An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Spring 2009

General Benjamin Butler & the threat of sexual violence during the American Civil War

Crystal Feimster

Crystal N. Feimster, a Visiting Scholar at the Academy in 2003–2004, is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She contributed an essay to both Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower (edited by Deborah Gray White, 2008) and Voices of Women Historians: The Personal, the Political, the Professional (edited by Eileen Boris and Nupur Chaudhuri, 1999). She is the author of the forthcoming Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching (Harvard University Press).

Scarlett’s breath came back to her as suddenly and painfully as after a blow in the stomach. A Yankee, a Yankee with a long pistol on his hip! And she was alone in the house with three sick girls and the babies! As he lounged up the walk, hand on holster, beady little eyes glancing to right and left, a kaleidoscope of jumbled pictures spun in her mind, stories Aunt Pittypat had whispered of attacks on unprotected women, throat cuttings, houses burned over the heads of dying women, children bayoneted because they cried, all of the unspeakable horrors that lay bound up in the name of “Yankee.”

–Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind1

As a young girl growing up in the South, I was forced to watch Gone With the Wind throughout my primary and secondary education. As May dwindled into June, teachers grew weary of lecturing on multiplication tables or constitutional history and resorted to “historical films” to pass the time, with Gone With the Wind at the top of the list. I hated the movie at every age–and not because I wanted to crawl under my desk and die of humiliation every time a black person came on screen. Rather, the film’s violent content, specifically its sexual undertones, gave me nightmares. In one instance, Scarlett, confronted by a Yankee soldier, shoves a pistol in his face and pulls the trigger. The viewer understands Scarlett’s motivation: that implicit in the “unspeakable horrors that lay bound up in the name of ‘Yankee’” is the threat of rape.

Few scholars have addressed the sexual threat captured in this confrontation between Scarlett and the Union solider. In fact, historians have accepted without question the idea that Union soldiers rarely raped southern women, black or white, and have argued that sexual violence was rare during the Civil War. Yet Mitchell’s fictional account of one woman’s wartime experience makes clear that a perceived threat of rape during the Civil War was all too real for southern women.

Wartime rape is an issue both ancient and contemporary, evident more recently in reports of mass rapes in the Yugoslavian wars of secession and the genocidal massacres in Rwanda, but equally present in accounts from the Torah, the Bible, Homer, Anglo-Saxon chronicles, and in mythological events like the rape of the Sabine women. Indeed, much historical evidence seems to suggest that whenever and wherever men go to war, rape and the threat of sexual violence against women are inevitable, even strategic components of warfare.

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  • 1Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind (1936; repr., New York: Scribner, 2007), 417.
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