I’ve long been a harsh critic of our 16th president and am always happy whenever morsels of truth about the true character of Abraham Lincoln make their way into mainstream media or popular culture. I still remember watching the movie Gangs of New York years ago and being floored that this mainstream movie was showing Lincoln’s attacks on civilians during the draft riots in NYC in 1863.

In Friday’s New York Times, the “Idea of the Day” blog featured another example of Lincoln’s willingness to commit, or willingness to ignore, the rampant abuse of innocent civilians. In this case, it isn’t NYC draft resisters but Southern women. Writes NYT’s blogger Tom Kuntz:

When the topic is sexual violence in wartime, the horrors of the Balkans and Rwanda typically come to mind — not the American Civil War. But in the academic journal Daedalus, Crystal N. Feimster begs to differ with historians who “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.”

In fact, the University of North Carolina historian writes, “hundreds, perhaps thousands of women suffered rape” during the war, with many assaults likely unreported. But her focus is less rape itself than the threat of sexual predation by northern troops. Did reality match the fear of assault felt by Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind”? Feimster explores an 1862 order by the Union Gen. Benjamin Butler, decreeing that any New Orleans woman showing contempt for his occupying troops “shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation” — i.e., the city’s outspokenly Confederate belles were to be treated as prostitutes. Feimster sifts evidence that the order was a green light for Union soldiers to threaten sexual violence if not commit rape itself.

After President Abraham Lincoln ignored calls to rescind the order and it was applied beyond the city, she concludes, its geographical reach “ensured that the threat of sexual violence and the fear of rape were common to southern women and central to how they experienced the Civil War.”


(h/t Thomas DiLorenzo)