PRP7: The Not-So-Civil War

Painting a Rosy Past: Part 7

The Not-So-Civil War

(Click here to go to the Introduction to this series.)

If you are an aficionado of historical documentary films, especially those shown on PBS, you are no doubt familiar with “The Ken Burns Effect.”

The Ken Burns effect is a type of panning and zooming effect used in video production from still imagery.

The name derives from extensive use of the technique by American documentarian Ken Burns. The technique predates his use of it, but his name has become associated with the effect in much the same way as Alfred Hitchcock is associated with the Hitchcock zoom.

The feature enables a widely used technique of embedding still photographs in motion pictures, displayed with slow zooming and panning effects, and fading transitions between frames. [Wiki: Ken Burns Effect]


Burns first used this effect, to great popular acclaim, in his 1990 PBS series The Civil War.

ken burns

Ken Burns was inspired to make this documentary because of Mathew Brady’s photographs. More than 10 hours in length, the documentary has nine episodes that explore the Civil War through personal stories and photos. During the creation of the movie, Burns made extensive use of more than 16,000 archival photographs, paintings, and newspaper images from the time of the war. This resulted in the coining of the term the “Ken Burns Effect.” [Wiki: The Civil War]

Burns often gives “life” to still photographs by slowly zooming in on subjects of interest and panning from one subject to another. For example, in a photograph of a baseball team, he might slowly pan across the faces of the players and come to rest on the player who is the subject of the narrator. This technique, possible in many professional and home software applications, is termed “The Ken Burns Effect” in Apple‘s iPhoto and iMovie software applications.

As a museum retrospective noted, “His PBS specials [are] strikingly out of step with the visual pyrotechnics and frenetic pacing of most reality-based TV programming, relying instead on techniques that are literally decades old, although Burns reintegrates these constituent elements into a wholly new and highly complex textual arrangement.” [Wiki: Ken Burns]

I’ve seen a number of Burns’ series, and found the technique fascinating. But I must admit that one thing I find equally fascinating about the Civil War series is what Burns chose to mostly “leave out” of his vast collection of Civil War era pictures—he made only a few glancing references to sexual matters of the time. I understand why he did—but the “missing pieces” would add quite a bit more to the “reality” of what life was really like during that era of American history.

Other TV documentarians have, however, filled in a lot more of the story. The History Channel has had two special on Sex in the Civil War. You can see the second in the series online at More Sex in the Civil War.

Yes, Ken Burns could have chosen to include extensive material on this topic if he wanted…it certainly isn’t that documents and pictures aren’t available from that time period that tell the less glorious side of the story of the War. As mentioned earlier in this series, “ephemera” is widely available from that time period that can fill in the missing pieces, everything from letters sent home by soldiers, to court-martial records, newspaper clippings, posters, photos, and photographic “carte de visite” cards.

The carte de visite … was a type of small photograph which was patented in Paris, France by photographer André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri in 1854, although first used by Louis Dodero. It was usually made of an albumen print, which was a thin paper photograph mounted on a thicker paper card. The size of a carte de visite is 54.0 mm (2.125 in) × 89 mm (3.5 in) mounted on a card sized 64 mm (2.5 in) × 100 mm (4 in). In 1854, Disdéri had also patented a method of taking eight separate negatives on a single plate, which reduced production costs.


The Carte de Visite was slow to gain widespread use until 1859, when Disdéri published Emperor Napoleon III’s photos in this format. This made the format an overnight success, and the new invention was so popular it was known as “cardomania” and eventually spread throughout the world.

Each photograph was the size of a visiting card, and such photograph cards became enormously popular and were traded among friends and visitors. The immense popularity of these card photographs led to the publication and collection of photographs of prominent persons. “Cardomania” spread throughout Europe and then quickly to America. Albums for the collection and display of cards became a common fixture in Victorian parlors. [Wiki: Carte de visite]

In other words, the carte de visite was essentially a “calling card” or, in modern terms, a business card, with a photo instead of text.

Their small size also made them relatively inexpensive, and they became so widespread that by 1863 Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes would write, “Card portraits, as everybody knows, have become the social currency, the ‘green-backs’ of civilization.”

