Race and Gender During the Civil War and Reconstruction

The Civil War was a violent clash between too distinctly different cultures. Two cultures that both ruled by the same government, fighting for the power within it. The reasons associated for it cannot be categorized; they encompass too wide a range. Gender and race are issues closely intertwined at this time, and became a very controversial issue. The involvement of two races in a sexual manner was taboo in America during this time, and its presence was shunned by Southern society. It became a tool of propaganda, and created fear in the South, and unrest in the North.

Though the United States would achieve a greater social climate after the Civil War, it would not come until much turmoil had been spread, and many old doctrines crumbled in its quake. Even before the Emancipation Proclamation, there were freed slaves who had fled to the North, or had bought their own freedom. While free, their conditions were less than conducive to a proper lifestyle. Most of them are unable to read, Southern state restrictions previously made it illegal for blacks to do so. Cramped quarters and poor sanitation allowed the easy spread of disease. After being abused for so long, “Their idea of freedom is exemption from labor” (Nurse 206). This was the image of black man that most Northerners became accustomed to. White people saw the result of slavery, which left freed black people unable to adapt to normal society. White women were virtuous, staying at home to tend to the family and house, not venturing outside the realm of husband and family. It is why the idea of sexual relations between white women and black men were unspeakable, and therefore covered up when they did occur. The illicit sexual acts between races could be found in the South between the slaves and their masters, or their master’s relations. One would think that this would happen by force of the black man, but it was the other way around in many situations. The wives of many plantation owning males had the power of command over its slaves. She could make sure that they would remain quiet and not reveal their adultery. This situation left black man in a lose-lose situation. If they risked sexual relations with white women, the punishment for being caught is most likely death, or at least castration. On the other hand, refusing could lead to your severe beating or death if they’re especially angry (Hode 120). When affairs did surface, or mixed race babies did appear, it depended on social status as to how it would be handled. Lower class women could not afford to keep their case out of court, and would therefore be held on trial and the social shaming of their entire town. Higher class women, or as they were called planter-class women, could often keep their scandal from reaching court, and contain the damage. Upper class Southern women were protected by the ideology of female virtue, and the purity of women. Women were considered to be proper and faithful and completely virtuous in every way, completely incapable of sex outside of their marriage regardless of race (Hode 119). Northerners did not see the same social stratosphere that Southerners did when concerning its women. The women of the South, along with much of its other elements, were demoralized by their deceitful way of life, and the boast of a virtuous Southern woman a sham (Hode 122). On the most part, racial mixing was more repressed than addressed. The idea of revealing interracial relations such as these was an issue that had to be timed. During the sensitive days leading up to the Civil War, the announcement that black men were taking white women would strike fear in the heart of white men both in the North and South (Hode 11). The idea of race and gender mixing would burst onto the national scene as the Civil War unfolded, and politics meddled in the way.

The election of 1864 would determine whether or not Abraham Lincoln would serve a second term and be allowed to reunite the country he struggled so desperately to keep together. It was also the election in which race and gender played an especially strong role, and was a heated topic of debate between candidates. Democrats coined the term “miscegenation” which means to mix races. They also claimed that Republicans advocated miscegenation, creating pamphlets posed as Republicans stating so. It read that white women wanted black men but denied the pressure to do so. Further, it stated that black men were hypersexual, and lusted for white women (Hode 115). Republicans and more specifically Southern white men used black sexuality as an issue because they needed a method of maintaining white superiority. With the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves, and overall furor about political black equality, white men of the south felt threatened. What were local cases of adultery became national events, and they exposed miscegenation on a national level (Hode 124). Democrats created issues of separation of races and genders beyond sexuality. Separate transportation and schools were deemed necessary by Democrats to preserve white superiority. Republicans tried to downplay the issue and calm the fear that was raised in many Americans over the mixing of races. They claimed that giving equality to blacks did not seal the fate of our race, “because a colored man is allowed to drop a little bit of paper in a box” (Hode 116). Northern women looked at the women as flawed attempts at the virtuous model. Southern women tried to claim the same, and an argument can be made in their defense. There are reports of Northern women coming to the South to teach freed slaves, and having affairs with black men (122). So maybe it isn’t as much the fault of the white women of the South as much as they might have fallen under a pressure Northern women does not have to account for. Samuel Howe was able to rationalize miscegenation as an inevitable result of racial association, “It is certain that the inevitable tendency of American slavery is not only to bring about promiscuous intercourse among the blacks, and between black women and white men, but also to involve white women in the general depravity and to lower the standard of female purity” (Hode 122). Sexual tendencies cannot be curbed by social norms and standards. When we are all stripped of the values we have placed on ourselves, we are all sexual beings, with desires that need to be fulfilled. Sexual encounters between white women and black men, and white men and black women are inevitable when they are constantly in contact with each other for generations. Our society was not ready to immediately absorb this kind of idea, which is why it was with-held when it was initially discovered. To release this sort of information before the beginning of the Civil War would have created fear in the North about the mixing of our races. This could have potentially stopped the war, or swayed the North’s opinion to agree with the idea of white superiority (Hode 123).

The Civil War eventually freed slaves and brought them one step closer to eventual equality. The North fought to free them, and release them from the reigns of ignorance that the Southern white plantation owners had been using to tame another race. Thomas Wentworth Higginson once wrote on the importance of the Civil War to the black soldier, noting that “No doubt there were reasons why this particular war was an especially favorable test of the colored soldiers. They had more to fight for than the whites. Besides the flag and the Union, they had home and wife and child” (Higginson 310). They fought for their own families, and the un-free slaves still tormented and raped in the South. Whether women coerced men into sex, they intertwined and created political sparks that led to a war, and freed a peoples.

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