Libido: Naked Brunch: Sex In The Civil War
Sex in the Civil War

By Jack Hafferkamp

Recent media coverage of efforts in South Carolina to remove the Confederate battle flag from state buildings underscores the strong feelings Americans still have about our Civil War, its meaning and aftermath. But one area almost completely ignored in the continuing dialog on the War Between the States is the subject of sex.

Hollywood epics and sanitized history books have little to say on the subject. But it turns out that sex and its impact was on the minds of not only lowly troopers, but the generals as well, especially when they tallied up the numbers of soldiers unable to fight because of sexually transmitted diseases.

On the Union side 230,000 soldiers suffered gunshot wounds between 1861 and 1865. Another 225,000 died of diseases, mostly typhoid and dysentery. But these were hardly the only major diseases to worry generals trying to keep up troop strength. Young men typically away from home for the first time, and facing death, were eager customers of prostitutes and other sexual outlets. Among white Union troops there were a total of 182,000 cases of syphilis and gonorrhea. The rate for all types of venereal disease was 82 cases per 1,000 men.

These details and others are revealed in a valuable book by Thomas P. Lowry called The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War. A medical doctor with experience in the U.S. Air Force and the Masters & Johnson Clinic, Lowry has done invaluable work with original sources, showing that the combatants in America’s bloodiest conflict were not only driven by big ideas. They were also human in terms quite recognizable today.

Among the insights in The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War:

  • During the war years (1861-65) there was a prosperous underground press, which produced a large number of erotic novels for the troops such as Maria Monk, a “rabidly anti-Catholic novel, with wild sex scenes between priests and nuns,” The Lustful Turk, and the ever popular Fanny Hill. There also were available erotic photos — Daguerreotypes, for instance, had been around for 20 years by the start of the Civil War — and “dirty” cartes de visite, French-made or -inspired post cards, which proliferated at this time. Since the war’s end virtually all of this material has been destroyed. According to Lowry, only three Civil War-era American erotic novels are known to exist. He says they are in the Kinsey Institute library in Bloomington, Indiana.
  • In Civil War times, Washington, D.C., was quite the happening town. In 1862, for example, there were 450 registered “bawdy houses” in the city. The Evening Star newspaper estimated that there were 5,000 prostitutes working Washington. Lobbyists were not counted.
  • Attempting to control the Capitol’s prostitution problem, Brigadier General Joseph Hooker herded many prostitutes into an area that became known as “Hooker’s Division” and later simply as “The Division.” There is debate as to whether prostitutes were known as “hookers” before Hooker created his prostitutes’ ghetto, but from then on his name was forever linked with sex workers.
  • The “first American exercise in legalized, medically supervised prostitution” took place in Union-controlled Nashville in 1864, when 352 women were licensed as prostitutes. A similar system was soon set up in Memphis. Lowry notes that even those who disliked the set-up grudgingly agreed the arrangement improved public order and reduced disease at little public cost.
  • Civil War newspapers often carried ads for condoms, which were made from lamb caecums and something called “India rubber.” Vulcanized rubber for modern-style condoms was not available until after 1876.
  • Lowry estimates that between 500 and 1,000 women served in Civil War combat units disguised as men.

Lowry drops one of his biggest bombshells in the middle of his book when he takes on the subject of Abraham Lincoln’s sexuality. “The more closely the Lincoln sources are examined,” Lowry writes, “the more obscure grows what is certain. With this disclaimer of finding the ‘real’ Lincoln, the arguments regarding possible homosexuality or bisexuality may be presented.”

The evidence, Lowry says, is that Lincoln didn’t really have much interest in women, including his wife, and largely preferred the company of men. Lowry says the historical record is clear that in his young adult days, from 1837 to 1841, Lincoln had shared his bed with his closest friend, Joshua Speed. Lowry points out that in those years on the frontier having a bed to oneself was a luxury. But later when Lincoln was in the White House, he shared his bed with the captain of his bodyguards “on autumn nights when Mrs. Lincoln was away from home.”

What does all this mean? Lowry wisely takes the safe road:

“… a Lincoln attraction to men, perhaps only manifest as relative ease in male company, is the least complex key to the distance that Lincoln put between himself and the women in his life. It is the most parsimonious explanation of the plaintive and tender letters exchanged between Lincoln and Joshua Speed when each took the momentous step of marriage. And it lies utterly beyond either proof or disproof.

Think the Confederate battle flag is an incendiary issue? Next time you’re at a Republican fundraiser, try suggesting Abraham Lincoln may have been bisexual.

The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War by Thomas P. Lowry, M.D. (Stackpole Books, 5067 Ritter Rd., Mechanicsburg, PA, 17055, 1994. ISBN: 0-8117-1515-9. 209 pages, hardcover $19.95)

ORDER NOW from by clicking on the image