Historians are a bit like detectives. They sift through evidence, weigh it, and try to leave no stone unturned.
But when they publish their results, they’re a bit like lawyers. They need to be objective enough to gain the credibility of the judge and jury, but they are still advocating. They back up their historical observations with evidence and try to draw new conclusions.
In the following guest blog, historian Shelby Harriel uses the same analogy as a springboard into her research into women Civil War soldiers. Those female warriors were actually committing a crime. They also violated the norms of Victorian society. Because of that they covered their tracks and concealed their true identities. Sometimes the army even destroyed the evidence if they were caught.
That makes women Civil War soldiers hard to research. But their contributions to the war were invaluable; the research adds a new layer of understanding to Civil War history. Shelby Harriel is writing a book on women Civil War soldiers. I met her online, through her fascinating blog, Forbidden, Hidden, and Forgotten: Women Soldiers of the Civil War, and invited her to write a guest blog. You can read more about Shelby and her book below.
Here’s Shelby Harriel with her guest blog:
I was delighted to meet Ann Marie recently. As bloggers, researchers, and writers, we share similar experiences. We also share a love of history. So I was extremely honored when she asked me to contribute a guest post. Beyond the aesthetically pleasing nature of her blog, Ann Marie has some very interesting content among her writings, most of it dealing with true crime. It made me think of how I, as a historian, am like a detective in my search for women soldiers of the American Civil War, 1861-1865.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of women disguised themselves as men and fought in the Civil War. We’ll never know exactly how many there were.
Victorian society was strictly defined. Women were supposed to be passive and remain in the domestic sphere. They were expected to create life, not take it. Therefore, the government did not allow Victorian women to serve in the military. War was the domain of men.
Clothing defined the genders. Women did not wear pants. Doing so resulted in imprisonment and/or a fine, not to mention the shame that discovery would bring themselves and their family.
So when women traded in their hoop skirts for army trousers, not only did they defy the morals and mores of the times, which was unacceptable behavior, they were also breaking the law.
It is difficult to think of these women Civil War soldiers as criminals, especially since many of them made the ultimate sacrifice and lie buried in graves right next to the men with whom they served. But, by definition, women soldiers were committing a crime. (And so were the hundreds of thousands of boys under 18 years old who lied about their age in order to fight.)
The Crime Scene
Women are reported to have fought in every major battle of the American Civil War. They were there from the beginning to the end.
The Motives of Women Civil War Soldiers
Why would these women risk their reputation and lives for a society that did not desire their service? There were several reasons. A majority of them enlisted in order to avoid being separated from a loved one. Others were trying to escape an oppressive situation. Economic factors drove some women. Disguised as men working in masculine-only professions, they could make more money than they ever could in the few jobs available to Victorian women. Patriotism motivated some women to enlist while others were simply seeking adventure, not unlike their male counterparts. Love, fear, money, duty…motives common to any good mystery story.
Civilians, common soldiers, high-ranking officers, and even well-known generals bore witness to women serving in the military during the Civil War.
Documentation is the backbone of any historian’s arguments. The same goes for a criminal investigator. Without supporting evidence, there is no case. And sometimes, acquiring this evidence and documentation is challenging. Just like investigators of a criminal case, researchers who delve into the topic of women Civil War soldiers must overcome the obstacle of subterfuge. In order to serve in the military, these women had to disguise themselves. They cut their hair short, wore clothes that Victorians weren’t accustomed to seeing them wear, and assumed an alias. (Some men did this, too….enlisted under an alias that is.) When discovered, some women soldiers not only told newspaper reporters the wrong male aliases they used, but they sometimes provided a false feminine name, if any at all. Remember, it wasn’t that difficult for Victorians to assume a new identity. They didn’t have birth certificates or forms of identification.
How does one find an individual who doesn’t want to be found?
Chasing phantom identities
Before anyone may choose to venture into this realm themselves, I would suggest purchasing a box of hair color to hide the gray hair that will be infesting your head. Eat chocolate. And develop an exercise regimen to relieve the stress. Eat more chocolate and understand that you’re not going to find all of the answers.
