Prostitution and the Civil War

By Annika Jensen ’18

It was to my slight disappointment that I found out that the term “hooker,” one of many referring to prostitutes (or, as they were called during the Civil War era, “public women), is not actually a play on the name of Joseph Hooker, the infamous and promiscuous Union general. Fighting Joe may, however, have helped elevate the term to its current popularity; after all, a certain red light district in Washington, D.C. was dubbed “Hooker’s Division.”

Pushing past the etymology, however, I discovered a vast array of sources, anecdotes, and documents leading to the world of prostitution in the Civil War era. In an earlier post I explored the prudish nature of domestic sex, a topic not often discussed or even performed. Indeed, prostitution and sex work was held in contempt by the majority of Victorian society: William Quesenbury Claytor on Virginia penned in his diary in 1852 that “impudent prostitutes” were often seen in Alexandria at night, and Union officer Josiah Marshall Favill wrote that in the same city in 1862 houses were “thronged” with sex workers. As discouraged and taboo as the practice was, however, it continued to expand and thrive during the Civil War era.

Sexually transmitted diseases indicate the prevalence of prostitution during the war itself; an estimated 8.2% of Federal soldiers were diagnosed with either syphilis or gonorrhea throughout the war, and far more likely went undiagnosed. These venereal diseases were a tremendous setback for the army, as treatment could put troops out of combat for long periods of time; officers had to ensure discipline and order to keep their men from frequenting brothels. Such problems proved especially prevalent in Union-occupied Southern cities like Nashville and New Orleans.

compiler prostititues nice
General Benjamin Butler enforced harsh discipline on the people of Union-occupied New Orleans; he is noted for threatening to publicly denounce women as prostitutes if they acted out against his soldiers. This editorial cartoon illustrates the resulting change in behavior.

Continue reading “Prostitution and the Civil War”

A Middle East Perspective: Civil War Memory in Syria and at Home

By Annika Jensen ’18

Last summer, while on a trip with the Eisenhower Institute’s Inside the Middle East program, I stood at the Israeli edge of the Golan Heights and heard a bomb explode across the border in Syria. We had spent the day within several miles of the war-ravaged nation with all remaining quiet until that moment, and while none of us wanted to admit it, we had the smallest hope that we might catch a glimpse of the conflict. However, when the sound of the detonation roared across the hills, excitement was replaced by a sense of fear and grief. I had lived a year in Gettysburg, yet I had never felt so close to a battlefield.

The wall of an abandoned hospital on the Syrian-Israeli border. Photograph by the author.
The wall of an abandoned hospital on the Syrian-Israeli border. Photograph by the author.

Gazing from the Golan Heights across the Syrian border held a certain degree of spectatorship; though it is morbid to articulate, we were all waiting for something to happen, as if conflict were equivalent with entertainment. Though it may not be just to compare our experience with the picnicking politicians at First Bull Run, waiting around for excitement and glory then fleeing in a panic, I certainly felt an observer of war. Perhaps many of us were too desensitized by the commonality of violence in our omnipresent media outlets to be affected. None of us felt particularly unsafe or even frazzled; we were too far from the sound to gauge whether any damage had been inflicted, and even if we had we never would have seen it. Nonetheless, the day was spent feeling a little more wary. Continue reading “A Middle East Perspective: Civil War Memory in Syria and at Home”

Causing Conversation: Civil War Memory in Beyoncé’s “Formation”

By Annika Jensen ’18

Not only did Beyoncé slay in her latest music video, but she got historical. Her single “Formation” touches on feminism, oppression, sexuality, and police brutality, and her video offers a visual representation for the overall theme of African American cultural ownership. It is, of course, an essential message for contemporary discussion, and the formerly-silenced subject is beginning to achieve prevalence in the music industry, but there is something special and bold about Beyoncé’s take on race: by appealing to Civil War memory and forcing viewers to accept the African American struggle for life, freedom, and success, she is shattering perceptions of one of our country’s most popular areas of historical study. What’s more? She’s a woman.

In some scenes, the iconic singer reconnects with her Southern roots by appearing in a Civil War era Southern-style parlor with other women of color, all sporting opulent Victorian clothing. In another, she stands clad in black outside what appears to be a large plantation home and, in an act of rebellion, flips off the camera. These historical allusions certainly create a powerful image of African American social progression, but they also present a more subtle message about the memory of slavery and the Civil War. Beyoncé is denying any attempt to erase her from our history while presenting the complexity of black lives during the Victorian era. She carefully lays out the connotations of black and white, of woman and man, and of power and submission.

Beyoncé gets historical in her latest music video. Photograph via

Continue reading “Causing Conversation: Civil War Memory in Beyoncé’s “Formation””

Historicizing the Free Speech Debate: Harold Holzer on Lincoln and Censorship

By Annika Jensen ’18

Before attending Harold Holzer’s Lincoln Lyceum lecture entitled “Lincoln and the Press: Master or Monster?” I really believed that today’s media presence was the craziest this nation had ever seen. Mr. Holzer insisted otherwise.