Cartes were introduced in New York, probably by C. D. Fredericks, late in the summer of 1859. The American Civil War gave the format enormous momentum as soldiers and their families posed for cartes before they were separated by war—or death. Queen Victoria compiled more than a hundred albums of cartes, featuring royalty and others of social prominence. In England, sales of cartes de visite ran in the hundreds of millions, annually.  []

You can see examples of cartes at Small Worlds: The Art of the Carte de Visite, including these three below. The first is Lincoln’s 1865 funeral procession. The second is the family of Queen Victoria, gathered around a bust of her late husband Albert, who had recently died in 1861. The third is a carte of Sojourner Truth, a former slave from the North who by the time of this picture in 1864 was an ardent, popular speaker in abolitionist and women’s rights circles. She sold cartes like this one at the public meetings where she spoke, to support her efforts.




It’s nice that Civil War recruits had pics of family from back home to comfort them during their miserable existence in the field of war. Maybe some even kept collections of pics like those above as a hobby to while away the time and share with their tent-mates.  But because of the proliferation of inexpensive photos and cartes de visite, that’s not all they had pics of.

Remember The Menken from the last couple of entries in this series? She sold cartes de visite at her performances, of herself basically in her undies, and many made their way to the Civil War trenches to serve as pinups.


Adah did pose for some nude versions—those were sold “under the counter” and didn’t make it into general public circulation. But her publicly sold cartes were modest compared to many others that showed scantily clad, topless, or fully nude young ladies. And many of those did make it to the trenches.

Along with many more items to comfort the lonely soldier. When Mail Call came at the barracks, soldiers frequently found, in their stack of personal mail, circulars or “catalogs” of items that mail-order businesses thought they might find of interest. Sort of the Harriet Carter Catalogs of the day! But these weren’t catalogs selling comfy slippers or warm gloves. No, they promised “heat” of a different kind.

… Disturbed by the army’s failure “to checkmate and suppress” the sale of these items, Captain M.G. Tousley wrote directly to Commander in Chief Abraham Lincoln, enclosing as evidence a circular advertising “New Pictures for Bachelors.” Tousley’s vigilance has left a rare record of midcentury tastes in male fantasy. For twelve cents apiece or $1.20 a dozen, men could purchase twelve-by-fifteen-inch pictures, suitable for framing. Most of the advertised pictures placed the man in the role of voyeur observing groups of young women in various states of undress. In “Wood-Nymph’s Frolic,” for example, girls “engaged in a rustic dance…in all the consciousness of innocence, caring little whether or not they are seen in their nude and interesting frolic.” Less frequently the viewer could imagine himself in sexual command, selecting or seducing a woman. Significantly, the women depicted in these scenes—“Circassion Slaves” and an Indian maiden—were not white. [The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell, Lowry]

Circassian slaves?

Circassian beauties is a phrase used to refer to an idealized image of the women of the Circassian people of the Northern Caucasus. A fairly extensive literary history suggests that Circassian women were thought to be unusually beautiful, spirited, and elegant, and as such were desirable as concubines. This reputation dates back to the Ottoman Empire when Circassian women living in the Sultan’s Imperial Harem started to build their reputation as extremely beautiful and genteel, and then became a common trope in Western Orientalism.

…In the 1860s the showman P. T. Barnum exhibited women whom he claimed were Circassian beauties. They wore a distinctive Afro-like hair style, which had no precedent in earlier portrayals of Circassians, but which was soon copied by other female performers, who became known as “moss haired girls”. These were typically presented as victims of sexual enslavement among the Turks, who had escaped from the harem to achieve freedom in America. [Wiki: Circassian beauties]

The women featured were usually American girls whose hair had been soaked in beer and teased to stand up and out, dressed exotically, and given foreign sounding names.


Purported to be escaped sex slaves from harems, these “beauties” were often featured on postcards (kind of naughty ones for the time) and in actuality did not really resemble real Circassian women.

The bushy hair was also not typical. Although the clothing styles varied for the women in these exhibits, the hair was almost always the same. They were dressed the very opposite of the modest Circassian women, in the styles that would appear most exotic and alluring to Americans. [from]

As another site put it, regarding the Afro hair style, “The Circassian blended elements of white Victorian True Womanhood with traits of the enslaved African American woman in one curiosity.” The pics of alleged “Circassian slaves” sold by the “circulars” were no doubt a lot racier than the one shown above, which was likely sold at circus side shows.