A good place to start an investigation is to read secondary sources. But proceed with caution. Both period and contemporary accounts may contain errors. Some researchers can be careless. On the other hand, it may not necessarily be the fault of the authors. Most historians do the best they can with the evidence available to them at the time. It is the job of subsequent generations of researchers to uncover new findings and advance the historical narrative. And this is why it’s important to instill the love of history in young people. As archives continue to digitize more records, the more information people from all over the world will have access to. This is exciting!
After scouring secondary sources for names, dates, regiments, etc., I enter the information in a genealogy website to see if I can discover the true name of the woman soldier, attempt to complete her story by finding out what happened to her after the war, or determine whether she existed at all.
I also like to search newspaper archives for period articles. Again, the information may be wrong. Names were sometimes spelled phonetically, and an incorrect unit may have been mistakenly recorded. Furthermore, the woman soldier may have chosen to lead the reporter astray in order to protect the reputation of herself and her family. Or the reporter may have chosen to take an otherwise true story and embellish it with exciting….and incorrect….details. And some newspaper editors simply made up the story entirely. They were trying to make a living by selling newspapers, after all. I try to collect as many articles as I can about an individual woman soldier. Even though all of them may contain the same basic information, one unique sentence in a single article can make the difference in piecing together the true story.
All investigators question the witnesses… or they’re supposed to. Since all of the individuals involved in my realm of research have all passed on, it is necessary to acquire their testimony by investigating their letters and diaries. I always feel as if I’m being rude by invading someone’s personal space, but at the end of the day, they’re not around to protest. And these primary sources provide a wealth of all sorts of interesting information. Again, one must proceed with caution. Soldiers sometimes merely reported camp rumors and were not personally privy to the events they were writing about. On the other hand, I have discovered information in a letter or diary that validated a newspaper article or was a completely new find. One thing is for sure. These missives are not tainted with political correctness! Other primary sources such as regimental histories, prison records, court martial transcriptions, and provost marshal documents also provide invaluable information. Some of these particular records that I have examined have supported the claims of some women Civil War soldiers while debunking others.
Service records are the gold mine of military records. One can learn all sorts of information from them: when and where a soldier enlisted, a physical description, an antebellum occupation, when and where the soldier was mustered out, any prison records, some medical records, and any duty the soldier was assigned to. To a lot of people, service records are the smoking gun. According to some, if none can be found, this is enough to disprove a woman soldier’s service. “If they don’t exist, you must omit!” Ah, but a prosecutor doesn’t need the murder weapon or even a body to get a conviction. In the case of women Civil War soldiers, a lack of service records does not necessarily equate to a lack of service. For example, there is an account of a woman killed by an exploding shell during a particular battle. The story is supported by a future president of the United States, his future brother-in-law, who was a surgeon standing next to the soldier when she was killed, and several private soldiers who recorded the event in diaries and letters. The surgeon provided enough details to narrow down a possible unit that the soldier belonged to. So off I went to search for her service records. Two months later, my aching eyes and I were unable to locate any. Nor have I been unable to find any newspaper articles about the event. Yet it happened.
Here’s another example. Enter Exhibit A, carded medical record and discharge document for Mary Scaberry, alias “Charles Freeman,” of the 52nd Ohio Infantry. Obviously, she served….until she went into the hospital with a fever and ultimately discharged for “sextual incompatibility” after her true identity was discovered. In addition to this card, newspaper articles document her story as well. But yet there are no service records for her. Nor does she appear on the unit’s roster. So what happened to her records? It could be that they were inadvertently lost or destroyed over time. Or officials could have deliberately expunged them. Officers were often embarrassed and angry when a woman was discovered in their unit. They had just been fooled after all. Also, if a woman was hired as an officer’s servant or orderly, there wouldn’t be any service records because she wouldn’t have been mustered in. Yet she would have worn a uniform and experienced the same trials with the rest of the members of the regiment.
As for Scaberry, just like her service records, her ultimate fate also remains a mystery at this time. After she was discharged, she went home to Columbus, Ohio, only to be spurned by her father. Seeking employment, she then made her way to Chicago where she encountered a guard at Camp Douglas who made fun of her. She promptly beat him up which landed her in police court. The judge felt sorry for her and released her. She then vanished from history, rendering the tale of her life incomplete.
