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.
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.
No history of a war is complete if it focuses solely on men. Women’s experiences, at home and on the battlefield, shaped the postbellum world. Women, perhaps more than men, held society together during the war and rebuilt it afterwards.
Giselle Roberts uses diaries and letters to tell documentary stories about women of the American South. She joins us for an interview.
Giselle Roberts is an Honorary Research Associate in American History at La Trobe University (Melbourne, Australia), and co-editor, with Melissa Walker (Converse College), of the Women’s Diaries and Letters of the South series by the University of South Carolina Press.
You can read more about her biography below, or visit her website here. I’ve added some quotes by American women.
You live in Australia, Dr. Roberts. What got you interested in the American Civil War?
I was nineteen when I read the Civil War diary of Sarah Morgan. I discovered it in my local bookshop one Friday afternoon. For weeks I picked up the book, and put it back on the shelf. I was intrigued, but not entirely convinced it was a story for me. Sarah was a young, white, upper-middle-class woman from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Her family were slaveholders and she was a loyal Confederate. I wasn’t a historian, and the story didn’t resonate with me as a reader. I hesitated. Then one day, I bought it.
The book was Charles East’s edition of the diary; the first time Morgan’s account had been edited and published in its entirety. I read the first few pages, and I was hooked. I finished the book that weekend.
I was in my first year of an Arts degree, studying Australian politics and reading book after book on the American Civil War. I discovered that La Trobe University’s American history faculty was ranked in the top three in the southern hemisphere, changed my major, and studied under Pulitzer Prize winner Rhys Isaac and acclaimed labor historian, John Salmond. I received my PhD in 2000. I have published three books since then, including the courtship correspondence of Sarah Morgan and Francis Warrington Dawson. After reading Sarah’s Civil War diary, I wanted to know more!
“I only wish that the doctors would let us try and see what we can do!” – Kate Cumming, Confederate nurse
How is a documentary edition different from a monograph?
Documentary historians edit and annotate primary source material to tell a story. Editors can, and do, work with professional sources such as account books or government documents. Others, like myself, work with first person accounts such as diaries, correspondence, editorials, oral history interviews, speeches, or memoirs. Historians studying the twentieth century have a new frontier at their disposal, including email and blogs. Whatever the source, it’s the editor’s job to provide the narrative structure, the genealogical and historical context, and the interpretive framework to allow the reader to navigate, and appreciate, the story.
“We hear nothing, can listen to nothing; boom, boom goes the cannon all the time. The nervous strain is awful, alone in this darkened room.” – Mary Chestnut, southern diarist during the Civil War
What kind of books are in the Women’s Diaries and Letters of the South series by the University of South Carolina Press?
The Women’s Diaries and Letters of the South (WDLS) series publishes documentary editions of letters, diaries, memoirs, editorials, and oral history interviews created by women residing in the American South from the colonial era to the present day.
The series has a strong Civil War collection. We have published the diaries and letters of doctors, plantation mistresses, and young women. One of my favorite books in the series is A Northern Woman in the Plantation South: Letters of Tryphena Blanche Holder Fox, 1856-1876. Tryphena was a teacher from Massachusetts who married a doctor from Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. Her correspondence provides a middle-class portrait of life in the South from the late antebellum period through Reconstruction. It is fascinating indeed.
We have also published several books on twentieth-century women, most notably Melissa Walker’s Country Women Cope with Hard Times, a wonderful collection of oral history interviews with women from eastern Tennessee and western South Carolina. As daughters and wives, they milked cows, raised livestock, planted and harvested crops, worked in textile mills, sold butter and eggs, and practiced remarkable resourcefulness.
We have several exciting book projects in production, including an anthology on the Progressive Era featuring the documentary stories of nine remarkable women.
“Oh mother! you northern people know nothing of the horrors of war…” — Tryphena Blanche Holder Fox, teacher from Massachusetts who married a doctor from Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana
History, especially, military history, is so often a man’s world. How do women’s diaries and letters contribute to our understanding of Civil War history?
Women’s letters and diaries of the Civil War era mostly provide us with a privileged white view of the home front. In the South, which is my area of specialization, white women wrote about their struggles to maintain domestic life in the face of mounting Confederate defeats, Union occupation, the loss of slaves, and a crippling economy of scarcity.
But it’s not the only view we have: there were women on both sides who were spies, soldiers, and nurses. Some women lived with their husbands in military camps, and wrote home about their experiences.
Documentary stories allow us to peek through a window into the random, messy complexity of human experience in another time and place. It’s wonderful to know what women thought about the war effort and nationalism, but I also find the glimpse into their everyday lives most intriguing.