Harold Holzer spoke on February 23 at Gettysburg College. Photograph by the author.
Harold Holzer spoke on February 23 at Gettysburg College. Photograph by the author.

“I invite you to imagine the press culture of the mid-19th century,” the scholar told his audience, proceeding to illustrate the world of partisan journalism of the Civil War era: newspapers had no shame; they were open about their opinions and their agendas, and every aspect of the news was opinionated. Moreover, they were omnipresent, as nearly every major city had a paper for each political party. In the years preceding the war, the press particularly had fun with the Lincoln-Douglas debates, opposing newspapers disputing whether, when Lincoln was carried away by his supporters after one debate, he was lifted up out of the excitement of his followers or his own exhaustion and defeat.

Before getting into the meat of the lecture, Holzer specified that Congress never made or passed any law during the Civil War that acted against the First Amendment. However, President Lincoln and his administration took considerable measures against anti-war and anti-government newspapers that threatened to incite Americans against Lincoln, measures which are still debated on moral grounds today. Throughout the war, the Lincoln Administration and the Union Army initiated the suppression of about 200 newspapers in the North and in border states. Continue reading “Historicizing the Free Speech Debate: Harold Holzer on Lincoln and Censorship”

Sexual Healing: Nurses, Gender, and Victorian Era Intimacy

By Annika Jensen ’18

In the first episode of the new PBS series Mercy Street, nurse Anne Hastings is seen applying a plaster cast to a wounded soldier’s bare legs before a captivated audience of surgeons and hospital workers. This action seems trivial today, even unquestionable, but as the show progressed and more scenes portrayed this seemingly insignificant concept of touch, of intimacy between a female nurse and her male patients, its true magnitude became apparent.

Sex was not a popular topic of discussion in Civil War Era America; Victorian society shunned intimacy between men and women and regarded intercourse solely as a means of reproducing and building families, a convention that led to the establishment of separate spheres. Women were expected to remain pure and chaste, while men were responsible for fighting off their intrinsic sexual instincts (both of these standards are sexist, of course, but that’s a story for another blog post), and interactions between the genders were meant to be courteous and, frankly, prudish. The publication of The Scarlet Letter in 1850 did not help this case as women became more apprehensive and fearful of the reactions they might receive; no woman wanted to be the subject of public scorn. Continue reading “Sexual Healing: Nurses, Gender, and Victorian Era Intimacy”

Take Me Out to the Ball Game (And Away From Camp): How Soldiers Used Sports to Cope During War Time

By Annika Jensen ’18

Snowball fights during the Civil War were a pretty big deal.

In fact, sports and fitness in general played a role in shaping ideals of honor, courage, and idolization among the Armies of the Potomac and Northern Virginia, and they proved to have an impact on the life of the individual soldier by distracting him (or possibly her) from the monotonous routine of camp life and establishing bonds of comradeship.

Boredom seems a triviality compared with the tragedy and hardships of the war’s famous battles, but it took its toll on the outlook and mental health of soldiers. The mundane repetition of everyday army life along with grief for lost friends and fear of impending violence caused depression, homesickness, loneliness, and anxiety and contributed to a general gloom among the armies. Soldiers felt captive in their own camps.

The remedy? Sports. A few men would organize a game of baseball and moods were instantly lifted, grievances temporarily forgotten. The physical exertion itself was beneficial to the soldiers’ stiff limbs and offered a refreshing change of pace and atmosphere compared to the doldrums of boredom and inactivity. Immersing oneself in the game allowed an escape from plaguing thoughts and an outlet for expression.

Baseball game between Union prisoners at Salisbury, North Carolina, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons

Continue reading “Take Me Out to the Ball Game (And Away From Camp): How Soldiers Used Sports to Cope During War Time”

Dead Broets Society: Masculinity in Walt Whitman’s War Verse

By Annika Jensen ’18

There are two images of masculinity in Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps, his collection of wartime poetry: one, the strong, hardened soldier, the image of manliness, and the other the boyish, rosy-cheeked recruit. Whitman’s sexuality, while not the Victorian social norm, was no secret, and he wrote openly of the hospitalized soldiers during his time as a Union nurse with admiration, affection, and love. Some critics, such as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, castigated Whitman’s queer themes to be overwhelming, distractingly sensual, and “unmanly,” while others, like William Sloane Kennedy, dissented, arguing instead that the overt sexuality present in Whitman’s work was precisely what contributed to its masculinity, whether its desires were traditional or not. Whitman’s work, “Drum-Taps” included, certainly does overflow with themes of gender and sex with hardly any mention of women. How, then, did the poet find himself in a crossroads of contradicting ideas of masculinity, and what are the implications of this dichotomy?