Women Civil War Soldiers: Tough Cases to Prove, But Valuable Contributions to History
As we have seen, researching women Civil War soldiers is much like any courtroom drama in film or text. The evidence is gathered, crime scene investigated, witnesses interviewed, and trials held. However, unlike most crime stories, there is no dramatic final scene….no dramatic presentation of the final piece of evidence to deliver the coup de grace as it were. But just as in these crime stories, the process of bringing the truth to light is the ultimate goal. However, there is no jury to decide the fate of these women. It is up to all of us to help solve this century old “crime.” The book never closes on a murder and it is my hope that the book will never close on the gallant and mostly unknown deeds of these courageous women.
Thank you, Shelby!
About Shelby Harriel:
Shelby Harriel received her B.A. in History with a minor in mathematics in May 1997 and her M.Ed. with an emphasis in mathematics and history in 2005. She earned both degrees from the University of Southern Mississippi. Shelby has been teaching mathematics at Pearl River Community College since 2007.
While her career has always revolved around mathematics, Shelby actively pursues her passion for history through research, exchanging ideas, and speaking to the public. For her efforts, Pearl River Community College bestowed upon her the Outstanding Humanities Instructor award in 2014. She is also a member of the speaker bureau of the Mississippi Humanities Council.
“The Third Mississippi Infantry and Hancock County”
“A Different Look at the Yankee Invaders: Two Women Disguised as Male Soldiers in Louisiana”
“A ‘Hole’ New Perspective: A Woman Soldier at the Crater”
“Bully For Her: Women Who Served Openly as Women”
Shelby is currently writing a book on women soldiers of the Civil War, Forbidden, Hidden, and Forgotten: Women Soldiers of the Civil War.
You can follow Shelby on Facebook too, where you’ll receive updates about her book.
I found a message in a bottle when I was a kid.
Or more precisely, my friend Linda spotted it first. It was floating in Barnegat Bay, a five-mile wide arm of the Atlantic between Long Beach Island, New Jersey and the mainland. On one of the island’s bay accesses, we had lowered our crab traps off the bulkhead in the hopes of catching some dinner. That’s when Linda spotted it bobbing in the water.
“Look, a message in a bottle!”
A flying leap for a bottle
Fully clothed, I leapt off the bulkhead, ponytail flying and limbs splayed. It was a five-foot drop, and the water was about just as deep, but I could swim. I stroked over to the bottle, grabbed it, and then clambered back up the bulkhead with our treasure.
Linda and I examined it. The message was rolled and tied with a cord. A thick layer of olive-green wax around the cap rendered the bottle waterproof. It was so thick we couldn’t uncap the bottle.Linda and I dashed home, grabbed a pruning knife, and began slicing the wax off layer by layer over the kitchen garbage can. I trembled with excitement as I dripped water all over the kitchen floor. Was the bottle a cry for help? Did it contain a secret message from pirates?
A message in a bottle as scientific research?
What we read once we slipped the scroll out and untied it couldn’t have been more disappointing for two ten-year-old kids. It was from someone researching ocean currents. It would have been exciting if the bottle had come in from England or India, but according to the message, it had been dropped into the Little Egg Harbor Inlet only four hours before, on the same day. That was less than ten miles away. Whoever did it hadn’t even bothered to check the tide tables before tossing the bottle into the sea. The tide brought the bottle inland, into the bay, not out into the ocean.
Nevertheless, Linda and I dutifully filled out the accompanying questionnaire about when and where we found the bottle. It asked for our addresses, and we gave them. It was yet another childhood disappointment that the researcher never wrote back to thank us. (If you happen to be reading this blog, and you were the one doing ocean current research in the late sixties or early seventies on Barnegat Bay, it’s not too late. Please drop me a line via the contact form on my blog or leave a comment and I’ll make sure Linda gets it too.)
A message in a bottle as a lead in a criminal investigation?
Some messages in bottles are much more ominous than the one we found.
Paul Brown has been collecting historical messages in bottles around the world. The messages come from the newspaper archives. Found messages were regularly printed in newspapers, often in a column titled “Messages from the Sea”, which is where the name of the book comes from. Before the wireless telegraph, the message in a bottle was a useful and legitimate means of communication. It was often the intention of senders to have their message published in newspapers. They knew the messages would eventually be washed ashore, and that their message might reach loved ones and other recipients.