“A woman is like a tea bag – you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
What are you researching now?
At the moment, my research has moved into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Melissa Walker and I are currently editing a book on the Progressive Era. The thing I enjoy most about this period is the documentary diversity. In the nineteenth century, diaries and letters were overwhelmingly written by privileged white women. By the early twentieth century, we find a growing body of material by African American women, for example. Our new book will feature a range of women from different backgrounds, and that is very exciting. We are working with several contributors who have identified some remarkable documentary stories.
“But alas! nothing that I had ever heard or read had givien me the faitest idea of the horrors witnessed [in the hospital ward].” – Kate Cumming, Confederate nurse
How often to you make it to the United States?
At least once a year. Since I took up the position as co-editor of the WDLS series, I have travelled annually to South Carolina. I love “talking shop” with Melissa and Alex Moore, our wonderful acquisitions editor at USC Press. Of course, no trip to South Carolina would be complete without some time in Charleston, my favorite city in the United States. The Lowcountry is magical – Charleston, Beaufort, and Bluffton make a delightful road trip. Then there is the food. After a day of exploring, I always look forward to sampling the local dishes such as shrimp and grits, and a slice of coconut cake, of course!
What’s your favorite book on the Civil War Era?
There are so many wonderful books! Scarlett Doesn’t Live Here Anymore by Laura Edwards examines the lives of slaves, free blacks, poor whites, and the white elite, and is a comprehensive introduction for those wanting to learn more about women of the South. Nina Silber’s Daughters of the Union provides a wonderful overview of the different struggles that confronted northern women during the war.
Anne Sarah Rubin’s A Shattered Nation is a brilliant examination of Confederate nationalism, and Stephen Ash’s A Year in the South: Four Lives in 1865 is an important book and a joy to read.
My favorite documentary editions include Sarah Morgan’s diary, A Southern Woman of Letters: The Correspondence of Augusta Jane Evans, and Lisa Grunwal’s and Stephen Adler’s epic collection, Women’s Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present. To make sense of it all, Kimberly Harrison’s The Rhetoric of Rebel Women examines the ways in which the everyday speech of privileged white southern women contributed to the culture of the Confederate home front. It’s a great book.
And, of course, I am looking forward to PBS’s Mercy Street. Anya Jabour, author of Scarlett’s Sisters, worked as a consultant on the series, so we are assured of its historical accuracy.
“Oh! what a luxury it is to weep…” – Augusta Jane Evans, southern author
Giselle Roberts is author of The Confederate Belle (University of Missouri Press, 2003), and editor of The Correspondence of Sarah Morgan and Francis Warrington Dawson (University of Georgia Press, 2004) and A New Southern Woman: The Correspondence of Eliza Lucy Irion Neilson, 1871-1883 (University of South Carolina Press, 2012).
Her articles on Sarah Morgan Dawson have appeared in Lives Full of Struggle and Triumph: Southern Women, Their Institutions, and Their Communities (University Press of Florida, 2003), and the South Carolina and Louisiana editions of Southern Women Lives and Times (University of Georgia Press, 2010 and 2016).
Giselle Roberts has published over 60 book reviews in scholarly journals including the Journal of American History, Journal of Southern History, Journal of Women’s History, South Carolina Historical Magazine, and Civil War Book Review.
Which women do you admire for the roles they played during a war?
Might one crime have influenced the course of the Civil War? Yes, according to one researcher. The 1864 Gold Hoax blew a cannon ball through Lincoln’s efforts to build up the Union troops. It also highlights one of the strangest coincidences in the war. And this week marks the hoax’s 151st anniversary.
Shocking News about the War Drove up the Gold Price
It all started on May 18, 1864. At that time, things were starting to look good for the North. Grant had just led the Army of the Potomac into Virginia and was pursuing Robert E. Lee. But two New York newspapers shocked readers with a press release from the White House. It painted a negative picture of the war in Virginia. Lincoln purportedly called for a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer in response to recent Union defeats. He also called for 400,000 extra troops, threatening a draft should the states not be able to raise their quota of volunteers.
The press release’s cannon ball first sailed through the stock market. Bad news often makes the market volatile, and this case was no different. Gold, one of the safest investments, shot up 8% overnight.
The Press Release was a Hoax
But one thing was amiss. Why had only two newspapers printed the story? Investigation quickly uncovered a hoax. The press release was a fraud, written to appear like an Associated Press release. But the Associated Press repudiated the release.