A book titled The Porning of America mentions more about the brisk mail-order business of the times.

Now they were amassed in camps, by the thousands and tens of thousands, away from the prying eyes at home that would certainly have prevented them from trafficking in pornography via the mail. Companies such as G.S. Hoskins and Co. and Richards & Roche in New York City sent out flyers and catalogs to the soldiers, detailing their offerings: photographs of Parisian prostitutes; condoms and dildos; even miniaturized photographs that could be concealed in jewelry such as stickpins, and that, when held close to the eye, revealed a couple engaged in a sex act.

Foreign and home-grown “dirty books” were also available via mail to the soldiers. (And the general public back home.) Yes, I understand why Ken Burns didn’t include this kind of info in his documentary productions, and I applaud his choice. But because it is largely ignored in “family-oriented” TV specials, it tends to give the illusion that soldiers of the distant past in the US, and men in general of Victorian times, were somehow more morally upright than the young men in uniform in WW2, the Korean War, Viet Nam, and the Middle East today. It gives the illusion that we are now living in a time of “Sodom and Gomorrah” and that mid-century 1800s was in contrast a Golden Age of virtue.

And that thus God was beaming down on the nation in times past, blessing it with prosperity for the moral purity of its people. And that He now has nothing but disgust and rage for the average American today, and that we are surely in The Time of the End—Jesus MUST return in our lifetime to set things right because God’s patience has run out. I suggest in this series of blog entries that if we could see the hearts of people and what went on behind closed doors throughout the whole history of this nation—in the way God has been able to do—we’d have to assume that His patience, by our standards, should have run out two centuries ago. Or more. Maybe, just maybe, He has a different view and a different plan for this current generation of young people, and maybe more to come, than many prophecy pundits have insisted.

Not convinced yet? Let’s examine a bit more ephemeral history.

How about this from The Sex Lives of Civil War Soldiers?

Johnny Reb and Billy Yank had a secret life, one that they and their families tried to hide from posterity and Ken Burns.

They largely succeeded. Most men left no record of their sexual activities, or if they did, their survivors expurgated or expunged the record through destruction; the reality was a bit too seamy for pure sensibilities, legacies needed to be protected. Reports of wild times and venereal disease were not likely to be appreciated by descendants.

Thus the Civil, our most holy, War, ennobled at the time and forevermore as a moral cause by both sides, has been stripped of that most human and earthy dimension and instinct. War is a rite of passage for all young boys and men, and leaving home for the first time, to a large degree innocent and inexperienced, they often become unmoored from traditional, peacetime standards of moral behavior and drift into those of wartime, which is to say, the world turned upside down and violently shaken.

But in a volume that might otherwise be buried deep within the annals of weird books, The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War (Stackpole, 1994), Thomas Lowry, M.D., addresses and fills, through diligent, original research that at the time of the book’s publication unearthed a wealth of new material, that lacuna in the military record. Collectors of general military history, Civil War, or sexology literature should consider adding it to their shelves.

There is a whole city of whores. Yes, father, a whole city. They have laid out a village to the east of where the railroad bends to the docks” (Young worker in the Sanitary Commission, City Point, Virginia, 1864).

“There has been a bonfire in the rear of my tent, burning up a large quantity of obscene books, taken from the mails” (Marsena Patrick, provost marshal general of the Army of the Potomac,June 8, 1863).

Those who follow modern shenanigans within shorts inside the Beltway will be unsurprised to learn that, according to file Volume 298, RG 393, Register of the Provost Marshall, 22d Army Corps, in 1864-65 there were seventy-three bawdy houses in Washington D.C. to service our servicemen. The register notes names, addresses, number of “Inmates,” and “Class,” i.e. 1 is best, 2 is fair, 3 is poor, and “low” is bad. Most houses had from 1-5 women in their employ, and earned a “1′” or a “2.” Mary Taylor, however, had six girls working for her; her brothel was, however, rated ““low.” One house stands out amongst all the others. Elizabeth Harley, at 4 Maryland, Island, ran a #1 rated brothel, apparently the city’s high-end, big-box flesh retailer, featuring eighteen women.