Brown recently wrote a book about his finds. Messages from the Sea is scheduled for publication in September 2016. A few of the messages in his book contained clues to crimes: murders, kidnappings, and body snatchings. Paul joins us today with a guest blog about what must be the most romantic kind of crime clue ever: the message in a bottle.
Here’s Paul Brown:
Messages from the Sea: A Guest Blog by Paul Brown
A message in a bottle as a clue to a murder?
On September 17, 1889, a man named Samuel McAfee found a message in a bottle floating in Albert Quay, Belfast, Northern Ireland. McAfee passed the message, written on a slip of paper, to the harbor police. The message read as follows:
“Look out for the body of a man in the Blackstaff who committed murder and suicide, and also for the murdered man. 6 p.m. 10/8/89.”
The words “murder and suicide” were written in red ink, and the handwriting was said to be “stiff and cramped”. The Blackstaff is an underground river in Belfast that was culverted and built over in the 1880s. The message was initially assumed to be a hoax “intended by some mischievous person.” However, as a local newspaper noted: “When taken into account that a body was seen floating in the quay about a fortnight ago, the strange find may possibly bear some significance.”
All sorts of messages
This mysterious message is one of 100 collected in the Messages from the Sea book, based on the website of the same name. Dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these letters and notes were found on beaches and bobbing in rivers, in corked glass bottles and wax-sealed boxes, inside the mouths of codfish and in the bellies of sharks, carved on pieces of wrecked vessels and attached to the necks of seabirds. They tell tales of foundering ships, missing ocean liners, and shipwrecked sailors, and contain moving farewells, romantic declarations, and intriguing confessions.
Often written in the most desperate of circumstances, many of the messages are starkly moving. One such message, found on the northwest coast of England in 1907, reads: “Finder please give this to relatives of Bertha Magnussam, Wavertree, Liverpool, England. Love from Hubert, and good-bye.” Other messages provide clues regarding disappeared vessels. We know what happened to the Titanic – from which several messages in bottles were apparently cast adrift – but what happened to fellow White Star liner the Naronic, or the Collins liner Pacific?
Some of the messages concern murders, kidnappings, body snatchings, and mysterious family secrets. Who was Charles Pilcher, and did he really murder Margaret Hutchinson and put her body in a well? Did Elizabeth Granton find the “secret of her birth”, which a message in a bottle said was hidden behind a picture of the Earl of Warwick? And who was the sender of the message in a corked bottle, written in pencil on a neatly rolled-up piece of paper, which claimed responsibility for the unsolved murder of noted artist Archibald Wakley?
A floating message as the key to a miner’s demise?
And what of the message found floating in Snake River at Weiser, Idaho, in April 1897? It read: “I was shot last night by an unknown party. I am mining on Snake River at Big Bend. I am dying. Yours, W. C. Cook.” It was known that Snake River’s gold deposits attracted many placer miners, most of whom who lived and worked alone along the river. And, ten days previously, an attempt to murder one of these miners, and to steal his gold, had been made at another point in the river. That victim had been left for dead but survived. W. C. Cook was never traced, and local newspapers speculated that he might not have been so lucky.
Messages from the Sea: Letters and Notes from a Lost Era Found in Bottles and on Beaches Around the World is available as a special limited edition hardback from www.messagesfromthesea.com.
Paul Brown is a writer who lives on the northeast coast of England. He can be found on Twitter @paulbrownUK and at www.stuffbypaulbrown.com.
Thank you, Paul Brown!
An Interview with Author Kim Murphy
Every once in a while, a book comes along that shifts the tectonic plates in my understanding of history.
I used to practice law and was the prosecutor for parole revocation hearings in a ten-country region for Washington State. I’m familiar with elements of the crime of rape. I’m familiar with the questions defense attorneys pose about consent during cross-examination. You’re probably familiar with them too from crime films and books.