Whitman and his friend Peter Doyle. Photo via

I will admit that it has taken me a while to reach a conclusion to this question, and I still have doubts about my reasoning. I am a lover of Whitman’s poetry, and I have always had a respect for his daring display of his own homosexuality, but diving back into “Drum-Taps” and subsequent research stumped me a bit. I finally decided that my conclusion would not come from what was written or presumed by scholars, but from my own literary analysis. Continue reading “Dead Broets Society: Masculinity in Walt Whitman’s War Verse”

The Oatmeal Brigade: Quaker Life During the Civil War

By Annika Jensen ’18

Quakers in the Civil War seems like an inherently contradictory idea; the Society of Friends practices pacifism and nonviolence, and, for many, putting money or resources toward war efforts goes against the faith. But tensions were high in 1861, and deviations from Quakerism were made when Friends, both Northern and Southern, had to choose whether to prioritize the sanctity of union, support abolition, or remain neutral. Each of these decisions had its share of repercussions within the religious community, and the Quakers themselves found their mindsets changing as the tide of the war rolled on, whether they chose to fight, support the war effort, or abstain from involvement.

Friends had to decide which was the greater sin: violence or slavery. Quakerism preached against both, leaving its subjects in opposition to the South’s Peculiar Institution but unwilling to take up arms against the Confederacy. Some, like Daniel Wooton, enlisted for the preservation of the Union and became engaged in the morality of the fight: “We all know the Bible says thou shalt not kill: but what are we to do with those persons that rebell against the law of our country,” the young cavalryman wrote to a friend back home. “Did God set dow[n] and let the Devil take the uppermost seat in heaven when he caused the rebellion there? no Sir!” This appeal to religion serves as justification for Wooton, but it also presents a question: which tenet of Quaker faith was the most important? Continue reading “The Oatmeal Brigade: Quaker Life During the Civil War”

Ready, Aim, Feminism: When Women Went Off to War

By Annika Jensen ’18

I like to imagine that if Sarah Emma Edmonds were my contemporary she would often sport a t-shirt saying, “This is what a feminist looks like.”

Edmonds was a patriot, a feminist, and, along with an estimated 400 other women, a soldier in the American Civil War. Fed up with her father’s abuse and appalled at the prospect of an arranged marriage Edmonds left her New Brunswick home at the age of fifteen and soon adopted a male identity to become a successful worker. When the war erupted, she was compelled by a sense of patriotism and adventure to join the fight and was soon mustered into Company F of the Second Michigan Volunteers. The newly dubbed Frank Thompson, with her cropped hair and ill-fitting uniform, was able to fit in easily with the other youthful soldiers and soon marched to Manassas where her war story commenced. Throughout the war, Edmonds/Thompson served as a postman, a nurse, and a spy until she contracted malaria and was forced to desert for fear of revealing her true sex.

My queen Sarah Edmonds, alias Frank Thompson, of the Second Michigan Volunteer Infantry. Photo via
My queen:  Sarah Edmonds, alias Frank Thompson, of the Second Michigan Volunteer Infantry. Photo via NPS.

Edmonds’ case is not unique, though not much is known about the other fighting women. Likewise, historians have trouble narrowing down their reasoning for joining the war: some, like Satronia Smith Hunt, could not bear to lose their husbands and decided to fight alongside them, while others enlisted out of a sense of patriotism, duty, adventure, or honor. But there was one incentive that tied each of these women together, from Jennie Hodgers to Loreta Velasquez, one motivation that governed their daring, noble actions: feminism and the desire for equality.

Let’s break down our reasoning. Continue reading “Ready, Aim, Feminism: When Women Went Off to War”

Finally Speaking Up: Sexual Assault in the Civil War Era

By Annika Jensen ’18

Trigger warning: This article contains detail concerning rape and sexual assault.

On March 12, 1864, in the midst of a bloody war which had long overflowed its thimble, Margaret Brooks was returning from her home near Memphis, Tennessee when her wagon broke down in Nonconnah Creek. Not long after her driver left to find help, three rambunctious New Jersey cavalrymen, all white, approached Brooks, demanding her money. She was then raped multiple times at gunpoint.

Nashville prostitutes in a hospital, c. 1864. Photograph via, from The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War by Thomas Lowry.

Throughout the Civil War around 400 men were prosecuted for sexual violence crimes against women such as the 24 year-old Margaret Brooks, calling into question the issues of sexism and racism in nineteenth century society. Historians will sometimes consider the American Civil War to be an anomaly among other wars because they claim the adversaries did not use widespread sexual violence as a battle tactic. However, cases of rape and assault against women, particularly African American and Southern, can still be found in unsettling numbers, littering the pages of the war’s history. Continue reading “Finally Speaking Up: Sexual Assault in the Civil War Era”