…On June 27, 1863, the 14th North Carolina Regiment captured a large supply of Yankee whiskey at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. A musician in the regiment’s band (band musicians, then as now, traditional suspects in matters of vice) reported that “some of the Pennsylvania women, hearing the noise of the revel and the music, dared to come near us. Soon they had formed the center of attention and joined in the spirit of the doings. After much whiskey and dancing, they shed most of their garments and offered us their bottoms. Each took on dozens of us, squealing in delight. For me it was hard come, easy go.”

And these most assuredly were no isolated incidents.

Prostitutes were available almost everywhere that soldiers encamped.

Low wages during the inflationary war period inspired many women, especially of the lower class, to take up prostitution, including women who were barely older than what we today consider to be children.

Dr. William Sanger of the Venereal Disease Hospital on Blackwell’s Island, New York, conducted a survey in 1858 of about 2,000 prostitutes. He found that 80% of them were under age 30, and 40% were under age 20. About 62% of them were foreign-born, with 57% being Irish, 20% German, and 8% English. Most of the prostitutes died within an average of four years due to venereal disease or alcoholism—an important insight into the lives of prostitutes at the time. [American History @ Suite 101]

As the war dragged on, the ranks of the prostitutes available to the men swelled.

Prostitution was not a crime in the 19th century, and any concentration of troops during the Civil War attracted flocks of “camp followers” who were available for a price. Women often would show up after battles and offer their services to the generals as nurses. The “nursing,” however, frequently became an open door to those less honest and caring, and when armies experienced theft, prostitution and other less traditional forms of nursing, generals sometimes rejected offers of female help. [Civil War Stories ]

Because of the silence on the subject in the history books I read in high school and college, I did wonder years ago how the issue of unwanted pregnancy was dealt with back then—among the few immoral people I assumed existed in Victorian times. I assumed that in such ancient, unenlightened times, birth control was unheard of. I’m not sure when I thought modern birth control methods were invented, but I do know for sure I had no idea it was this early …

Contraception Civil War Style

In 1839, Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanization of rubber which gave rise to the manufacture of condoms, intrauterine devices, douching syringes, diaphragms, and cervical caps. Before this time, condoms, often known as “French safes” or “male safes,” were made from animal membranes and had been associated with the stigma of being a preventative for syphilis in the brothels. Due to improved technology and lower costs, rubber condoms came into widespread use during the 1850s.

Womb veils were cervical caps or diaphragms. By the 1860s, these contraceptive pessaries were advertised under a variety of names, including “French shields” and “womb guards.” Secrecy and non-interference with sexual pleasure were promoted with their use. Why secrecy? Not all men were reliable with coitus interruptus or in wearing a condom. As well as that, some men were unsympathetic to a woman having reproductive control.

Contraceptive sponges were mentioned in the advice literature as early as the late 1700s. Opinions varied as to a sponge’s reliability, but they became commercially available by the mid-nineteenth century. Druggists sold wide varieties or a woman could buy a sponge of the correct size and attach a silk thread to make her own.

Civil War Condoms? Yep.

Unlike modern condoms — made to be used once and thrown away — early condoms were washed, anointed with petroleum jelly, and put away in special wooden boxes for later reuse. British playwright and essayist George Bernard Shaw called the rubber condom the “greatest invention of the nineteenth century.” [Birth Control History on]

Unfortunately, the fact that they were becoming widely available doesn’t mean everyone could afford them, nor that those who could, would use them. This becomes painfully obvious when the stats for venereal disease among Civil War soldiers are considered. Confederate records are fragmentary, but for Union troops…there were 73,382 cases of syphilis reported during the war, and 109,397 cases of gonorrhea… which means about 82 cases per 1000 men over all … per year. Over 8%. Among some branches of the troops the percentage has been reported to have been as high as 17%.

And remember … this was before antibiotics, and “treatments” that were preferred at the time for these two diseases were totally ineffective—but often excruciatingly painful.  I won’t trouble you with the realistic photos from that time of what an advanced case of syphilis was like for the sufferer … but here is a “statue” which gives just a hint.


8-17% seems like a high incidence, but evidently the US armies were in better shape than other armies around the world involved in other wars regarding venereal disease—the Redcoats of Queen Victoria’s army had a rate of 200 per 1000 at the time!

