A Virginia author has written a book outlining violence against women during the Civil War, which includes some documented atrocities that occurred in Fairfax County. Rape was an executable offense in Virginia in the 19th century, but in “I Had Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War,” author Kim Murphy shows that while only 30 soldiers were executed for rape during the entire Civil War, in fact hundreds of women came forward with horror stories of rape and attempted rape.
In her book, Murphy contends that in many cases, the judicial system worked against these women: overturning guilty verdicts, reducing sentences to the equivalent of a wrist slap, and in many cases, denying even the possibility of truth in their accusations.
An Illinois native, Murphy said her interest in the Civil War began when she moved to the Charlottesville area in 1990. “I have always loved history, but I didn’t get interested in the Civil War until I moved to Virginia and realized that I was sometimes standing right where a battle had happened,” she said. “That was inspiring.”
In 2001, she wrote a fiction trilogy about a Civil War-era Fredericksburg woman who was a smuggler. From there, she continued her Civil War writing with a fictitious ghost story.
While researching for her books, she said she became interested in the way women were treated by soldiers, a topic she said was rarely published.
“What I discovered was that the few historians who bothered to mention violence against women during the Civil War consistently referred to it as a ‘low-rape’ conflict,” she said. “In general, historians contended that although they perpetrated all sorts of pillaging and other wrongdoing, Civil War soldiers maintained ‘gentlemanly restraint’ when it came to the treatment of women. I began to seriously question that, and began researching it for myself.”
Utilizing trial records from the National Archives’ Courts-Martial, Murphy said she accumulated about 400 cases of rape and attempted rape during the war that she used as the basis for her new nonfiction book. Because Confederate records are more difficult to come by, most are cases of Union soldiers attacking southern women, she said, but not all.
“Not surprisingly, treatment of both rape survivors and those they accused differed widely depending on where they fill on the spectrums of race and class, as well as on the continuum of “acceptable” female behavior,” she said. “White men attacking black women were likely to receive little or no punishment; black men attacking white women often faced death or castration. Virgins who could prove they fought back as hard as they could were more likely to find at least a little bit of justice than women with a sexual history, or women terrified into submission under threat of death or severe bodily harm.”
The book outlines several cases that occurred in Northern Virginia, including the case of 15-year-old Annie Nelson of Fairfax.
“That case was one in which the attacker was executed,” Murphy said. “Three Union soldiers of 13th New York Cavalry went to the house of James Nelson in search of ‘rebels.’ They pulled Nelson out of the house and one of the men stood guard over him, while the other two went inside. They searched the house, and Sergeant Charles Sperry grabbed 15-year-old Annie Nelson by the arm. He struck her in the head with the pistol and attempted to rape her as the other man held her.”
According to Murphy, 15-year-old Nelson eventually was able to escape with her life.
Sperry was prosecuted for the crime, and with a prior history of desertion, he was summarily executed. The other man was given a minor sentence, and the one outside was let go.
“I think it takes a woman to attack this topic,” said Don Hakenson, a local Civil War historian, author and assistant curator of the Stuart-Mosby Civil War Cavalry Museum in Centreville. “I know that the Union Army did not always conduct themselves in a gentlemanly manner while in Northern Virginia, and I am aware of local women who were raped. But it did not happen all the time and to my knowledge there has never been a definitive book on the subject. This may be it.”
Kim Murphy’s book, “I Had Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War” is available at Amazon.com.