What the public never saw was the rape victims in my office when I prepared them for the hearings. They wept. They vented anger. And often, they oozed fear and frustration. It’s not easy to face your rapist in the courtroom, but it’s necessary if we want to send the rapist to prison. Without question, the hardest part of my job as a prosecutor was to lend courage to a frightened rape victim, to convince her to put her fears aside and take the witness stand for the public good.
I wasn’t always successful.
Nevertheless, once a victim agrees to testify, our modern criminal justice system takes a pretty good stab at sifting guilt from innocence, and I naively assumed that had always been the case in United States history. I never realized how much rape laws had changed over time.
My introduction to 19th-century rape laws
Never realized, that is — until I read Kim Murphy’s I Had Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War. Murphy’s non-fiction book is not only a survey of rape in the Civil War but an eloquent testimony to prejudice. Prejudice against African Americans, prejudice against foreigners, and above all, prejudice against women. Prejudice that happened in the very location that’s supposed to be the most impartial place of all: the courtroom.
Kim Murphy joins us for an interview about rape in the Civil War. Watch out for the double standard she offers of a criminal soldier who holds a gun to two victims’ heads, a man’s and a woman’s. Look out for her discussion of Sir Matthew Hale and 19th-century rape laws. And take note of the age of consent. Those are things I never learned in law school. They shocked me to the core. And I think they will shock you too.
You can read more about Kim Murphy below.
If this post changes your understanding of the history of rape laws, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.
Welcome, Kim Murphy!
What got you interested in the subject of rape in the Civil War?
While researching my Civil War fiction, I kept coming across the topic of rape. Some Civil War historians stated that it was uncommon or “rare.” Originally, I took them at their word, but the more I researched the war, I began to doubt their claim. I thought it was time the women involved had a voice, which is why I ended up writing I Had Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War. The title comes from a woman’s testimony during a court-martial. She said she’d rather die than to have been raped.
Some authors claim the Civil War was a “low-rape war.” Why has this view been so entrenched?
I think part of the view comes from the fact that few soldiers were executed for the crime of rape during the war. With rape being a capital crime during the 19th century, some historians have used that basis for their “low-rape war” belief. As time went on, the belief was repeated without any facts behind it. Some, I believe, also romanticized the war, claiming the soldiers from the Civil War practiced gentlemanly “self-restraint.” Such a belief ignores the problem we still deal with today, where most rapes are never reported.
What do the facts say?
Researchers E. Susan Barber and Charles F. Ritter state that approximately 450 sexual crime cases were heard in Union courts-martial. I personally found over 400 accounts of molestation or rape in the Civil War for my database. Although most were court-martial cases, not all were. Some came from diaries, letters, newspapers, and the Official Records of the two armies. The latter sources show that many cases never made it to trial. The men who were actually charged with the crime rarely got more than a slap on the hand. Some of the sentences were ridiculous, such as their heads being shaved and their getting drummed out of their regiments.
As for the statistics of STD cases, the official report from the United States Surgeon General’s Office stated there were 109,397 cases of gonorrhea and 73,382 cases of syphilis among the U.S. white troops. This report doesn’t include black soldiers or the Confederates. If the Confederate records ever existed, I’m sure they were lost along with most of their other records at the end of the war. In any case, these statistics show that gentlemanly restraint was somewhat lacking.
Are you able to draw any broad conclusions based on the data for rape in the Civil War?
Of the rapes that were reported and went to court-martial, black soldiers frequently received harsher sentences than white soldiers. Of the white soldiers, foreign-born soldiers were more likely to receive harsher punishment. Nearly thirty soldiers were executed for rape or attempted rape. More than half were black, even though they made up 10% of the Union forces. Most of the white soldiers who received the death penalty were accused of other crimes in addition to rape.
As for the victims, conclusions are difficult to arrive at since most rapes are never reported. Those that went to court-martial, upper-class white women were believed more often than poor white women or black women. Poor white women and black women essentially had to prove their cases, since both were regarded as “promiscuous.”
Another factor that many don’t take into account is that during wartime, most reported rapes are during times of occupation. At other times, armies were on the move or engaging in combat. During these times, the authorities had difficulty finding enough officers for judges to hold a court-martial, and women who had been raped wouldn’t have known to whom or where to report the crime.
There are more recorded instances of Union rapists that Confederate rapists. Why is that?
