Rev Irene Monroe

America's Gay Confederate and Union Soldiers

Filed By Rev Irene Monroe | April 21, 2011 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Media
Tags: civil war, Confederacy, LGBT, queer, union

Queer Civil War buffs have been arguing for some time that the deafening silence around LGBTQ Confederate and Union soldiers indicates proof of their very presence.

thomas-lowry.pngWith this month commemorating the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War, I went combing through Civil War annals for our queer brethren - and I found them!

When shots were fired from Fort Sumter, a fortification near Charleston, S.C., signaling the war's beginning, its gay Confederate and Union soldiers didn't have to worry about Clinton's infamous DADT policy, which blatantly discriminates against LGBTQ servicemembers.

Those soldiers, unlike today's, did not have to bear their souls to disprove that military readiness is a heterosexual calling, nor did they have to prove that their patriotism to the cause was diminished because of their sexual orientation.

Gays served in the American Civil War.

Some queer Civil War buffs would argue that none were dishonorably discharged - although, there is record of three pairs of Navy sailors court-martialed for "improper and indecent intercourse with each other." And "unit cohesion," the big battleground issue in today's military, believing that the "homosexual gaze" would be the root cause for the disruption, which was totally debunked by a 2002 study, was not an issue.

Before DADT, our LGBTQ servicemembers were discharged under "honorable conditions" called "Fraudulent Enlistment." More than 13,500 military personnel have been discharged under DADT, particularly black lesbians, who have been discharged at three times the rate at which they serve.

But the question, some would argue, of who were LGBTQ servicemembers and who weren't in the American Civil War is a disingenuous query since the words "homosexual" and "heterosexual" weren't part of the American lexicon until thirty years after the war ended.

However, many would also argue that not having a word like "homosexual" back in the day of the Civil War to depict same-sex attraction among soldiers does not negate our use of it to describe them in this present day.

And in combing through Civil War battle records of Confederate and Union soldiers, I find, they were not only slaughtering one another - many were also loving one another.

Learning about same-sex love among soldiers wasn't Thomas P. Lowry's focus when he sat out to pen The Story the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell: Sex in the Civil War, the first scholarly study of the sex lives of soldiers in the Civil War.

This physician and medical historian reminds me of Alfred Kinsey in his research on human sexuality. Using archival documents such as court-martial and medical records, newspaper articles, pornographic books and cards, and letters and diaries of the soldiers, Lowry's focus was to address the problem of prostitution - straight and gay - and why both the Union and Confederate Armies had to work to stop sexually transmitted infections from crippling their soldiers, because STIs were costing more in soldier's health and lives than action on the battlefield.

Chapter 11 of Lowry's book opens the closet door on gender-bending and same-sex trysts. And Lowry reveals that during the Civil War conventional gender roles and sexual behavior could not be strictly tethered to a heterosexual paradigm. With men outnumbering women, especially at social events like balls, drummer boys - children as young as nine and ten-years-old, dressed in drag. And in some occasions, the intimacy between soldiers and drummer boys reached beyond just a public waltz.

For example, Lowry references a ball put on by a Massachusetts regiment stationed in Virginia in 1864 about young drummer boys dressed as women. One man wrote to his wife: "Some of the real women went, but the boy-girls were so much better looking that they left. ...We had some little Drummer Boys dressed up and I'll bet you could not tell them from girls if you did not know them. ...Some of [the Drummer Boys] looked good enough to lay with and I guess some of them did get laid with. ...I know I slept with mine."

History proves that LGBTQ servicemembers have been proudly and openly putting our lives on the line for their countries since antiquity.

The Greeks favored gay and bisexual young men in their military. Since gay and bisexual men were considered a family unit, the Greeks knew that paired male lovers assigned to the same battalions were a military asset. They would fights courageously, side by side, and would die heroically together in battle. Alexander the Great, who was king of Macedonia and noted as one of the greatest military conquerors, was known to be bisexual. When his lover Hephaestion died in battle, Alexander the Great not only mourned openly for his lover, but he staged an extravagant funeral, which took six months to prepare.

Lowry is not the first to write about Confederate and Union soldiers in the Civil War, but he is the first to recognize an LGBT presence in it.

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A very interesting find that appeals to the Civil War buff in me. This is one I'll have to take a look at. Thanks! I'm grossed out about the drummer boys being sexually abused though...

What an interesting read! Re: the drummer boys, that's also kind of an odd letter to write to your spouse... but perhaps "laid" meant something slightly different at the time.

On a personal note, Rev. Monroe, you came to speak at Lehigh University several years ago (the office I worked in sponsored you) and I thoroughly enjoyed your lecture then. So, it's a real pleasure to have stumbled upon you here at Bilerico.

The recent PBS documentary "The Civil War" by Ken Burns stated that up to 2% of the male population of the U.S. (including the states that attempted to become the Confederacy) were killed in the Civil War, and over 600,000 men served if you add both sides together. About 137,000 of those men were black Union soldiers. (Surprisingly, the Confederacy had black soldiers also, who were rarely trusted with guns -- but there numbers are counted only in the hundreds. Go figure.)

With enormous numbers like that, you can be sure that there were some gay males as well as some gay couples -- both white and black -- the only question is regarding whether they left any historical evidence; and whether they were totally clandestine, or were they fairly identifiable and the military leadership pretended not to notice?

- - - - -

My wonderment about those days extends to include the black male slaves: There is immense evidence that the female black slaves were used sexually -- eventually, so many of the "black" slaves were mulattoes fathered by a white slave-owner, or a neighborhood friend of the slave-owner.

But I've always wondered whether any of the black male slaves were sexually molested -- either by men, or by women in positions of power over them. Since such couplings wouldn't be likely to produce offspring, there is no genetic evidence ... but is there any documentary evidence? I have never heard of any.

would be interested to know whether the soldiers (on both sides of the war), attributed as trans men or FTM on this website, made it into the book...

Fascinating. Gonna have to buy the book now!

gregory brown | April 22, 2011 9:05 AM

Bil, be forewarned that the book includes some horrific photos of soldiers with syphilis that go way beyond the relatively timid stuff I saw in health department brochures in high school.

I recall reading a memoir of a survival of the Andersonville POW pen. The author made some comments about how young boys and teens were taken under the protection of older men and became their "chickens", providing sex as a quid pro quo.

Yes, as always, We were there. Thanks for bringing this up.

Wow. And we Americans like to make fun of Afghans for the male child prostitution thing, when we were doing it not too long ago.

Interesting point on the the armies' concern about STIs. Thanks