The Spoils of War: A Review of Sex and the Civil War

Many years ago when I was first starting my dissertation research on Civil War disability, I had an opportunity to sit in on a question and answer session with historian Marcus Rediker, who was talking about his book, not yet released at the time, The Amistad Rebellion. Part of the conversation revolved around the experience of writing scenes of intense violence, and I remember asking: how do we write about violence without fetishizing it? We didn’t land on an easy answer, but it was both a fascinating and disturbing thought. Do we glorify violence when we reproduce it over and over in our work?

Judith Giesberg’s new volume, tantalizingly titled Sex and the Civil War, is a powerful exploration of this question. Giesberg’s chief aim is to “discover the Civil War origins of American antipornography,” specifically in the quest of Anthony Comstock, the (in)famous moral crusader against obscenity in late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The book does far more than that, describing the sexual culture of the Union army camps, examining the roots of Comstock’s anti-obscenity quest, contemplating wartime anxieties over both masculinity and marriage, and the shared themes of anti-slavery literature and nineteenth century erotica — all in a brief, 108-page monograph. Though all of these explorations are both fun and fascinating, what struck me the most — and what I suspect might strike other Civil War historians most — is Giesberg’s underlying discussion of “the ways in which our writing about war at times reproduces some of what concerns us about pornography.”1

Sex and the Civil War began as a series of lectures that Giesberg delivered at Pennsylvania State University as part of the Steven and Jan Brose Lectures in the Civil War Era lecture series, a series designed to encourage new directions in Civil War era research. This book is certainly that. Before this volume, as Giesberg points out, the only book on sex and the Civil War was Thomas Lowry’s The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War, a tongue-in-cheek description of humorous and raunchy tales of prostitution, masturbation, pornography, sexually transmitted infections, and sexual misbehavior. Giesberg consulted with Lowry to create her book — Lowry has an extensive collection of Civil War era pornography and an impressive database of court martial cases related to sex — but strives to analyze this evidence to learn more about the relationship Civil War era Americans had with pornography and sexuality in a period of intense upheaval and violence.

The book is divided into four chapters. In the first, Giesberg explores the history of the American pornography business, the attempts to define what exactly was and was not pornographic, and the parallels between antislavery literature and pornography. Theodore Weld, for instance, wrote about mistresses who resorted to wildly biting and scratching their bodies when overwhelmed with emotion when whipping slaves, and Harriet Beecher Stowe invited readers to “peep” at two female slaves preparing for auction day.2

Sex and the Civil War by Judith Geisberg.

The potential “victims” of the literature became key to identifying whether something was obscene, and for Civil War era reformers, young men were the most at risk when porn came in the form of cheap, easily distributed erotica and images. Chapter 2 explores the way that pornography was used and policed in camp. Porn, Giesberg argues, though understood as incompatible with middle class morality, offered a bonding experience and an opportunity for human interaction in the lonely, often frightening, world of war. Soldiers often read porn out loud, and sometimes even the sexual exploits of soldiers and officers served as a free show for their brothers-in-arms peeking in through the tent flaps. Porn also served as one of the few ways that women (in the form of images or the written word) “entered” the camps. “Rather than disrupting the homosocial world of the camp,” Giesberg argues, “paper women and pornography helped to sustain it.”3

Chapter 3 offers something of a mini-biography of Anthony Comstock. The chapter begins with an intense description of Comstock’s brother Samuel’s death after being wounded at Gettysburg. A devastated Comstock enlisted in his brother’s unit. Writing later in life, he described horrific scenes of fear and deprivation of his “perilous days” in the army. Yet, as Giesberg cleverly reveals, Comstock was lying: he spent his war in a small occupying force in St. Augustine, Florida, where he never saw a moment of fighting.

Instead, Comstock’s real battle was with masculinity; he didn’t fit in with his regimental comrades, he struggled to resist a mysterious temptation (likely masturbation — he writes in his diary about being “tempted by Satan,” and how he hated his “sinful weak nature”) and enjoyed the opportunity to help enforce morality among the men as a clerk. All of this sheds new light on Comstock’s never-ending quest against obscenity in the postwar era, particularly his obsession with protecting young men from temptation.

Chapter 4 traces the ways those antipornography campaigns in the postwar era grew out of concerns about soldiers. American legislators were concerned about the state of marriage at the close of the war. Did the homosocial environment of the war, especially when tainted with porn, ruin husbands? Did emancipation — with its destruction of key beliefs about what it meant to be dominant and submissive — threaten the relationship between husbands and wives as well? After the war, Giesberg argues, the state increasingly legislated the morality of sexuality, and what started with pornography quickly ballooned to include abortion, birth control, and homosexuality.

The book is compelling and well-written, and its topic is overdue for analysis, making it an important addition to both the fields of Civil War history and the history of sexuality. But Giesberg also seems to have a larger agenda. In the introduction, she notes that the erotic images of women — “paper women” that infiltrated the all-male space of camp — used in Lowry’s The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell, published in 1994, “marked the Civil War as male terrain at the precise moment when female scholars were discovering it.”4

In the conclusion, she draws parallels between the writing of pornography and the writing of military history, employing Steven Marcus’s idea of the pornotopia, in which porn is described as the “juxtaposition of human bodies, parts of bodies, limbs, and organs” in comparison to Allen Guelzo’s award-winning military history Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. In light of ongoing disputes over the relationship between the military and cultural histories of the Civil War, this is Giesberg making a larger claim about how military history might be functioning in our own culture. She writes: “paying attention to the ways in which our writing about war at times reproduces some of what concerns us about pornography is, it seems to me, another kind of vigilance, one that we owe to our readers.”5 In the end, Sex and the Civil War is a fun and powerful little book with a big message.

Notes

  1. Judith Giesberg, Sex and the Civil War: Soldiers, Pornography, and the Making of American Morality (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017). Return to text.
  2. Giesberg, Sex and the Civil War, 28. Return to text.
  3. Giesberg, Sex and the Civil War, 57. Return to text.
  4. Giesberg, Sex and the Civil War, 9. Return to text.
  5. Giesberg, Sex and the Civil War, 108. Return to text.

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