Fifty Shades of Blue: Sex and the Single Soldier

An officer orders his men to attention, but their attention is elsewhere.  Civil War "patriotic" envelope.
An officer orders his men to attention, but their attention is elsewhere. Civil War “patriotic” envelope.

While it should be obvious–since everyone living today who can trace an ancestor to the Civil War is in existence–the fact is that great-great grandpa and grandma had sex; in fact, judging from the size of nineteenth century families, they had sex quite a lot. No surprise here; but until one lone book on the subject came along, you would think nobody during the War Between the States ever did the dirty deed. In all the histories, academic studies, articles and scholarly monographs there was, with few exceptions, nary a mention: nada, nothing.

Then along came Dr. Thomas P. Lowry and his groundbreaking book, The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War. Of course the information was there all along: in archives, libraries, family attics and even in some official reports. Luckily for us, all those hot letters great grandma wrote great grandpa and vice-versa were never looked at after the war and so were stored in an attic until donated sight unseen to some local library or archive. There is also the uncomfortable fact that young men, away from home for the first time in their lives, whether unmarried or married, frequently availed themselves of the pleasures of the flesh while posted in the major garrison towns that the Northern army occupied, such as Washington, DC, New Orleans and Nashville, Tennessee. Even in some of the more remote posts, prostitutes could and would ply their trade.

"Hookers Division" was the nickname given to the Washington DC red light district during the Civil War.  Some say General Hooker was their best customer.
“Hookers Division” was the nickname given to the Washington DC red light district during the Civil War. Some say General Hooker was their best customer.

There was even one pamphlet that provided a guide to the cat houses of Washington. The section between what is today Pennsylvania Avenue and The Mall was an notorious red light district called Hooker’s Division. This was a play on words that referred to both the prostitutes that occupied neighborhood and their frequent customers–the troops in General Joe Hooker’s division–that were camped nearby. Needless to say, this was the origin of the term, Hooker.

Nashville, in particular, gained some notoriety for its army of whores who occupied the Rebel city shortly after the Yankees did. Of course military authorities were more concerned with prosecuting the war, and the prostitutes became something of an embarrassment; more importantly, in the days before penicillin, they also became a major health hazard. Federal authorities in the occupied Confederate state capitol tried various solutions to deal with the problem, even going to the length of rounding up the trollops, putting them aboard a steamship and sending them back north: unfortunately, no respectable Northern city wanted thousands of prostitutes descending on them and shipped the ladies of the evening right back from whence they came.

A rare photo of Civil War prostitutes.  Although originally mislabeled as "laundry women," based on his knowledge of Civil War Nashville, Jim Hoobler, Curator of the State Capitol, has identified this photo as a candid shot of  prostitutes, infected with venereal disease and quarantined in a military hospital in Nashville by authorities during the war.  via TSLA
A rare photo of Civil War prostitutes. Although originally mislabeled as “laundry women,” based on his knowledge of Civil War Nashville, Jim Hoobler, Curator of the State Capitol, has identified this photo as a candid shot of prostitutes, infected with venereal disease and quarantined in a military hospital in Nashville by authorities during the war. via TSLA

Finally, Military authorities in Nashville, failing to outlaw the Oldest Profession, hit upon the solution of regulating it. Col. George Spalding, Provost Marshall of Nashville, instituted a program of licensed prostitution. Military physicians routinely inspected the Soiled Doves, then issued a certificate that they were not infected, which in turn allowed them to ply their trade with the thousands of Union soldiers in the city. Ambrose Bierce, who was a lieutenant in the Army of the Cumberland during the war and who was in and out of Nashville all during the war, was certainly exposed to this situation; whether he was in and out of the loose women as well is not proven–but it would not have been unusual if he had been. In any case, his exposure to the abundance of so many shady ladies in his formative years may well have colored his later low opinion of women in general.

That there were women of low virtue in Nashville in such quantities, however, should not be taken to mean that all the women that Union soldiers came in contact with were of low morals. Most of the females in the city at the start of the war were of good family and since most were confirmed Secessionists, they at first had little interest in fraternizing with the hated Yankee invaders. However, Nashville was occupied in February of 1862 and remained in Union hands throughout the war, despite Rebel attempts to retake it. Eventually, many of the ladies of the South succumbed to the presence of so many eligible young men in their midst, despite their political differences.

General Gates Thruston later married and settled in Nashville, earning the respect and admiration of many men he'd fought against during the war.
General Gates Thruston later married and settled in Nashville, earning the respect and admiration of many men he’d fought against during the war.
Gates P. Thruston as a young officer.  He was ordered to jail the man who would later be his father-in-law.
Gates P. Thruston as a young officer. He was ordered to jail the man who would later be his father-in-law.

That such relationships could be stormy perhaps goes without saying. General Gates P. Thruston, described his future bride when he first met her as, “a Secesh scratch-cat.” No doubt other Federal soldiers could tell a similar tale of their courtship of Southern ladies. When General Thruston finally married his beloved traitor, his future mother-in-law refused to attend the wedding if he wore his Yankee uniform: he did, so she didn’t. It is estimated that close to two hundred young women from Nashville and environs eventually married Union officers.

Of course, like the boys in blue, Southern gentlemen often did not behave like gentlemen when it came to sex in the Civil War. When the Confederates evacuated the stronghold of Island No. 10 in the Mississippi, the occupying Federal troops found a rear-guard of Confederate camp-followers still occupying the Rebel camp. The Yankees did not have to assault their breastworks to gain access to their favors: monetary compensation was sufficient.

For more on other esoteric aspects of the Civil War, read Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

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Mary and the Mediums: Fact or Fallacy?

