe joined their husband’s regiment as vivandieres, enduring all of the hardships of campaigning and both being wounded in combat.

The predictable drawback of all this sex was venereal disease, mostly syphilis and gonorrhea. Among the white troops, 73,382 cases of syphilis were reported and 109,397 cases of gonorrhea, giving a total of 82 cases of venereal disease annually per thousand men. Among the colored troops syphilis had an annual rate of 33.8 cases and gonorrheal infections 43.9 cases per thousand. The cures were scary enough to encourage chastity. For syphilis, first-line therapy was to cauterize the chancre with a caustic chemical. Secondary therapy might involve highly toxic mercury infusions, hence, the phrase “a night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury.” For gonorrhea, treatment consisted of urethral injections of nitrate of silver, sugar of lead or sulphate of zinc. Amazingly, in an era before penicillin, these therapies appear to have worked much of the time. Rudimentary condoms, made from sheep intestines called “skins” and secured with a little pink ribbon, were available, but it is anybody’s guess how much protection they afforded to disease.

The Union’s hospital service certainly appreciated the relationship between prostitution and venereal disease and took pragmatic steps to get ahead of the problem. One of these steps was to license working girls, the license being conditioned upon periodic examination by a physician. The other, hand in hand with the first, was to establish hospitals to take out of circulation and treat prostitutes found to be infected. The attached photo depicts such a hospital. And in fact these measures were effective, with Yankee “casualties” dropping off dramatically where instituted. As for the women, their lives were nasty, brutish and short. One physician following a group of prostitutes noted that their life expectancy was only about four years once they entered the trade, alcohol and disease being major risks.  On the deviant side, rape appears to have been relatively rare, with 335 court martials being recorded. When found out, it often resulted in a hanging. A soldier who had raped a free black woman was hanged at Fort Ellsworth before all of the units camped around Alexandria so that everyone understood this. Twenty-two other soldiers were executed for rape over the course of the war.

Homosexuality was not much of an issue. There are not many recorded, probably because sodomy was regarded as an unspeakable crime. Though some reenactors a few years back “reenacted” a firing squad for two soldiers dressed in pink uniforms for “conduct unbecoming”, in fact there is no record of any soldier on either side being executed for the offense of homosexuality, or for that matter being disciplined for the offense. However, a handful of sailors were thrown out of the navy. Military law did not specifically outlaw sodomy until 1921. But we should not infer from this that homosexuality was previously accepted along the lines of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Keep in mind that at the time of the Revolution sodomy was punishable by death in all thirteen colonies. In 1779, Thomas Jefferson proposed a more lenient penal code under which homosexuals would be castrated and lesbians would have their noses pierced with half-inch holes; Jefferson’s proposal was rejected and sodomy remained a capital crime until 1831.

As recently as World War II, the usual sentence for sodomy in the United States Army was 85 years. William Manchester in his 1979 autobiographical, Goodbye, Darkness, describes the sensibilities of young marines in the 1940’s: “Youth is more sophisticated today, but in our innocence we knew almost nothing about homosexuality. We had never heard of lesbians, and while we were aware that male homosexuals existed – they were regarded as degenerates and called “sex perverts,” or simply “perverts” – most of us, to our knowledge, never encountered one.” The attitude of the farm boys who fought in World War II is probably pretty close to that of the farm boys who fought in the Civil War.

But plaster saints these soldiers were not.


Sources: Thomas P. Lowry, The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War

Thomas P. Lowry, Sexual Misbehavior in the Civil War; 

William Manchester, Goodbye, Darkness; Treatment of Venereal Disease in the Civil War,

Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at dcoleman@coleman-lawyers.com.