Sex in the Civil War

Lawrence Martin

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Sherman's Mistress in Savannah

Additional web sites on Civil War Savannah are listed below the book excerpt (bottom right).

Before I began research on my novel Sherman's Mistress in Savannah I had no idea there were books, web sites and even a History Channel DVD about sex in the Civil War. I had already reviewed many general works about the war, for my web sites on Savannah during that period (see links at bottom of web page), but none even mention sex as a discrete topic. Three popular (and otherwise excellent) books that cover Savannah during the war, but omit anything about sex, are:

In my novel Sherman has a mistress and she has a stalker, an immigrant who runs a house of prostitution. The novel's very premise demanded some research on sex in the Civil War, and that's when I discovered a trove of material, including several books written for the general public (see sidebar), a History Channel DVD, and even a Wikipedia web site, Sex in the Civil War. My research also led to stories about women impersonating male soldiers in the war. The fact that there were female soldiers on both sides and that Washington pretty much denied it for half a century is itself a fascinating aspect of Civil War history.

Books and the History Channel DVDs about sex in the Civil War are listed in the sidebar, with links to Especially recommended are Dr. Thomas Lowry's Story the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell and They Fought Like Demons, by Deanne Blanton and Lauren Cooke. Information in these books helped inform passages of my novel dealing with sex, including conversations between Belle Anderson (Sherman's mistress) and her good friend Fanny Yates Cohen. Below is a portion of their conversations about sex, from Sherman's Mistress in Savannah (Chapter 22). It takes place in a Savannah cafe, January 1865.

Their drinks came and they began eating. Belle was not satisfied with the pace of conversation. She really wanted to know more about Fanny’s sex life. Fanny was her only window on this subject, discounting Sherman and the pervert Gustav.

“Fanny, I know I am prying, but I don’t care. You seem uninhibited about sex. Is that part of being Jewish?”

“For someone so smart, Belle, you are so naïve. Jewish woman have been having babies for thousands of years, just like Christians. What makes you think we’re any different? And I bet blacks are the same. Babies keep coming. Women are women, men are men, skin color and background don’t matter.”

“Well, that’s what the war was fought over, that they do matter.”

”Of course. Negros are inferior to whites in matters of culture and intellect, although who knows what they could accomplish if given a chance. But when it comes to sex, I doubt there’s any inferiority at all. Look, I’m not going to fight the Civil War with you, but your ideas about sex are just…parochial. You ever hear of Sappho?” You ever hear of Sappho?”

“Who is he?”

“She. A Greek poet. She was supposed to prefer the same sex, and wrote poems about it.”


“OK, not my thing either. But if they had that in ancient Greece, then I’m sure it goes on around here as well. People haven’t changed in 2000 years.”

“Well, I am not interested in the same sex, but the opposite one.”

“Like I said Belle, get yourself a man and experiment. Be inquisitive. Trust me, with your body and a willing man, it should all come naturally.”

“You experiment?”

“You betcha. Here’s the rule for the modern day woman. If it’s consensual and doesn’t cause damage, it’s OK.”


“Yeh, you know, you both agree. Want me to be explicit”?


“No, you don’t. Besides you’re eating. Don’t want you to throw up.”

“I’m not going to throw up. I can take anything you throw. Verbally, that is.”

“OK, did you and Edward ever have oral sex?”


“He never tried to come down on you?”

“You mean below, with his mouth?”



“Well, if he did, and you let him, or vice versa, that’s consensual and OK.”

“And you?” Belle asked.

“Well, I’m the teacher here, so what do you think? Of course. It’s natural. But if you questioned 100 women, all 100 would deny it, and say if their men wanted that kind of sex, they should go to Marshall House.”

“Marshall House Hotel”?

“Marshall House Bordello, my dear. The hotel is part high end bordello.”

“How do you know these things?”

“I get around. Or I know people who do.”

“If Marshall is high end, what is low end?”

“Ever hear of Savannah Gardens?”

Belle was by now expert at hiding surprise and eliciting information in an I-am-so-innocent manner.

“No, but I assume it’s in Savannah.”

“Yeh, on East Broughton. It’s got a reputation for low end. Army privates and such. Run by some German nut case I hear.”

“So your point is that even married men, if they want something their wives won’t give them, will go to these places?”

“Yes, all the time. Or else find a willing mistress, which only works if you’re rich and can afford all that entails.”

“But Fanny, this gets back to my original question. Why aren’t there bordellos for women? Why aren’t women wanting these experiences?”

“Because most women just want to get pregnant and have babies, and if you’re pregnant, you don’t feel like fooling around. Did you? No, of course not. So that’s our goal, or so most women think. And if a woman wants more - say more sex or kinky sex - she can likely attract a man for that purpose much more easily than a man could find the right woman. It makes perfect sense to me.”

“What else beside oral sex?”

“Well, now you’re getting out of my territory, into what I would call more hearsay. But we’re talking about whippings, rope tying, handcuffs, that sort of thing.”

This didn’t excite Belle. She wanted pleasure not pain. “People get pleasure from being hurt?”

“Some do. Remember, if it’s consensual, it’s OK. Modern woman.”

“What else?”

“Let’s see, oh, there’s ménage a trios.”

“A household of three?”

“That’s the literal translation. Basically, a threesome.”

“Two women and a man?”

“Or two men and a woman.”

“You have two men?”

“No, no, just something people do some places. Evidently more popular over in Europe. But I suppose if a guy wants to pay for two whores at Marshall House, that can be arranged. I’m just trying to broaden your horizon. From your conversation, it seems pretty narrow.”

“Fanny, we should talk more regularly. You are a fountain of information.”

“Thank you. And I have a little present for you. Knowing your new-found interest in sexual pleasure.” Fanny handed over a neatly wrapped box, a foot long and 6 inches wide.

“Christmas was last week,” Belle joked. “Should I open it now?”

“Definitely not. Only to be opened in the privacy of your bedroom.”

“Well, thank you Fanny. You are so ever so thoughtful.”

“Yes, I try to be. Oh, it’s not returnable. And don’t bother sending me a thank you note. You can tell me all about it next time we meet.”

“I have an idea what this is. Are they legal in Savannah?”

“Well, you can’t buy them in any store, if that’s what you mean.”

Belle was amused. She was sure the box contained a dildo. She remembered girls talking about dildos in college, but had never actually seen one. Part of her wanted to exclaim, just to impress Fanny, ‘I don’t need your dildo, I have the real thing to play with’. But she also relished the ruse of innocent widow, horny for a man but willing to masturbate until one came along.

“Fanny, you are one naughty girl.”

“Would you like me any other way?”

They finished lunch and walked across Whittaker Street to watch the troops marching in parade formation. Every parade included a drummer, to keep the beat and attract people within hearing distance. Belle scanned the crowd for Gustav but he was not there.

Lawrence Martin

For the Preface and other excerpts from Sherman's Mistress in Savannah please click here.