Tag Archives: US Civil War

Review: The story the soldiers wouldn’t tell : sex in the Civil War.

Book cover

The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell

Dr. Thomas P. Lowry’s 1994 book, “The story the soldiers wouldn’t tell : sex in the Civil War” is still, as far as I can see, the primary book on its topic. That is not bad for a 21 year old history text, but then it is about sex, a topic Americans seem to deny exists. Lowry is a great writer, he controls the scholarly temptation to rely on a multitude of polysyllabic verbiage and keeps it simple and direct. He even manages to keep it light sometimes he is almost funny. He also is a good historian and I expect a good medical doctor. The book is well organized, he makes sure to show us what we need to know before we need to know it. the first two chapters, “Our Founding Fathers” and “The Birds and the Bees” set the stage by showing us what the relationship was between the male armies of the Revolution and the females of the era and then what Americans knew or thought they knew about sex.

General Braddock starting out on his march to Fort Dunquesne limited his army to six women per company and the British arrived in America with one woman for each ten men. Officially the woman were not there to serve the carnal desires of the officers and men but to cook and clean to remove men from those duties. Some were wives of the men or officers. The number of women following the troops as they moved from encampment to encampment and battle to battle grew. Wives and families who still depended on their men for sustenance and protection, women needing paid work who would cook and clean. Doing what men and women do they formed relationships and had sex. Some of the camp followers were willing to have sex for money.

Lowry assumes that people’s behavior and biology don’t change much is a few hundred years so he says that he expects that what Kinsey discovered in the 1940s and 50s was true in the 1840s and 50s. Then he goes to the sources to show us that maybe the people of the 19th century were the reason that Americans are still so ashamed and afraid of their biology. The Church of the Latter Day Saints and their “sister wives”, John Humphry Noyes’ Oneida Colony and its “Complex Marriage”, then there was Sylvester Graham’s views on sex, I will never look at a graham cracker the same way.

Using the soldier’s own words from letters written to home and to friends Lowry shows that the young men in the U. S. Civil War behaved like young men always have but, using statistics on the ratio of couples marrying while already expecting a child he does show that during times of unrest “illicit” sexual activity, sex outside of marriage, increases. Regardless of the praise Mark Twain and other writers gave to the originality of 19th century cursing the remaining letters and court transcripts prove otherwise.

Some of the most interesting revelations Dr. Lowry uncovered concerned venereal diseases, the medical topic that brought him to this subject. In two occupied southern cities the military officer in control set up systems of licensing prostitutes who agreed to submit to weekly medical checks. If they were found to be sick they received free treatment and were isolated from their occupation until a doctor cleared them. Both cities saw a remarkable drop in the rate of disease among the troops and the working women. I am not a student of the U. S. Civil War but apparently the Army of the Pacific, the federal troops from the Pacific area who fought against tribal nations during the war performed very poorly. Apparently many military historians have speculated why that was but Dr. Lowry may have come across the answer, very nearly half of the troops, and officers, suffered from VD during their deployments. As Lowry points out the symptoms of syphilis and gonorrhea do not make riding and fighting any easier.

Lowry gives a full chapter to love and romance, looking at the letters of longing between soldiers and their partners at home. He examines evidence of rape, officers, and clerics, who were not gentlemen, possible transvestites, contraception, abortion, and homosexuality, a term that was not invented until a generation after the war although the term “sodomy” had been in use since the late 13th century. He examines the question of Abraham Lincoln’s sexuality and comes up with what I feel has to be the final answer on that question, there is evidence to support both sides of the argument but nothing to prove either.

“The story the soldiers wouldn’t tell” was an interesting and entertaining read and with it Lowry opened a window into a seldom investigated are of American history. This is one of the better books I have read so far this year and may be the best.

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Filed under Book review, Gender studies, History, Medical History, Social History