Rape Culture Civil War Style

Restraint, boys . . .

Restraint, boys . . .

Good news! There was no such thing as “rape culture” among Northern soldiers fighting for the Union in America’s Civil War. Scholars looked for the tell-tale signs of “rape culture” and found none. No Rolling Stone frat parties gone awry, no Duke Lacrosse team—oh wait those things didn’t actually happen. Back to the Civil War. Despite what popular culture would have us believe about men and boys in America, most don’t rape–or think of rape. Many don’t even want to be around women anymore for fear of the “rape culture” witch hunt.

Oops. Back to the Civil War:

 Northern men in the 1860’s were supported by a culture that valued self-restraint. In fact self-restraint in men was seen as one of the top indicators of a truly masculine man. To lose control was seen as childish, feminine and kind of pathetic. Of course this does not mean that all men kept away from prostitutes or that all men were angels–there were a few cases of rape but astonishingly rare.

For all the bad press patriarchy gets,  the notion of the South going against the father (government) and the brotherhood (the northern states) created an interesting twist when it came to how the northern soldiers viewed southern women. This changed over the course of the war to be sure as the women went from outspoken vixens (she-devils) to co-combatants (stories of women luring soldiers to guard their homes only to shoot them in the head spread like wildfire and in some cases were true). There was a sense initially that messing with southern women was like messing with your best friend’s sister–not good. As time went on it seemed more soldiers fantasized about killing southern women than sleeping with them.

And what is this thing about rape during war anyway? There’s always plenty of hookers hanging around. Rape during war is mental assault against an opponent–what kind of man isn’t able to protect his women folk?  Again I will remind everyone that northern soldiers were hardly ever rapists (like most US men are hardly ever rapists). In the rare recorded cases the raping seemed to be more a thing done to slave women (considered southern property) and usually in front of their white southern female owners as if to warn them that it could happen to them if they weren’t careful. Some Union soldiers blamed the fiery southern women for prolonging the bloody war by convincing their men to keep fighting against all odds.

There were a few well-documented cases of gang rape done by colored troops and here the reasoning may have been more in line with revenge against their former white masters.

Here are my questions: When did self-restraint in men become something to be laughed at? When did men begin to cling to childhood and abdicate their proper place as men? What’s not cool about taking care of families (other than divorce courts being brutal on men)? When did childish women decide that unrestrained lust would make for better relationships? When did these same women start calling all men rapists?

There was a Cult of Womanhood back in the 19th century. Women had a great mission and a great power. Not everyone lived up to the ideal or even wanted to and that’s fine, but when a culture turns its people into children unable to use self control  and actually applauds self obsession and stupidity one wonders when the real men and women will stand up.

Essay prompted by THE VACANT CHAIR by Reid Mitchell