Q&A: A fresh look at rape during the U.S. Civil War

By — May 9, 2013

Crystal N. Feimster is no stranger to uncomfortable narratives. A feminist scholar in the department of African-American studies at Yale University, Feimster has spent much of her academic career addressing and unpacking the often-controversial stories woven through racial and sexualized violence.

In a recent New York Times piece, Feimster writes 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.”

She has found 450 court martial cases from the Civil War related to rape and other sexualized violence, but says that, as we still find today, the crime was “overwhelmingly underreported.”

I spoke with Feimster about her research, and on the connection between what happened in the early U.S. conflict and what we’re seeing in places like Syria today.

Kerry Paterson: How did you start researching rape during the Civil War?

Crystal N. Feimster: Well in my first book, Southern Horrors, I tried to look at both black and white women’s experiences, and one of the things I found was the use of this narrative of rape-lynching, where white women were the victims of black assailants which led to the justification of lynching black men. I was really interested in trying to figure out where that narrative came from, and I found that the rape-lynch narrative was a political narrative.

I found that white women were not actually afraid of black men raping them during the Civil War, but that they were afraid of occupation and of being raped by soldiers.

Crystal N. Feimster. (Courtesy Crystal N. Feimster)

KP: Can you explain this idea of the rape-lynch narrative?

CNF: After the Civil War, as white anxiety about the political, economic, and social meanings of emancipation intensified, different constituencies assembled a convergent set of racial and sexual fantasies. During the overthrow of Reconstruction, Southern white men managed to flip the antebellum script of racial and sexual violence.

Whereas prior to the war, abolitionists espoused a political narrative that centered on the rape of black women by white men, in the post-war years Southern white men articulated a political discourse that defined rape as a crime committed by black men against white women. In constructing the image of the “black rapist,” Southern white men sought to challenge black men’s rights as citizens, while simultaneously expanding their sexual power over black and white women. 

KP: In your recent piece for the Times, you talk about the policy that Abraham Lincoln put in place to deter soldiers from raping. You write that Lincoln’s order, the Lieber Code of 1863, “codified the precepts of modern war on the protection of women against rape”— that it “set the stage” for the types of humanitarian laws we still use today.

CNF: The law was a response to what was happening on the ground. There was this idea that in civilized warfare you don’t rape, but that hadn’t yet trickled down to soldiers. Access to women’s bodies was still seen by soldiers as one of the prizes of war, one of the signs of defeat.

What was interesting was that for some officers who were committed to punishing soldiers who raped, it was not always rooted in the idea of protecting women, but about discipline, and enforcing a code of conduct. In part about keeping track of your soldiers and their behavior.

This is the first time we see any documentation of the idea that black women could be victims of sexual violence. We even started to see instances of white women making claims on their behalf. In one case a black woman testified that she was brutalized and raped, and a white women spoke in her defense—explaining it as a cost to her, that she hadn’t been able to do any laundry or dishes. We also see a narrative of soldiers being tainted or demoralized by these acts, that they were not behaving the way that soldiers should.

KP: What differences do you find between the types of acts, or motivations, against black women during pre-war slavery versus after the outbreak of war?

CNF: [Before the war, there was a] view that all black women were open to having sex all the time. … White women largely bought into this narrative. They saw themselves as being in competition with black women in society, which tells us that they saw themselves as virtuous and pious in contrast.

The interesting thing that happens for the first time during the war: We see white women talking about the vulnerability of black women. When white soldiers raped black women, [white women] see it as a threat to themselves too—as if for some it seemed, “If we’re not careful this could happen to us.” [Other white] women saw [black women] as a buffer—and might lock the black women out of the house because if the men could rape them, then the white women might remain safe.

KP: In a number of contemporary conflicts, such as Syria and Democratic Republic of Congo, we’ve seen rape as a way of psychologically punishing not just women, but men: attacking their masculinity by raping “their” women. What about during the Civil War?

CNF: I think that’s a good question and a complicated one. Along with the traditional rape-lynch narrative, the rape of black women was a means of controlling or exerting power against black men.

I think if we really focused on this masculinist-narrative, about a man being unable to protect his family—as a feminist scholar I feel this misses a lot of the story, and misses a lot of what’s important. We don’t really read about women as combatants at the time—they are largely just looked at as objects. It’s a narrative about objectifying them, demoralizing them. But actually we need to see them as combatants.

KP: Has there been a problem reaching consensus among Civil War historians about the use of rape and sexualized violence in this conflict?

CNF: Historians have been slow to see this as a war where sexual violence has been used. In Susan Brownmiller’s book Against Our Will, she argued that the American Civil War was a low-rape war. She argues this based on it being a war of brother against brother. And I, of course, pushed back against that because black women were often victims—they were the sisters. … To her credit, she also said she was open to being proven wrong by historians.

And then 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—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.

So I think it’s a “problematic” narrative, in that it doesn’t do the work that either side would have it do, but I think it’s important. It’s important to challenge this idea of American exceptionalism.