Queer Civil War buffs have been arguing for some time that the deafening silence around lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) Confederate and Union soldiers indicates proof of their very presence.
With this month commemorating the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War, I went combing through Civil War annals to find our queer brethren — and did!
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 President Bill Clinton’s infamous 1993 “Don’t ask, don’t tell” (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.
If we go with our present-day queer census, it can be estimated that one Confederate or Union soldier in ten fell in our camp.
Some queer Civil War buffs would argue that none were dishonorably discharged — albeit, there is record of three pairs of Navy sailors courtmartialed 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 30 years after the war ended.
However, many would also argue that not having an “official” 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 courtsmartial 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 STIs (sexually transmitted infections) from crippling their soldiers, because STDs 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 9 and 10 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.”
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 (356-323 BCE), who was king of Macedonia and noted as one of the greatest military conquerors, was openly 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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