Skip to main content

The Truth Will Unite Us: Ida B. Wells and Her Civil War Theory

Slave owner with his family and slaves.  Date and place unknown.

Slave owner with his family and slaves. Date and place unknown.

Please note: Throughout my articles on Ida B. Wells-Barnett, there are quotations from Wells and her contemporaries (ca. 1890s), in addition to quotes from contemporary (ca. 1890s) newspapers, in which they use the words “negro” and “colored.” I use these words only in direct quotes, not in my own analysis or narrative.

In her 1895 book The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States, Ida B. Wells-Barnett constructs a world chock full of imaginary consensual sexual relationships between black male slaves and their white plantation mistresses:

“During all the years of slavery, no such charge was ever made, not even during the dark days of the rebellion, when the white man, following the fortunes of war went to do battle for the maintenance of slavery. While the master was away fighting to forge the fetters upon the slave, he left his wife and children with no protectors save the Negroes themselves. And yet during those years of trust and peril, no Negro proved recreant to his trust and no white man returned to a home that had been despoiled.” 1

Cover of The Red Record, by Ida B. Wells-Barnett.

Cover of The Red Record, by Ida B. Wells-Barnett.

There were numerous inaccuracies in Wells' Record, but it is imperative that this short paragraph be examined in depth.

Upon first reading, this excerpt rings untrue. Rape is a common occurrence in any war; in some civil wars, rape is weaponized. Surely, the American Civil War was no different.

Wells sidestepped victim blaming and barrelled straight on to painting white rape victims as succubi who falsely accused their black lovers of rape in order to conceal their own wanton and debased characters. Obviously, most black men are not rapists. However, Wells’ insistence that no black man committed rape during the Civil War - while further painting black men as Protector/Patriarchs of white plantation mistresses abandoned by their men to war - was irresponsible, misogynistic rhetoric that ultimately harmed not only women, but the anti-lynching crusade.

Wells’ accusations set the stage for how we handle rape cases today; for that reason, her gaffes must be exposed.

Let’s start with her early life.

  • The Truth Will Unite Us: The Early Life of Ida B. Wells
    Ida B. Wells-Barnett was an influential writer and tireless advocate for African American civil rights after the Civil War. Unfortunately, she built a foundation upon which unity could never be achieved between blacks and whites.

The Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in all southern states on January 1, 1963; it freed them a full two years before the end of the Civil War. Wells was born into slavery, but she was only 6 months old when Emancipation freed her. Technically, she never lived under the yoke of slavery.

Her parents were both former house slaves; both had been treated well as adults. Wells’ paternal grandmother was raped by her master, although she herself framed it as consensual; this “relationship” led to the plantation mistress mistreating her. Wells’ father, James, was a product of this rape. His father/slave master doted on James as a child, and later sent him to live on the Spires Boling Plantation so he could become a master carpenter; to what end is unknown. In addition to being a respected carpenter in Holly Springs, James Wells was a political man; Ida Wells recalled in her autobiography that her mother often feared for James’ safety when he attended political meetings.

As a child, Wells’ mother, Elizabeth ("Lizzie"), had been the victim of the worst kind of slavery. When she was 12, she was sold to slave traders, taken from her family, and moved to another state, where she was sold to Spires Boling. While it does not excuse the institution of slavery, it was said that Boling treated his slaves well. It was in his house that Lizzie met her future husband, James Wells.

While Boling had been a kind master, he was a slave master nonetheless; after Emancipation, Bolling tried to force James into voting for the Democrats. At the time, the Democrats were the party of the KKK. James refused to even entertain such a ridiculous request, and immediately left the plantation with his family.

Ida B. Wells grew up a free black woman in the heart of the former Confederacy. Thanks to Lizzie, she learned to read and write at a very young age; in her autobiography, she said she was a voracious reader. Unfortunately, Wells had a tendency to be outspoken and abrasive, and people in her own community found her disagreeable. She was even expelled from her local Freedmen Aid school, for getting in an argument with the President of the school.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett.

  • The Truth Will Unite Us: Ida B. Wells Against the Railroad
    Seventy two years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus, Ida B. Wells refused to give up her seat on a "white" train car. Not only did she bravely stand her ground on the train, but she took an even br
Scroll to Continue

Her parents died during a yellow fever epidemic when she was 16, after which she chose to assume financial responsibility for all her brothers and sisters. Their paternal grandmother moved in to help with Wells’ young siblings (one disabled), but shortly after moving in, her grandmother suffered a stroke. It was then that Wells had to get real about her future and the future of her brothers and sisters. Ultimately, several siblings went to live with various relatives, while a younger sister moved with Wells to Memphis.