Someone had delivered it to the papers at 4:00 a.m., between the departure of the night staff and the day staff. That left the night foreman to make the decision about whether to publish it. And the foremen for two papers were duped.
Now the cannon ball sailed into the federal administration. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton called it “a base and treasonable forgery.” He sent a dispatch the Associated Press to repudiate the forged executive announcement. President Lincoln was furious about the hoax, and in a controversial move, ordered the arrest of newspaper personnel and even closed down the Independent Telegraph Line. New York papers offered a thousand dollars for discovery of the culprit.
More Precisely, it was a Gold Hoax
Detectives quickly honed down on the offender. Joseph Howard, editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, confessed. He had invested in gold and wrote the forged press release to drive the gold price up. And he knew the newspaper industry well enough to know that the early morning was a good time to send a fraudulent release.
Lincoln released Howard from prison less than three months later. And two months after the gold hoax, Lincoln did issue a proclamation calling for 500,000 volunteers.
The May 17 Coincidence
Much later, the discovery of a document signed May 17, 1864, the very same day as fake press release, brought more of the story to light. It was a presidential order for drafting 300,000 more troops. And it should have been made public May 18, the same day the gold hoax hit the papers.
Lincoln’s May 17 order is missing from the Official Records, and one historian has surmised that was due to the gold hoax. Howard had unknowingly preempted Lincoln’s authentic order, and Lincoln apparently waited two months for the furor to die down before issuing a new order.
But did the gold hoax cannon ball fly even further, impacting the outcome of the war? During the two-month period between the hoax and the new order, the Union army suffered a manpower shortage. General Grant was pleading for new troops. Had Joseph Howard never perpetrated the gold hoax, what difference would Lincoln’s extra 300,000 troops have made in May and June 1864? We will never know. That is one of the riddles of the Civil War.
Literature on point:
Webb Garrison, Creative Minds in Desparate Times: The Civil War’s Most Sensational Schemes and Plots (Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 1997)
Abott A. Abott, The Life of Abraham Lincoln (New York: T. R. Dawley, 1864)Read More
Spycraft rose to new levels during the Civil War. One of the most interesting innovations was ballooning. These five fun facts provide a brief introduction to what was then cutting edge military technology.
- Civil War balloons were not the first balloons used for military reconnaissance. France created the Corp d’Aerostiers in 1794 to promote the use of wartime balloon reconnaissance. In the United States, Thaddeus Lowe developed balloons from a more durable material, won an army contract, and formed the Aeronautic Corps, forerunner of the U.S. Air Force. Lowe used portable hydrogen generator wagons to inflate his balloons.
- The Union Army was the first to combine ballooning with telegraph communications. That was Thaddeus Lowe’s brainchild. Balloons rose up to a thousand feet over the landscape, offering expanded vistas. Using binoculars and sometimes even telescopes for more accurate observation, ballooners observed troop movements, spotted artillery locations, and sketched maps. Troop size was estimated by counting tents. Since it wasn’t possible to shout urgent information down from that height, the balloonists used signal flags or telegraph lines to communication their observations to the ground. Sometimes the balloonists dropped handwritten notes, attached to bullets, overboard. Most Civil War balloons remained tethered to the ground. That facilitated air to ground communication.
- Confederates quickly developed countermeasures to frustrate Union aerial reconnaissance. During Lowe’s maiden military flight on August 29, 1861 over Arlington, they pointed their cannon skyward and baptized Lowe with artillery fire. That was our country’s first instance of ground to air artillery. There are no recorded instances of a balloon being shot down during the war on either side, however. The distances were probably too great for accurate fire. Confederates also created false impressions for Union airborne observers. They doused their campfires and created fake artillery by painting logs black and posing them as cannon.
- The South used balloons too. During the Seven Days Campaign, for instance, Confederate reconnaissance balloons hovered over the countryside surrounding Richmond. Robert E. Lee ordered Edward Porter Alexander to observe Union movements, for which Alexander used a balloon. Lee’s balloons were inflated with hydrogen. Johnston used a hot air balloon. I haven’t been able to find a photograph of a Confederate balloon, and if anyone knows of one, please comment and provide a source!
- Both sides launched balloons from ships: the North from the George Washington Parke Custis and the South from the CSS Teaser. Those ships were our country’s first aircraft carriers.
Have you ever taken a balloon ride? How well could you observe the ground?
Literature on point:
Civil War Trust, Civil War Ballooning
Steven D. Culpepper, “Balloons of the Civil War.” Master’s thesis, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1994.
Howard Brinkley, Spies of the Civil War: The History of Espioage in the Civil War (Bookcaps, 2012).