Historical essay
Sex and the Civil War

Sex and the Civil War

The image of Donald Trump signing an order reinstating the global gag rule this February was striking. Surrounded by a group of men — and one woman, all of them white — Trump approved an order that will affect millions of women and girls around the world who rely on programs supported by the United States that provide access to health care, including birth control and abortions. US money has never been allocated to provide abortions, but, as I understand it, this new measure restricts the assistance non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can offer women and girls in many places around the world.

Although male legislators have for some time seen fit to legislate about what women can and cannot do with their reproductive lives, the particular relationship between male politics and women’s reproductive choices that we see in operation today traces its roots to the U.S. Civil War, when a group of legislators concerned about men and manhood put in place a series of measures that severely restricted women’s access to information about birth control and abortion. There are no straight lines connecting Monday’s executive order to events that occurred in the 1860s-70s, but if it is accurate to say, as folks have in the past, that the American nation was made during the Civil War, then so too was American morality.

This is the story I tell in Sex and the Civil War. It begins with pornography, or more particularly the mass-produced erotic fiction, cartes de visite, playing cards, and stereographs that soldiers read and shared during the war. The stuff wasn’t invented during the war, but the war accelerated the development of a domestic market for it and encouraged American entrepreneurs to print and sell it.

New printing technologies and rapid and cheap mail delivery made the business of porn profitable. So, too, did the concentration of men in the moving cities that were Civil War’s armies. To their families and relief agents, soldiers complained about a lack of reading material, but regimental order books and U.S. Court Martial records suggest that they had easy access to erotica, whether in the form of books and images or the circulars that publishers circulated to advertise it.

Cover of an edition of Fanny Hill, published around 1910. (Wikimedia | Public domain)

Here’s an example. Colonel Ebenezer Peirce, Twenty-Ninth Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers, stood before a court martial in April 1862 facing a number of charges, including “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.” Among the violations under this specification, Peirce was charged for reading aloud to privates in his company from a popular erotic book. Fanny Hill or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, by John Cleland, originally published in England in 1748 (and never out of print since) features the story of a naïve country girl lured into a life of prostitution in London.

Fanny Hill is composed of a series of letters written by the protagonist to another woman in which Fanny describes the wide range of sexual activities she engages in as a prostitute, including sex between women, cross-dressing, flagellation, and orgies. The book seems to have made the rounds in the Twenty-Ninth, as witnesses testified to seeing it in a variety of places and at various times. The other charges Peirce faced — under the specification, “conduct unbecoming,” striking a private without cause and disguising himself and sneaking out of camp to keep company with a disreputable woman — garnered more attention from the court martial.

Men in army camps also had access to a variety of images, made possible by new technologies such as the photograph, stereograph, cartes des visite, and miniaturized Stanhopes. Lavishly illustrated texts like Fanny Hill did not necessarily prepare men for the photographs they could now see of women’s real bodies.

Stereographs like those by sol Legault invited men to imagine themselves part of scenes that had formerly laid flat on the page. Men might hold onto a cartes, tuck it into his pocket, share it with a comrade. Less likely intended for sharing were the bead-sized images, Stanhopes, that were discretely mounted in a personal object — the handle of a walking stick, perhaps, or a pistol. Although Stanhopes were available in the 1860s, I found no mention of them in U.S. Army camps — of course, this was the genius of the design, allowing men to enjoy their own personal “peep,” as the microphotographs were called, at their own discretion while evading detection.

A series of Stanhopes stereographic images. (sol Legault/Kinsey Institute)

Moved by U.S. Army whistleblowers, legislators attempted a half-measure to exclude pornography from the U.S. mail during the war, particularly the bags of erotic materials headed to army camps, justifying the move as a wartime measure to protect soldiers. Would men who looked at naughty images be able to win the war, legislators worried? And, what kind of men would they be when they came home?

Once in place, this measure became the basis for sweeping postwar laws outlawing a long list of so-called “obscene materials,” which now included publications about birth control and allowed post office personnel to target practitioners of abortion. Anthony Comstock straddled these two worlds, awkwardly and tensely. He served in the US Army during the war, feeling isolated and out of place in a regiment of seasoned veterans, whose habits shocked him and whom he tried to reform.

Though he failed, time and again, he never stopped trying to save men from their erotic imaginations; Comstock’s efforts yielded greater results when aimed at women and their access to information about reproduction. In his hands, an effort to control the sexual imaginations of young men became a means of controlling women’s reproductive lives, as he targeted and arrested abortion providers and drove underground sources of information women found crucial to preventing pregnancy. The Comstock Laws, as they were called, were highly effective gag rules, the remnants of which were dismantled in the late twentieth century. Few recall that they were intended to outlaw pornography, as the laws were used most effectively in criminalizing abortion and, later, in combating homosexuality.

Like Comstock and his allies, perhaps the men who flanked the President this week as he wrote into law sweeping new gag rules believe they are fighting a battle to save men from themselves. The president has shown no regrets about his own sexual habits, his complete lack of restraint, and his predatory behavior towards women. What sort of man have we placed in the White House, they might ask themselves? What sort of men are we to stand beside him? And then, they turn their attention to doing the things they have always done when manhood is at stake.

Featured image caption: “The showman in camp — A scene in the streets of Culpepper [sic],” an illustration of men looking at a peepshow on the street, from 1864. (Edwin Forbes/US Library of Congress)