Sex and Romance–Civil War Style
By Liz Everly
I always said I’d never write a Civil War book. But, as I’ve learned time and time again, NEVER say never. Now, I am writing one under yet another name. It’s a straight up historical with romantic elements—based on a true story. So, I’ve been reading some Civil War novels, along with some non-fiction. The good news is there is some really wonderful new Civil War fiction out there. Two books I’ve read that I thought I share with you here, even though they are not “romances,” and definitely not “erotic.” (We’ll get to that later, I promise. Grin.) But they are relevant to what we talk and write about on Lady Smut.
Both books featured women who went off to war disguised as soldiers. We all know now that there were many women who did this—for whatever reason. Several made names for themselves. Others are just now being discovered and celebrated. It’s estimated that between 500 and 1,000 women went into the war disguised as men.
In “Neverhome,” by Laird Hunt, the story begins with a married couple living on a farm. When the War of the Rebellion starts, they feel the farm should be represented—as a matter of pride and honor. The only impediment is the male half of the couple is rather sickly, whereas the woman is strong and vibrant. (How cool is this?) She talks him into allowing her to represent the farm in the war. One of the interesting modern components to this story is that the main female character has a lesbian affair while she is away and lost from her batallion. She does go back to her husband at the end of the book. But she thinks seriously about staying with her lover. The book doesn’t have a happy ending, necessarily, and I don’t want to give out spoilers here. But I liked this lesbian-affair device because so often in mainstream historical fiction about things like the Civil War, writers tend to grandize and homogenize. (I always wondered about the gay folks. Is it just me?)
Interestingly enough, the other book that I read recently, “I Shall Be Near to You” by Erin Lindsey McCabe, also has a gay person in it. The story begins with a newly married couple. He goes off to the war and she decides to follow him. She goes into battle with her husband. She curls up with her husband in the tents, under the stars, and so on. They don’t have sex frequently—there are always others around—but every once in awhile they sneak away. (I do love a good sneak.)
I’ve never found romance in the Civil War. I mean after “Gone with the Wind,” where is the romance? Right? But I love the idea of following your husband into war—very romantic and something I found relatable. The main character (a woman) in this book also spots other women along the way. There were so many more than I had realized and there’s plenty of new books out there detailing the heroic women of the Civil War. In the book I’m writing, my main female lead will not follow men in to battle. She will do what most other women did: stay at home and support the soliders in countless ways. (My book is based on a true story, so this part must remain.)
“I Shall Be Near to You” also has a gay character in the book who befriends the married couple. I can’t tell you too much more without giving away a major plot point here. But I find it refreshing to find gays on the battlefield in these books, as there most assuredly were.
As to whether or not they were having sex, well, I have no idea. But there was plenty of sex going on. There were over 100,000 cases of gonorrhea documented during the Civil War—just on the Union side. And there was ramped prostitution. One “floating brothel” fascinates me and may find it’s way into my other fiction. In fact, prostitution and disease became such a problem that in Nashville, prostitution was legalized and they had to have a license to practice. In order to get the license, the prostitutes had to pass health exams–352 women were registered in 1864. In Washington, D.C., there were 450 registered “bawdy houses.”
I don’t know about you, but it gives me great comfort to know there was a lot of sex going on during the Civil War–not the disease part, of course, but the pleasure part. If anybody needed pleasure and comfort, it was those soldiers.
Also, I LOVED finding out about the thriving underground press, which produced a large number of erotic novels for the troops. Some of those novels were: Maria Monk, a “rabidly anti-Catholic novel, with wild sex scenes between priests and nuns,” The Lustful Turk, and the ever popular Fanny Hill. There also were erotic photos — Daguerreotypes, for instance, had been around for 20 years by the start of the Civil War —and “dirty” cartes de visite, French-made or -inspired post cards, which proliferated at this time were all over the Civil War camps.
As for modern erotic or romance (or both) books based in this time period, I’ve not read any yet. But these books are definitely on my list:
Land of the Falling Stars by Keta Diablo.
The Cameron Family Saga by Heather Graham. (“One Wore Blue,” ” One Wore Gray,” and “One Rode West”)
Yankee Stranger by Elswyth Thayne
Have you read any Civil War erotic romance, erotica, or romance? Do tell!