Justice for sexual violence during the Civil War

*Trigger warning*

Could it be the greatest irony in our history is that our nation actively prosecuted perpetrators of rape and sexual violence during the Civil War? In 1863, President Lincoln signed an executive order known as the Lieber Codes that governed Union soldiers and protected civilian women. Historian Crystal Feimster writes in the New York Times:

Union military courts prosecuted at least 450 cases involving sexual crimes. In North Carolina during the spring of 1865, Pvt. James Preble “did by physical force and violence commit rape upon the person of one Miss Letitia Craft.” When Perry Holland of the 1st Missouri Infantry confessed to the rape of Julia Anderson, a white woman in Tennessee, he was sentenced to be shot, but his sentence was later commuted. Catherine Farmer, also of Tennessee, testified that Lt. Harvey John of the 49th Ohio Infantry dragged her into the bushes and told her he would kill her if she did not “give it to him.” He tore her dress, broke her hoops and “put his private parts into her,” for which he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. In Georgia, Albert Lane, part of Company B, in the 100th Regiment of Ohio Volunteers, was also sentenced to 10 years because he “did on or about the 11th day of July, 1864 … upon one Miss Louisa Dickerson … then and there forcibly and against her will, feloniously did ravish and carnally know her.”

Let’s look at this closely for a moment. Feimster notes a specific case in which an adolescent slave named Jenny Green, who sought refuge among Union soldiers and was brutally attacked by an officer, was able to utilize the Lieber Codes to file charges and seek justice for her rape. Her attacker was discharged and sentenced to 10 years hard labor.

In reviewing Smith’s sentence, Gen. Benjamin Butler – notorious for his Women’s Order in New Orleans that threatened rape of women who resisted occupation by insulting Union soldiers – supported the guilty verdict. In summarizing the case, he explained, “A female negro child quits Slavery, and comes into the protection of the federal government, and upon first reaching the limits of the federal lines, receives the brutal treatment from an officer, himself a husband and a father, of violation of her person.”

This particular case is incredible to me. The Lieber Codes provide a window into a history and legacy largely forgotten: the sexual trauma of war and the legal recourse women had during this period. The fact that black women (slave or free) had the ability to address rape and sexual assault by Union soldiers, and that the Union military may have held a zero tolerance policy against this conduct from its soldiers, is extraordinary. As Feimster notes, “The Lieber Code brought them for the first time under the umbrella of legal protection.”

This historical tidbit also flags the Pentagon’s profound failure to protect women in uniform today, as well as the gross bureaucratic strategy to deny justice for those who are survivors of rape and sexual assault.

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