Two Notre Dame of Maryland University history professors have toiled among faded and nearly forgotten documents and court cases for 15 years, trying to illuminate the shocking story of the sexual assault of women by Union soldiers during the Civil War and the response by the military justice system.
They will travel to The Hague, Netherlands, next month, where they will present a lecture on the subject, “Dangerous Liaisons: Working Women and Sexual Justice in the American Civil War,” before a meeting of the European Association for American Studies.
The project brought together Charles F. Ritter, who during his 45-year career was a professor and department chair at Notre Dame until retiring in 2012, and E. Susan Barber, his former student who is now a faculty member.
Beginning in 1998, Ritter and Barber’s journey took them from the Maryland Historical Society to the Library of Congress and the National Archives, where they transcribed more than 400 trial transcripts of Union court-martials that are found in the papers of the Judge Advocate General of the U.S. Army.
They read diaries of women from the time who described the assaults, using such words as “ravaged” and referring to the attack as the “outrage.”
The researchers often had to read between the lines to discover what had happened to a woman or a girl and then study court testimony.
“Finding this is a lot of work. Much of it was anecdotal language, digging through cases, finding file numbers, and every case was handwritten,” said Barber. “These are 19th-century documents, and sometimes there was no attention to punctuation or spelling. At times, it was daunting.”
They also combed through census records.
A 2009 essay they had written, “Physical Abuse … and Rough Handling: Race, Gender and Sexual Justice in the Occupied South,” appeared in the book “Occupied Women,” published by Louisiana State University.
The authors decided to press on and expand their essay into a full-length book, “Sexual Justice in the American Civil War,” which they believe is the first comprehensive study of Civil War-era sexual assault. They hope to have it published by LSU in 2015.
“Sexual violence in war has been a constant, from the rape of Lucretia in 510 B.C. to the rape of Muslim women in the Bosnian War of the 1990s,” they wrote in a book proposal to LSU. “The American Civil War was not exempt from this reality.”
Cases examined and tried included rape, gang rape and rapes that progressed to murder. They also included crimes of sexual intimidation such as when a woman was stripped naked and forced to stand before soldiers, who poured cold water over her.
It wasn’t until 1863 that the military declared rape by soldiers a crime that in some cases was punishable by death.
“Some 24 were executed [between 1863 and 1865]. Others were punished while some returned to their units,” said Barber.
Ritter said that “one of the great moments of discovery was finding court transcripts at the National Archives because you could really feel the testimony of the women and visualize the incident, and sometimes children were witnesses, and their direct testimony was very moving.”
Several years ago, Ritter visited the site where Grace Barnes, who did washing for Union troops stationed at a camp near Norfolk, Va., was raped the morning of April 28, 1864.
The authors wrote that Barnes was a “free woman of color.” As she made her way home with a load of dirty laundry, six soldiers from the 20th New York Cavalry “dragged her into the bushes and took turns raping her.”
The attack was so violent, Barnes later said in her testimony, that she suffered an injury to her bladder.
In another case, Charles Hunter, a private in the 7th Kentucky Cavalry, visited the home of Mary Kirksey, a laundress who sold milk and eggs to Union troops to help support herself and young son.
On May 18, 1864, he entered Kirksey’s home, gagged her with a leather strap and raped her. The next day, he returned and sexually assaulted her again.
“During the American Civil War, nearly four hundred white and black women and girls ranging in age from 5 to 82 brought charges of rape, attempted rape and other crimes of sexual intimidation against Union soldiers and civilians contracted to perform services for the Union Army,” the authors wrote.