One evening, while taking a train home from her job as a teacher in Memphis, she refused to give up her seat on a train to a white woman. There was an altercation, and Wells was forcibly removed from the train. She sued the rail company for discrimination and won, although her victory was overturned on appeal.

Then, one fateful night in 1891, one of her dearest friends was lynched in an area of Memphis called The Curve. Wells had been an outspoken community activist for many years, but it was the lynching that truly radicalized her. Not surprisingly, after the lynching, her activism became deeply personal, which manifested itself as political extremism. Sadly, this extremism caused Wells to bend more than a few facts to fit her rhetoric.

Wells’ editorials had always tended to be short on facts and long on rhetoric; for example, she once accused teacher recruits of having "illicit" relationships with members of the school board. Her own community - the black community - had tired of her inflammatory editorials and was preparing to cast her out when the lynching happened.

The Civil War had been over for 30 years when Wells wrote her Record. On the surface, her anti-lynching crusade was righteous, and attracted numerous allies from the white community. Abolitionists who had been left idle by the Emancipation Proclamation eagerly jumped at the chance to speak against the abomination of lynching.

Lynching - aka vigilante justice - had been a plague on America since its inception, in the late 1700s. Historians dispute where the term came from, but they agree that it began around the time of the Revolutionary War. Up until the 1885, most lynching victims were white; between 1885 and 1889, the number of blacks and white lynched was almost equal.

In 1891, the number of black people lynched sharply increased, while the number of white people lynched dropped significantly. Sadly, there seems to be a correlation between Wells’ and the media’s anti-lynching crusade and an increase of the number of black people lynched in the south; a sort of “social contagion” of the very worst kind.

Wells' anti-lynching crusade also centered black people; she specifies that she excluded the statistics for white lynchings in the beginning of Chapter 2 of her Record. This may have given the reader the impression that the number of whites lynched was so insignificant that it did not warrant inclusion. However, in many new states of the Union, black men were not falling victim to lynch mobs, but plenty of white men and women were. It is curious that Wells chose to exclude those names in her Record, as it would have only strengthened her cause. There must have come a point when it became abundantly clear to other anti-lynching activists that Wells was not against lynching, per se, but rather against black people being the majority of lynching victims. Wells further confused the matter by strongly inferring that legal executions performed after objectively fair trials were a form of lynching and should be abolished - but only abolished for black people.

But back to that pesky paragraph about rape during the Civil War.

Lynching of four white men.  Although less common, white men were also lynched before they could be granted a fair trial; common allegations were claim jumping or stealing horses.

Lynching of four white men. Although less common, white men were also lynched before they could be granted a fair trial; common allegations were claim jumping or stealing horses.

Thirty years - three decades! - had passed since the end of the Civil War. More than enough time to interview former slaves and gather first-hand interviews from them. More than enough time to study historical and military records.

It is just one paragraph from her Record, but it speaks volumes. Few of Wells’ statements were based in fact and, as always, she let her personal prejudices against white rape victims take precedent over facts.

Let’s ignore Wells’ assumption that black men would have willingly participated in these “consensual” sexual relationships in the first place, as though their white plantation mistresses were just that irresistible to them, or that they harbored any delusions that Southern society would allow them to supplant their former masters.

In his book, Sick From Freedom, Jim Downs states that most freed slaves left the plantation immediately, and theorizes that one million of the four million freed slaves either died or fell severely ill after the war. Downs further posits that this was not more widely reported because of pro-North propaganda and that people simply didn’t care about the plight of freed slaves. He also noted that:

“… the reality of emancipation during the chaos of war and its bloody aftermath often fell brutally short of that positive image. Instead, freed slaves were often neglected by union soldiers or faced rampant disease, including horrific outbreaks of smallpox and cholera. Many of them simply starved to death.” 2

Original hand written Emacipation Proclamation.

Original hand written Emacipation Proclamation.

For Wells’ statement to be true, male slaves would have remained on the plantations on which they were enslaved, and would have survived periods of famine and rampant disease. This starvation and disease affected everyone but the wealthiest equally. If white women couldn’t find food for their families, how were male slaves not tormented by the same pangs of hunger?

Starvation would certainly quell the tiniest spark of sexual passion.

