Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Trans-Gender Person in Custer’s Old West

Custer's Last Stand

     Custer's Seventh Cavalry had its secrets.  The thrice married Mrs. Nash joined Custer’s Seventh Cavalry as a laundress.  She always wore a veil, and is described as “rather peculiar looking.”  In 1872 she married a private named Noonan.  The couple lived together on “Suds Row”, east of the Fort Lincoln Parade grounds.  While Noonan was away on a scouting expedition, his wife died.  When her friends came to prepare the body for burial, they discovered that the much married laundress and popular mid-wife was not a female.  The news was reported to Custer’s wife Elizabeth (“Libbie”) Custer, who was much amazed.

     The Bismarck Tribune subsequently reported: “Corporal Noonan, of the 7th Cavalry, whose “wife” died some weeks ago, committed suicide in one of the stables of the lower garrison.  It was reported some days ago that he deserted, but no one this side of the river had seen him.  It now appears that the man had kept himself out of the way as well as he could for several days.  His comrades had given him a sort of cold shake since the return of the regiment from the chase after the Sioux, and this, and the shame that fell on him in the discovery of his wife’s sex, undermined his desire for existence, and he crawled away lonely and forsaken and blew out the life that promised nothing but infamy and disgrace.  The suicide was committed with a pistol, and Noonan shot himself through the heart.”

For almost one hundred and fifty years, Custer has been a Rorschach test of American social and personal values. Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history. This book presents portraits of Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn as they have appeared in print over successive decades and in the process demonstrates the evolution of American values and priorities.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

What was Reconstruction Like in the South?

Holly Springs, Mississippi

From 1865 to 1875 the state of Mississippi underwent “Reconstruction”, a plan to reintegrate the South into the Union. Three companies of Federal troops, under the command of Major Jonathan Power, were stationed in Holly Springs. A circular of instruction to post commanders read, “. . .you are particularly directed not to molest or incommode quiet and well disposed citizens and will be held to strict accountability that your men commit no depredations of any sort. Houses, fences, farm property, etc. will be secure and remuneration will be compelled and punishment inflicted for all infractions of the rule. The well disposed people must be made to feel that the troops are for their protection rather than for their inconvenience.”

In 1860 the population of Holly Springs had been 5,690; by 1865 the population had declined to 2,000. The survivors found themselves without money, cotton, horses, livestock or provisions. Most had lost loved ones and many had been burned out. For the vanquished ex-Confederates it was a period in which the social order was turned up side down. Individuals prominent under the old regime were disenfranchised, while former slaves and new men from the North took the most prominent positions in the state. The ex-Confederates struggled to regain power. Elections were characterized by bribery, intimidation and trickery.

The Democratic Party was comprised of Southern whites and a few blacks who remained under the influence of their old masters. The Republican Party was comprised of a few native whites known locally as, “turncoat scalawags”, interested in the spoils of office, Northern “carpetbaggers” and ex-slaves, attracted by promises of obtaining, “forty acres and a mule.”

Blacks were in the voting majority throughout Marshall County in 1865, having 3,669 males of voting age in the county while the whites of voting age numbered only 3,025, a large number having been disenfranchised because of their activities during the war. During the entire Reconstruction period, blacks formed more than fifty percent of the total population of the county.

A portrait of Holly Springs, a small but prosperous town in northern Mississippi’s Marshall County, during the years of the American Civil War and the era of Reconstruction. This is a glimpse of life in Mississippi during these dramatic years, relying on the words of the people who lived during that time and on other primary historical sources to tell the story.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Rape in the American Civil War

By Kim Murphy

This is a very gritty book that will forever change your view of the Civil War as a clash involving knights errant and their ladies fair.  War is nasty and brutish, and author Kim Murphy pulls no punches as she attacks the darkest side of the Civil War. 

In the chaos and disorder of war, the weak and vulnerable suffered the most.  Women and children bore the brunt of rape and brutality in the Civil War.  Poor women more than rich women, and black women most of all.  Reading like a police blotter, Murphy’s book catalogs in detail the crimes perpetrated against the weak.  This is the real history, of real people, often overlooked by those historians primarily interested in the military and political aspects of the war and not in the impact of war on ordinary people.  It is not a pretty story.

Murphy spent some seven years researching this book, and the end result is a remarkable piece of scholarship, in an area of the Civil War avoided by male historians.  Her spare style adds to the gravity of the subject.  Rather than editorializing, or pontificating, Murphy lets the facts speak for themselves, which makes the record even more damning. 

Most of the available records involve Union soldiers (most Confederate records having been destroyed during the war), and are an indictment of the military system of justice, up the chain of command, and including President Abraham Lincoln.  Many soldiers committed atrocities, but skipped away from their crimes either free or with minimal sentences because of their records as “good soldiers.”  Far more were excused than punished. 

This book is a must read for all serious students of the Civil War.

A brief look at the impact of war on civilians living around Manassas based on first person narratives and family histories.

A quick look at women doctors and medicine in the Civil War for the general reader. Technologically, the American Civil War was the first “modern” war, but medically it still had its roots in the Middle Ages. In both the North and the South, thousands of women served as nurses to help wounded and suffering soldiers and civilians. A few women served as doctors, a remarkable feat in an era when sex discrimination prevented women from pursuing medical education, and those few who did were often obstructed by their male colleagues at every turn.