by Sylvia Broeckx
Whilst travelling through the United States during the Civil War, British journalist George Augustus Sala questioned ‘whether either ancient or modern history can furnish an example of a conflict which was so much of a “Woman’s war” as this.’ Sala’s comments referred to the passion with which women on both sides of the conflict conducted themselves in their war efforts. Yet for white Southern women, the prospect of defeat in war and the destruction of their entire way of life made this war all the more personal. Whether through organising fundraisers, nursing wounded soldiers, or even spying and smuggling letters and contraband passed Union Army lines, if the South would fall, it would not be due to a lack of effort from white Southern women.
Confederate women proved themselves as enemy agents and their actions did not escape the attention of Union Generals. As a consequence, these actions came a revision of women’s legal status within the laws of war. Major-General Halleck for example issued a General Order in February 1862 stating that when women ‘aid and assist the enemy they become belligerents and will be treated as such. If they violate the laws of war, they will be made to suffer the penalties.’ No Union General made white Southern civilians, and elite women in particular, feel dread like William T. Sherman by bringing the war into their homes. Sherman recognised that civilians were key to winning the war:
‘They cannot be made to love us, but may be made to fear us, and dread the passage of troops through their country. … we can make war so terrible that they will realize the fact that, however brace and gallant and devoted to their country, still they are mortal and should exhaust all peaceful remedies before they fly to war.’
Sherman designed a strategy deliberately aimed at attacking Southern femininity, a strategy that would ‘illustrate the vulnerability of the South’ and make its ‘inhabitants feel that war and individual ruin are synonymous terms.’ The Union Army’s tactics shifted towards total war. Where at the start of the war their approach aimed to uphold a separation between military and civilian spheres, protecting Southern civilians and their property, the latter part of the war saw the Union army adopt a scorched earth policy.
Living under the constant threat of raids by Federal troops in the occupied South became a recurring theme in loyal Southern women’s accounts. With reports of looting and pillaging, rumours of sexual assault committed by Union Troops circulated around the South. Southern women’s fears were not baseless, Northern soldiers did after all commit rape and sexual assault and this confirmed women’s concerns and their opinion of Federal soldiers as uncivilised and ‘inhuman beastly’ vandals. The Union Army thankfully did enact a strong policy against sexual violence. Offenders were court-martialled and received sentences ranging from being dishonourably dismissed to the death penalty.
Intimidation then rather than direct sexual assault was a commonly used tactic; women ‘were offered every insult and indignity short of personal outrage.’ By crossing the boundaries of gendered spaces, not just invading these women’s homes but their bedrooms and searching their bodies, Sherman and his soldiers successfully managed to ‘strike at the feminine and elite white identities of their home front enemy’ without resorting to actual physical or sexual violence. White Southern women considered this invasion of their most private spaces, defying all the rules of polite society and gentlemanly behaviour, as a violation, a form of symbolic rape. Northern soldiers disrespected gender norms and no longer afforded wealthy slaveholding women the privileges afforded to their class, troops would use ‘such obscene language’ out in the streets that the women felt ‘forced to go indoors.’ Being surrounded by the violence of war, women never knew if or when soldiers would cross the line from intimidation and symbolic rape to actual rape. What looked like chaos and the breakdown of civilised warfare to Southern civilians, was in fact a calculated strategy of violence with the demoralisation of the local population as one of its aims. By diverging the war from the battlefield, a men’s sphere, and striking at the home, a women’s sphere, the Union Army successfully managed to crush the Southern spirit and win the war.
Stephanie McCurrie, Women’s War: Fighting and Surviving the American Civil War (2019)
Lisa Tendrich Frank, The Civilian War: Confederate Women and Union Soldiers during Sherman’s March (2015)
About the Author
Sylvia Broeckx received a BA(hons) in Film Studies in 2002 and has worked as a freelance filmmaker ever since. She went back to university part-time in 2013 to study for an MA in American History from the University of Sheffield. One of the projects she worked on during that MA however stuck in her mind so she decided to delve deeper into the topic and embarked on a PhD. Her research focuses on sexual violence committed by Union soldiers during the American Civil War.