You may remember the mention above of 73 officially “recorded” houses of prostitution in DC to meet the needs of Civil War soldiers. Well, seems that was perhaps just for “the soldiers.” There seems to have been many more available for the civilians. Including politicians.

Mary Ann Hall catered to the nation’s elite in Washington as the proprietor of the capital’s best brothel during the Civil War.

Located just three blocks from the U.S. Capitol on Maryland Avenue on what now is part of the Mall, her house, a three-story structure nearly the size of a city block, included parlors, an elegant dining room and, almost assuredly, the most attractive of the city’s estimated 5,000 “soiled doves.”

… Houses of prostitution were fairly common in America’s larger cities, and Washington had as many as 450 entertainment venues on the “wilder side.” The presence of affluent politicians, lobbyists and the hierarchy of the government departments helped make Washington a man’s home away from home.

Elected representatives in those years did not routinely bring wives and families to Washington. Service in Congress was not necessarily even a full-time job. The city was hot and steamy. Nights could be filled with drinking, smoking, gambling and frolicking with willing companions of the gentler sex, far from the eyes of the electorate at home.

Mary Ann Hall took every opportunity to provide such indulgences. The throngs of men willing and able to pay her comparatively exorbitant rates deserved the best. Imported hats, dresses and perfume enhanced her staff. Magnums of champagne added an air of dignity, gentility and grace. Fine food filled the supper tables. Her real goal as hostess, however, was to supply attractive women.

…Hall insisted on certain standards of decorum, and her house, which opened around 1837, flourished until it closed in 1878. She was never raided by police, was not the subject of public disgrace or even controversy and was never discussed in newspapers. Editors in those days believed that what was private should stay private. Unless a public figure disgraced himself so thoroughly that prosecution was in order, private excesses remained unreported.

Rep. Daniel E. Sickles of New York learned the limits the hard way. Rumors abounded in the late 1850s that he maintained close personal relationships with a variety of women. Though tongues wagged, his private pleasures never merited newspaper interest. Then, when he murdered his much-younger wife’s lover, Barton Key, the son of Francis Scott Key, who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner”– detailed accounts of the court proceedings made newspaper sales soar.

The 1859 trial and associated juicy details sold newspapers and became for a time the talk of Washington and New York. Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper printed 200,000 copies as the trial opened. Demand forced a second printing of 300,000. (During the Civil War, then-Gen. Sickles’ private indiscretions returned to the realm of private matters. After the war, despite routine and well-documented misbehavior, his private life remained taboo to journalists.)

Mary Ann Hall became a wealthy woman. She died in 1886 and was buried in Congressional Cemetery beneath a carved stone statue of herself. [Civil War Stories ]

What? Politicians in compromising positions so early??

In a rare nineteenth-century publication entitled Mysteries and Miseries of America’s Great Cities, a full chapter is devoted to illicit activities in Washington, D.C. In the book, the author implies that the nature of Washington as the national capital offered high-class prostitutes additional business opportunities, because they could be hired to use their charms to influence the passage of particular laws on the floors of Congress. If they succeeded, they were rewarded handsomely by the corporate interests who derived benefits from the legislation. [Link]

It wasn’t just Washington DC that had “civilian” houses of prostitution around Civil War times:

In the 1850s Dr. William Sanger estimated there were over six thousand prostitutes, or one for every sixty-four men, in New York City. Smaller cities had their brothels, as well. Between 1865 and 1883, forty madams in St. Paul, MN, operated houses that lasted for eight to ten years each. … One estimate claimed that Chicago had over five hundred brothels in 1860…”

…In 1858 the mayor of Savannah estimated that his city had one prostitute for every thirty-nine men and that Norfolk had one per twenty-six men.  [From Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America]

Sodom and Gomorrah? Sounds like there were contenders for the title long ago in America.

But maybe some readers are convinced I just haven’t gone back far enough in US history to find the Golden Age. Maybe something just magically happened at the time of the Civil War to turn a virtually righteous nation down a debauched path.

OK. We’ll keep Time Traveling backward, to see what we might find, in the next entry in this series:

Flashy Victorians

This entry was posted in Morality in America: An Historical Overview and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s