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  • Keeping a Disorderly House in Civil War Kentucky
  • Crystal N. Feimster (bio)

In spring 1862 when General Benjamin Butler arrived in New Orleans with Union troops, he was greeted by a mob of men and women dismayed by defeat and outraged by the prospect of Union occupation. White New Orleanians challenged and resisted the authority of Butler and his 2,500 soldiers at every turn. Confederate women were the most openly hostile and resistant to Union occupation. When women met Union officers or soldiers on the sidewalk, some contemptuously gathered up their skirts and walked to the other side of the street. When federal soldiers boarded streetcars or entered churches, Confederate women got up and left with great to-do. They wore Confederate flags pinned to their hats and dresses and hummed Confederate songs within earshot of northern troops. One woman, draped in a Confederate flag, walked up to a Union soldier standing guard, stared at him, and spat in the gutter before walking away in disgust; others spat directly in the faces of men dressed in federal uniforms. Some went so far as to empty their chamber pots onto passing Union soldiers. Of displays like these, General Thomas Williams remarked, "Such venom one must see to believe. Such un-sexing was hardly ever before in any cause or country so marked and so universal. I look at them and think of fallen angels."1 [End Page 301]

As far as Butler was concerned it was not enough to merely look at them as fallen women. On May 15, only two weeks into his command, he issued "General Order No. 28," declaring, "hereafter when any female by word, gesture, or movement insult or show contempt for any office or solider of the United States," she will be treated like "a woman of the town plying her avocation."2 In other words, women who resisted federal occupation would be treated as prostitutes, as women not only unworthy of protection, but as women who invited sexual advances.

The mayor of New Orleans, John T. Monroe, the first to condemn General Order 28, clearly understood its implications and accused Butler of insulting "the honor of the virtuous women of the City" and giving "license to the officers and soldiers . . . to commit outrages . . . upon defenseless women."3 Butler, however, argued that the order did not "contemplate any virtuous women," and insisted, "if obeyed, it will protect the true and modest woman from all possible insult—the others will take care of themselves."4 He was adamant that women who resisted federal occupation by insulting and assaulting federal troops, behaved like prostitutes. As prostitutes, they not only forfeited male protection, but invited sexual attention, wanted or unwanted. While Butler's "Woman's Order" clearly exposes how one officer exploited long held beliefs about prostitutes, it also brings into focus the connection between wartime prostitution and sexual violence. By sexualizing women who resisted Union occupation, Butler exploited ideas that justified violence against women who publicly stepped outside the bounds of respectable womanhood.

While Butler's order was unique to New Orleans, the ideas about prostitutes and sexual violence that it mobilized to police women who dared to challenge the authority of Union soldiers and officers were [End Page 302] hardly new.5 In the context of war and occupation, the blurring of lines that separated respectable women from so-called "fallen women" functioned to justify the threat of rape. Most scholars have focused on the implications of Butler's order for elite white women of New Orleans, while overlooking what the order meant for women who were indeed prostitutes or perceived as "fallen angels."6

Moreover, most scholars have accepted that the Civil War was [End Page 303] "a low rape war," even as they have argued the war marked the most "dramatic leap in the number of American prostitutes" in the nation's history.7 Yet, few historians have explored the link between sexual coercion and the exponential expansion of the sex trade during the [End Page 304] Civil War. Indeed, we know very little about the lives and experiences of Civil War prostitutes or women who were treated as "a woman of the town...


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pp. 301-322
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