Gays in the Civil War
The issue of homosexuality in the military recurs throughout history. While I apologize in advance to the moderators for bringing up a controversial subject, I do so to discourage interpretations that do no justice to that history or to the hobby.
According to a source I have complete confidence in, a Confederate battalion at last weekend’s Cross Keys/Cedar Creek event staged a mock execution of two “gay” soldiers. This took place in front of 50-100 reenactors and an unknown number of the public. One man in the unit complained and received a rebuke for “being politically correct.”
For those who don’t automatically recoil at this incident, let me explain why it should appall everyone who cares about the hobby.
To begin with, the man who complained wasn’t being “politically correct” but “correct, correct.” There’s an excellent discussion of homosexuality at the time in Thomas Lowry’s "The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell." There was no such offense as being “homosexual” or “gay,” since the first word didn’t come into use until 1895 and the second didn’t take on that connotation until around 1950.
A Civil War soldier would not have been charged with “being” gay, but could be charged with sodomy or buggery. Yet according to Lowry, who spent decades researching court-martial files, “no record has come to light of a Civil War soldier having been disciplined for either offense, although there are records of three pairs of U.S. Navy sailors who were court-martialed for such activity in 1865” (two pairs from the same ship!).
Despite this statement, Lowry does provide one Confederate example of “discipline” from a letter home: “The boys ... rode one of our company on a rail last night for leaving the company and going to sleep with Captain Lowry’s black man.” But it’s not clear from this passage that the punishment was official or directed at homosexuality rather than another offense such as interracial fraternization or, for that matter, abusing the Captain’s property or usurping his privileges.
So at least at the time of Lowry’s writing (1994) no evidence existed of any such execution for any such offense as portrayed last weekend. I would maintain that even if some isolated example did exist, all units – especially ones like the one in question – have many more areas of authenticity they can work on before they start shooting “gays.” But the historical record makes such an argument unnecessary.
With or without punishment, homosexuality as we know it certainly existed during the Civil War, with Walt Whitman providing perhaps the best example. In his own way he also provided a life-long example of other people’s essential tolerance. Although tens of thousands of Civil War soldiers must have been gay, the absence of any prosecutions indicates that, at a time when most heterosexual men slept with other men, the activity went unnoticed or unremarked upon.
Thus the Confederate unit last weekend at the very least committed an offense against authenticity by portraying something that never seems to have actually happened during the war. Ignorance provides one defense, but raises the question of why they would do something for which they had no historical basis. In this case they risk the inference that only contemporary prejudice, back-projected to the 1860s, explains what they did.
This to me compounds the offense. We who live today have no right to use the soldiers of the Civil War as proxies for our contemporary political or moral biases, or to implicate other reenactors in those biases.
I believe the unit involved further compounded the offense by doing so in public. The public often thinks that reenactors invest as much in research as in uniforms and equipment. Unfortunately, the offending unit undermined this positive view of reenacting. On the other hand, some of the public think we’re all ignoramuses who simply like to play soldier and re-fight the war according to our own private fantasies. Unfortunately, we have units like this one that they can point to as evidence.
Actions like the one at Cedar Creek last Saturday besmirch the hobby. I applaud the man who complained.
M. A. Schaffner
Midstream Regressive Complainer