Many of the Confederate records were lost during the retreat and burning of Richmond. Even though few records remain, however, similarities can be seen. Women had to prove they had been raped.
The most shocking thing about your book, at least for me, was the state of the rape laws in the 19th century. Why was a woman required to fight for her life before a court would consider it a rape?The rape laws for all of early America came from Sir Matthew Hale, an influential 17th-century English judge:
It is true that rape is a most detestable crime, and therefore ought severely and impartially to be punished with death; but it must be remembered, that it is an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused, tho never so innocent.
His words echoed throughout courtrooms well into the late-20th century. Basically, his declaration laid the groundwork that women frequently lied about being raped, and it was very difficult for men to prove their innocence. At the time of the Civil War, chastity was regarded as a virtue, so a woman was expected to put up a fight in order to be believed. If she had no bruises or any kind of trauma to her body, she was regarded with suspicion and believed to have most likely given her consent.
An interesting side note: Sir Matthew Hale was also a judge for witchcraft trials. At least two women were hanged when he presided.
So if a man held a gun to a woman’s head and said he would kill her, and if the woman was scared to death and submitted, that would have counted as consent? And did that actually happen?
Yes to both questions. In one particular case, Private Ennis went to the home of Mary Harris in North Carolina. At gunpoint, he asked the women of the household if either would have sex with him. When they said no, he threatened them.
Mary said she was an “old woman with a heap of children.” The private turned to her daughter, Caroline. He took her to another room and locked the door behind them. At that point, he put his gun down, then raped her.
On the same day, Ennis had robbed another man at gunpoint, then attempted to rob another. The second man was also armed and turned Ennis in to the authorities.
At the court martial, Caroline was repeatedly badgered by Ennis in cross-examination. During the Civil War era, the accused often couldn’t afford an attorney, and there was no right to free representation during this time, so the defendants frequently represented themselves. As a result, a woman often faced intense questioning from her rapist.
Ennis never denied what happened but claimed that Caroline “yielded from fear of death.” He was found not guilty for rape, but guilty on the robbery charges, even though the man offered no resistance during the robbery.
And the age of consent was ten? Are there cases of girls that young who got raped and were deemed to have consented?
The age of consent was ten in most states. Kentucky, Virginia, Indiana, and Iowa set the age at twelve. Arkansas established the age to coincide with a girl’s first period, which tended to be several years later than modern girls.
If the case went to trial, a girl of ten was more likely to be believed than an adolescent or an adult. Many girls’ ages, especially slaves, were not given in the records, so it’s anyone’s guess as to how old some were. So yes, I’ve come across records where young girls were raped and said to have consented. When young girls were involved, the soldiers were found guilty more often, but the girls were still frequently asked questions during the testimony as to whether they had contributed to the act.
In one case of a ten-year-old girl, she was raped at gunpoint. A doctor confirmed she had been raped and feared she might die from blood loss. Yet, at court-martial, she was asked questions that indicated she might have tempted her rapist by touching him. The private was found guilty on several charges in addition to rape and was sentenced to be shot, but most of the charges, including rape, were dropped on a technicality because the locality where the rape had taken place wasn’t listed. In the end, the private escaped to Canada.
What has been the scholarly reaction to your book?
I’ve received a couple of excellent reviews, including one from Choice, but the Civil War historians have pretty much ignored the book. I have a feeling they find the topic of rape in the Civil War uncomfortable.
Thank you, Kim!
About Kim Murphy:
Award-winning author Kim Murphy has written historical and historical-fantasy fiction. Her published articles consist of a wide range of subjects, from seizures in the Belgian sheepdog to various topics of the 17th and 19th centuries. From her research for her fiction, Kim learned that historians incorrectly assumed rape was rare during the Civil War. Seven years of researching and writing went into her only nonfiction title to date, I Had Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War. The title was taken from a rape survivor’s testimony during a court-martial case. Her Civil War ghost stories, Whispers from the Grave and Whispers Through Time, have won several awards, including ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year Award, an IPPY (Independent Publisher Book awards), as well a nomination for RT Reviewer’s Choice award.
Kim Murphy maintains a website at www.kimmurphy.net.