During the Civil War, starvation got so bad, in fact, that it caused looting and riots in cities all over the South:

“Many Georgia women grew desperate by the war's midpoint. This desperation led to the widespread looting of stores and raids on warehouses by groups of destitute women, often driven by hunger. Such riots occurred in major cities and small towns. In April 1863, for example, sixty-five women, some armed with pistols and knives, moved down Broad Street in Columbus, looting several stores before police were able to restore order. Dozens of such incidents throughout the state served to undermine support for the war and led many soldiers to desert the army and return home to take care of their families.” 3

In addition to ignoring those stories of famine and rampant disease that survivors certainly would have told, Wells also ignored just how terrified white plantation owners were of the slaves who outnumbered them, sometimes as many as 20:1. Owners used brutal methods to keep their slaves compliant because they were terrified of them. Obviously, they built their own prisons through enslaving black people in the first place, but that did not negate their very real terror.

Slaves were notoriously (albeit understandably) non-compliant. Some slaves ran away or pretended to be sick to get out of working. Some slaves continued to speak their native languages or practice their native faiths and play native drums. These slaves may not have meant to scare plantation owners with their actions, but they did, regardless.

Other slaves wanted to scare or harm their masters, and went so far as to sabotage equipment and machinery, or poison their masters. 4

The Emancipation Proclamation may have freed the slaves, but "freedom" often meant falling victim to starvation and disease.

The Emancipation Proclamation may have freed the slaves, but "freedom" often meant falling victim to starvation and disease.

Slave girls who were raped by their white male owners were often further punished by the jealous mistresses of their rapists, as illustrated in the book and movie 12 Years a Slave. The black male relatives or (not legally recognized) husbands of these slave women were powerless to retaliate on behalf of their wives; they could be brutally beaten if they dared confront their wife’s rapist. And what feelings could a male slave possibly have for the mistress who punished his wife for their master’s “indiscretions?” Wells inexplicably disregards information she already had; in her autobiography, she wrote that her grandmother was one of those rape victims, James was the product of that rape, and that her grandmother had a similar confrontation with her own plantation mistress.

None of this would have created an environment in which consensual sexual relationships between black men and their white mistresses could have blossomed.

There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that some white mistresses may have coerced their black slaves into having sex. It is curious, then, that Wells does not interpret any sexual relationship between white mistresses and black male slaves as coercive rape. Wells was strongly prejudiced against white women; she was eager to paint them as seductresses, but not rapists. She specifically states that black men would have succumbed to their temptations and bedded white women consensually. However, white mistresses and black slaves did not hold the same position in society. Women in the south were themselves treated little better than property before and during the Civil War, but they still held more power than their black slaves. Black men were literal property of the plantation. Therefore, slaves would not be able to give consent. Yes, a black male accustomed to hard labor could easily (physically) overpower a woman. Her vulnerability would have been further exacerbated by being draped in yards upon yards of fabric and constricting undergarments. However, any slave would know he did not hold the same power in society as his literal owner. He would know that being too familiar with his mistress in any way could result in severe punishment, or even death. While a black slave was physically capable of raping a white woman, he would not have been in a position to consent psychologically. If his mistress made advances towards him, he would not have been in a position to deny her.

However, Wells' theory and anecdotal "evidence" leads us back, once again, to the myth that white rape victims only "cry rape" because of their shame in having particiated in consensual sexual relationships with black men. Upon closer examination, it often revealed that white rape victims were either geographically isolated, children, or young teens; the children and teens could not give consent, regardless. Geographically isolated adult rape victims could choose not to report the crime; their isolation nearly guaranteed that the rape would never be discovered.

So, again: Clearly a dynamic that is not conducive to creating an environment in which black men could develop a consensual sexual relationship with their owner.

But let’s unpack Wells’ theory even further.

After Emancipation, the slaves who stayed on plantations likely only remained because they were treated relatively well and had access to shelter and food. That shelter would not necessarily have been within close proximity to the main house; a slave would not necessarily see his mistress every day. It is important to note here that most plantation houses were not the grand houses made famous in movies like Gone With The Wind; the number of house slaves would have been small or nonexistent. It is also likely that house slaves, e.g., cooks and maids, were women, not men.

Before the war, unmarried white women had heavily restricted access to white men; it was rare that a southern white woman would be alone with any white male outside her immediate family. One on one interaction with black male slaves, obviously, would have been strictly forbidden. It is unlikely, therefore, that white plantation mistresses would have any unsupervised contact with their male slaves. Poor white women, on the other hand, would have been vulnerable to any strange males - black or white - that happened upon their homes.

