In Sex and the Civil War, historian Judith Giesberg contributes to the social and cultural history of the Civil War and Reconstruction by [End Page 346] investigating the circulation of pornography and its prohibitions. Drawing on newspapers, court records, and manuscript collections from the Kinsey Institute to the YMCA archives to some of the extant pornographic books and illustrations that soldiers circulated throughout Union camps, Giesberg raises profound questions about sexuality and desire, masculinity and its discontents, and the technologies and networks that the Civil War engendered.
As Giesberg acknowledges in her introduction, beginning in the 1990s historians Catherine Clinton and Nina Silber transformed the study of the war by offering analysis of gender and sexuality in two anthologies, Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War (1992) and Battle Scars: Gender and Sexuality in the American Civil War (2006). While some recent scholars have continued to investigate the war by exploring the relationship between racism and gender—most notably Thavolia Glymph in Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (2008) and Hannah Rosen in Terror in the Heart of Freedom: Citizenship, Sexual Violence, and the Meaning of Race in the Postemancipation South (2009)—few have interrogated the meaning or implication of the sexual lives of soldiers. James McPherson's For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (1997), for example, ranks as an excellent book on white masculinity during the war, but sexuality generally remains absent from the historiography.
Giesberg centers sexuality as a category of historical analysis by keenly uncovering how the Civil War inadvertently facilitated the distribution of pornography. Letter writing that stretched across the nation provided the channels to also distribute pornography. Congress established low postal rates that New York erotica dealers capitalized on to send material through the mail. The wartime invention of photography enhanced the production of pornographic images. Giesberg thus argues that "the history of pornography and antipornography in the United States began at the moment of crisis ushered in by war, when what it meant to be a man and how boys should go about becoming men were openly and heatedly debated" (63–64).
Giesberg also smartly recognizes that the Civil War produced a bureaucracy that opposed the circulation of pornography, but that opposition left a paper trail that reveals insights about how people in the nineteenth century thought about sex and desire. The courts-martial records, in particular, include references to the books, images, and stories that nineteenth-century Americans consumed; they also suggest how the sellers and creators of pornography imagined the fantasies that would most arouse readers. According to Giesberg, soldiers became enchanted by pornographic stories [End Page 347] of women who rejected traditional forms of nineteenth-century domesticity and who instead showed an interest in sex. The protagonists in wartime pornography, which the courts confiscated, illustrate women working in brothels, initiating sex, enjoying sex, and even engaging in flagellation.
Throughout Sex and the Civil War, Giesberg deftly reads against the surviving evidence, which is largely about the prohibition of pornography, in order to offer a depiction of how nineteenth-century Americans thought about sex and how representations of sex circulated during the war. Yet Giesberg does not shy away from the polemical debates surrounding pornography and instead offers a compelling analysis of how legendary reformer Anthony Comstock began his campaign against pornography during the Civil War. She follows Comstock's career from December 30, 1863, when he mustered into the Seventeenth Connecticut, to the 1883 publication of his book Traps for the Young, which embodies his moral crusade against urban vice. In tracing his biography, Giesberg reveals how Comstock lied about participating in military combat in the swamps of South Carolina. Giesberg is at her best when deflating the mythology that Comstock spewed about his wartime service; she cogently explains how he exploited this fictional past, which enshrined his honor, to advance his long career as a moral reformer fighting the distribution of porn.
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