Sex and the Civil War: Soldiers, Pornography, and the Making of American Morality

Sex and the Civil War: Soldiers, Pornography, and the Making of American Morality

Sex and the Civil War: Soldiers, Pornography, and the Making of American Morality

Sex and the Civil War: Soldiers, Pornography, and the Making of American Morality

Synopsis

Civil War soldiers enjoyed unprecedented access to obscene materials of all sorts, including mass-produced erotic fiction, cartes de visite, playing cards, and stereographs. A perfect storm of antebellum legal, technological, and commercial developments, coupled with the concentration of men fed into armies, created a demand for, and a deluge of, pornography in the military camps. Illicit materials entered in haversacks, through the mail, or from sutlers; soldiers found pornography discarded on the ground, and civilians discovered it in abandoned camps. Though few examples survived the war, these materials raised sharp concerns among reformers and lawmakers, who launched campaigns to combat it. By the war's end, a victorious, resurgent American nation-state sought to assert its moral authority by redefining human relations of the most intimate sort, including the regulation of sex and reproduction--most evident in the Comstock laws, a federal law and a series of state measures outlawing pornography, contraception, and abortion. With this book, Judith Giesberg has written the first serious study of the erotica and pornography that nineteenth-century American soldiers read and shared and links them to the postwar reaction to pornography and to debates about the future of sex and marriage.

Excerpt

In February 1865, Sherman’s troops were making their way through the Carolinas, and Grant’s forces were entrenched outside Petersburg—today we might declare the war all but won for the Union. But it certainly wasn’t for those involved: the Confederacy, although its army was bleeding deserters, still had a few tricks up its sleeve, including sending delegates to Hampton Roads in an attempt to negotiate a ceasefire and endorsing a late plan to arm slaves. While the Confederate Congress was debating the controversial measure, the U.S. Congress discussed a matter that caught the attention of few and that barely registered in the congressional records: a law to protect soldiers from pornographic materials. the proposed act, part of Senate Bill 390, titled “An Act Relating to the Postal Laws,” was part of an ongoing effort to manage the delivery of mail in the loyal states and prevent spies and other disloyal civilians from using the mail to pass on subversive materials. in defense of the section on pornographic materials, Vermont senator Jacob Collamer insisted that the U.S. Postal Service had become “the vehicle for the conveyance of great numbers and quantities of obscene books and pictures, which are sent to the Army, and sent here and there and everywhere, and that it is getting to be a great evil.” There was some debate about details, but no senator quibbled with the basic premise of the act: that U.S. army soldiers needed to be protected from the ill effects of pornography and that it was Congress’s responsibility to do so.

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