Wells posited that those black men - former slaves - would have not only liked (desired) their former mistresses, they would have felt a duty to protect them. Certainly, those former slaves would have understood the disparity between their position in the community and their mistress’ position. Certainly this would inhibit their urge to “protect” her.

Most importantly, though, and what Wells would have discovered, had she performed any research: Both white and black women reported their rapes during the Civil War. This was made possible by the Lieber Code of 1863:

"SECTION II. -- Public and private property of the enemy -- Protection of persons, and especially of women [emphasis added]; of religion, the arts and sciences -- Punishment of crimes against the inhabitants of hostile countries.

"44. All wanton violence committed against persons in the invaded country, all destruction of property not commanded by the authorized officer, all robbery, all pillage or sacking, even after taking a place by main force, all rape, wounding, maiming, or killing of such inhabitants, are prohibited under the penalty of death, or such other severe punishment as may seem adequate for the gravity of the offense." 5

Hanging of four conspirators in President Lincoln's assissination, including one woman.

Hanging of four conspirators in President Lincoln's assissination, including one woman.

White and black Union soldiers were executed for committing rape on both white and black women. All Confederate records were destroyed after the war, but it is reasonable to assert that the Confederacy had an equal number of reported rapes.

Rape was a common occurrence during the Civil War. There were 450 men tried in Union courts for rape. According to the List of US Soldiers Executed by the United States Military Authorities During the Late War, at least 24 Union soldiers were executed for the crime, including soldiers convicted of rape against black women:

  • John Bell, hanged 11 July 1862 for the rape of Mrs. Elizabeth Haywood
  • John Callaghan (or Callahan), Jacob F. Snover, and Thomas Johnson, all shot 10 June 1864 for the gang rape of Mrs. Margaret J. Brooks
  • John Carroll (Carrol), shot 11 November 1864 for attempt of rape on Mrs. Mary Gidon (black) and others crimes.
  • Thomas Dawson, hanged 20 April 1864 for desertion and rape of Mrs. Frances West
  • Daniel Geary and Gordon Ransom, both hanged 15 July 1864 for the rape of Mrs. Mary Stiles
  • Preble James, shot 31 March 1865 for attempted rape on Mrs. Rebecca Drake, her cousin, Miss Louise Jane Bedard, and her aunt, Miss Letitia Craft
  • Charles Sperry, executed in Old Capitol Prison, Washington, D.C., 3 March 1865 for attempted rape of Miss Annie Nelson (15)
  • Alfred Catlett, Alexander Colwell, Charles Turner, and Jackson Washington shot 6 May 1865 for the gang rape of "a young white woman”
  • Dandridge Brooks, William Jackson, and John Sheppard hanged 30 July 1865 (Sheppard on 13 October) for the gang rape of Miss Eliza Harriet Woodson (14) and Mrs Fannie Crawford near Richmond, Virginia, during the night of 11 April 1865. The 38th USCT was transferred to Texas where the three men were executed. A fourth suspect was never apprehended.
  • John Wesley Cook (or Cork) (“colored” unit), Spencer Lloyd (“colored” unit) / John M. Smith (“colored” unit), hanged 18 February 1864 at Camp Shaw for the gang rape of Mrs. Sarah Hammonds. A fourth rapist, Baker Wallace, was in the same gang and “colored” unit, but was not identified during the rape. He was shot at Folly island on 18 June 1864 for mutiny.
  • James Gripen (or Gripon) and Ben Redding (aka Benjamin Rudding) (leaders of a plunderer and rapist gang) hanged on 20 (or 21) November 1864 for the rape of Miss Eusebia Heape on the night of 17 August 1864, and Miss Florence Mew and Mrs. Mary E. McTier on 19 August 1864. The others members of their gang were not apprehended.
  • Henry Jay, executed 21 June 1865 for the rape of a white woman.
  • Kemp Lawson, executed 19 November 1863 for the rape of a young white woman. Possibly the first black soldier executed by the Union army.
  • Charles Billingsley, shot 22 November 1864, technically for desertion at Indianapolis, but had deserted his unit while being tried with another man for the rape of Mrs. Louise Smith on 24 May 1864. In a letter to the court dated 17 December 1864, Captain Morgan of the 7th Battery wrote: “... His case was an aggravated one, committing rape on a defenseless woman, while our army was near Dallas (Ga) last summer … he deserted the day his trial closed.”
  • William Cox, shot after 20 May 1863 for the rape of Mrs. Nancy Rose. He raped her in front of her small children and her ten year old black servant.
  • William Jones, shot after 25 February 1864 for the rape of Mrs. William Martin.
  • George Nelson, hanged (probably) May 1864 for the rape of Indiana Rose.
  • William Henry Johnson, black, “… was executed this morning in front of the Jordan house, in full view of the enemy, for an attempt to violate a person of a young lady at the Kent Courthouse.” Army of the Potomac, dispatch dated June 20, 1864.
  • Adolph Bork, shot for the rape of Susan, a nine months pregnant black woman.
  • John Vincent, executed (probably) 13 October 1865 for desertion brought on by charges of rape of Mrs. Martha E. Simpson 6