Abraham Lincoln's association ante-dates his wife's, although both attended séances, separately and together.

Ever since President Lincoln’s murder–some would say martyrdom– there have been those who have wanted to re-cast Abraham Lincoln in their image, especially when it cam to his spiritual beliefs. No soon was the President’s body cold, than herds of fundamentalist bible-thumpers came out of the woodwork trying to make him into a devout Christian in their own likeness, applying thick layers of plaster to his alleged sainthood and disguising the real man beneath.

Conversely, post-war Spiritualists, who tried to turn the secular movement into a religion—and thereby drawing the animosity of mainstream Christianity—tried to claim the dead President as one of their own. These efforts continue even today, with modern Spiritualists not only certain that Lincoln was one of them, but that he continues to speak to them through one or another modern oracle.

Historians—especially that influential group who idealize the Sixteenth President—even if they haven’t always sided with the bible-thumpers, have generally denied any connection between Lincoln and the Spiritualists. Whenever the facts rear their ugly heads, these historians lay it all at the feet of Mary Todd Lincoln—an admittedly easy target. Generally they characterize Mary as neurotic, bitchy and vain—if not outright crazy—and the entire crowd of Washington Spiritualists as all “charlatans.”

That some mediums were indeed phonies and fakes is undeniable; but there were many involved in the movement, especially in wartime D.C., who were sincere in their beliefs. Whether they were actually in touch with the spirit world is a moot issue and clearly outside the realm of history.

What is the truth about Lincoln, Mary and the mediums? In my book, The Paranormal Presidency, I go into some depth on the subject, based on extensive research into the primary sources, and come up with a great deal new information. While there is no doubt much more yet to be uncovered, I have come up with contemporary evidence proving Lincoln’s active involvement with the movement and its individuals. For one thing, I did what previous historians apparently neglected to do—researched contemporary newspapers and the Library of Congress holdings to uncover corroborating evidence.

As a result of this original research, there is now substantial evidence that Lincoln frequented the company of mediums and psychics before Mary did. This is supported by newspaper accounts, documents in the Library of Congress and postwar testimony.

After the death of their middle son Willie in 1862, both Abraham and Mary had visions and dreams about Willie and were both motivated to attend séances more often. This too is substantiated.

Seances were commonplace in America before the war, both to get in touch with loved ones and also as a form of parlor entertainment. The Lincolns were not unusual in this regard.
Seances were commonplace in America before the war, both to get in touch with loved ones and also as a form of parlor entertainment. The Lincolns were not unusual in this regard.

Abraham and Mary were by no means unique or peculiar in attending séances or seeking out the advice of mediums. Many parents lost young children to disease in the 1840’s and 1850’s and went to séances to get in contact with them; the war added to the number of grieving families who resorted to mediums for solace.  Moreover, Washington D.C. was a very unhealthy place to be, having built over a malarial swamp and with a sewer system that was beyond abysmal.  Willie was not the only child to die there due to Washington’s unhealthy environment

Abraham Lincoln attended one session at the Laurie household where the Laurie's adopted daughter, a physical medium, allegedly caused a grand piano to
Abraham Lincoln attended one session at the Laurie household where the Laurie’s adopted daughter, a physical medium, allegedly caused a grand piano to “dance” with Lincoln and other eyewitnesses on it.

There is not sufficient space here to go into greater detail about the Lincoln’s involvement in séances; for more documentation, including the footnotes and bibliography, see chapters 14 and 15 of the Paranormal Presidency, which also goes into far greater depth regarding the political ramifications of Spiritualism and its relationship to various reform movements before the Civil War.

While we can document what Lincoln did with regard to séances and mediums, divining what he actually believed is much harder. Lincoln was a notoriously close-mouthed man and as one of the greatest politicians in American history, he had an extraordinary knack of making people think he believed as they did, without actually committing to anything.

What we can say for sure is that both Lincoln and Mary frequented séances and sought out the services of mediums—and that is fact.  Moreover, many of Lincoln’s political associates and their wives also attended séances and while many of the mediums they went too may have been on the con, many were sincere believers in the movement, a movement which overlapped with Abolitionism, Feminism and other social and political reform movements of the era.  So Mary, whatever her faults (and they were many) was neither crazy, not neurotic, nor the gullible shrew her political enemies, North and South, portrayed her to be.

Moreover, regarding the her well documented consorting with Spiritualists after the war, I think we may cut her some slack on this score too.  If, after losing half your family and seeing your husband murdered before your very eyes, you resort to séances to assuage your grief, perhaps that is not such a bad thing.  Mary Todd Lincoln had her flaws, but she had many virtues too.  It is a pity she has never been given her due.

There were many in the North unhappy with Lincoln's involvement with Spiritualism and blamed the war on these
There were many in the North unhappy with Lincoln’s involvement with Spiritualism and blamed the war on these “Satanic” connections.
“Interior Causes of the War” was anti-Lincoln propaganda written during the war, claiming he President was a puppet of the Spiritualists.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paranormal Presidency cover suitable for online use 96dpi
For the first time documents Abraham Lincoln’s beliefs and experiences dealing with the paranormal. The Paranormal Presidency chronicles his prophetic dreams, premonitions and beliefs, as well as his participation in séances and Spiritualism.
ambrose-bierce-and-the-period-of-honorable-strife-cover
Ambrose Bierce, famed American author, is best known for his macabre fiction and cynical humor, served as a soldier in the front lines throughout the Civil War. Bierce’s wartime experiences were the transformative events of the young author’s life. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife for the first time chronicles this pivotal period of Bierce’s life.