Life during the Civil War was hard on women. Before the War, elite white women beat the war drum with rabid glee; in a sort of huge karmic joke, the war rewarded them by making them suffer almost as much as their men. Wealthy plantation mistresses may have had it a easier, but they were not immune to the horrors of war.

It is important not to lump poor white women in with elite plantation mistresses. Poor women were considered the property of their husbands, and none had the "luxury" of slave labor. Because times were so hard, most women - even the plantation mistresses - were forced into servitude of the military. White and black women alike earned money doing laundry, cooking, and other domestic chores for Confederate soldiers and Union soldiers in Union-occupied territories. It was common for black women to move around with the Union soldiers. It could be a stable income, but it also put women in close quarters with unknown men. Neither black nor white women were immune to the crime of rape.

The following stories are excerpts from Dangerous Liaisons: Working Women and Sexual Justice in the American Civil War, by E. Susan Barber and Charles F. Ritter:

“Mary Kirksey was a thirty-three-year-old white widow living in Lookout Valley, Tennessee … Kirksey was accustomed to the presence of Union troops in and around her home ... To support herself and her fourteen-year-old son, John, Mary did sewing and laundry for Union troops and sold them milk and eggs … Charles Hunter [believed] that Kirksey was offering something more than clean and mended clothes. On May 18, he brutally raped Kirksey in her home after tying her arms with her apron strings and binding her mouth with a leather strap. A day after the assault Hunter returned and raped Kirksey again. 7

“Grace Barnes, a young, free woman of color ... did washing for Union troops stationed at Pongo Bridge Camp ... On the morning of April 28, 1864, as Barnes made her way home with a load of dirty laundry, seven soldiers ... dragged her into the bushes where six of the men took turns raping her. One man also tortured her sexually by penetrating her with pins and sticks. The assault left Barnes in a state of physical and emotional collapse and probably suffering from a damaged bladder. 7

“... Lucy Parker, a white matron in a military hospital in Chicago, Illinois, was assaulted by J.C. Webb, a hospital steward, who attempted to drag her into a bedroom on the afternoon of March 8, 1864. J.A. Jackson, the hospital surgeon who treated Parker for two weeks following the attack, reported that she was “bruised in the left groin and on the thigh” and was “suffering from intense pain with profuse flowing "from the womb.” 7

Ruins of Charleston, SC, 1865.

Ruins of Charleston, SC, 1865.

Contrary to Wells' theory, under the Lieber Code of 1863, black women finally found justice against their rapists. Notably, Jenny Green, a young black woman who was raped by a Lieutenant in the Union Army:

“Thanks to the Lieber Code, though, she was able to bring charges against him, and even testify in a military court. “He threw me on the floor, pulled up my dress,” she told the all-male tribunal. “He held my hands with one hand, held part of himself with the other hand and went into me. It hurt. He did what married people do. I am but a child.” The idea that a former slave, and an adolescent girl at that, could demand and receive legal redress was revolutionary. Despite his attorney’s argument that Green had consented, Smith was discharged from the Army and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor.” 8

It is unconscionable that, so many years after the Civil War, Ida B. Wells could spread such harmful lies about rape victims; lies that have persevered into this millennium. We still talk about rape victims “asking for it.” We still ask what rape victims did to "deserve it." We ask how their clothing or mannerisms “tempted” their rapists. Only recently have we passed laws protecting women from their husbands and boyfriends.

Ironically, most lynching victims were never accused of rape.

In her pamphlets, Wells did little more than parrot white men’s misogyny regarding white women. Wells' activism further oppressed women under a more powerful - mixed race! - patriarchy of white and black men. Wells’ anti-lynching crusade never opposed the patriarchy, it just changed its color.

Rhetoric that divides women must be stamped out. We must fight for our liberation together, as women.









#bhm #BlackHistoryMonth #BlackHistory #bhm #feb #february #american #blacklivesmatter #blackpeople

© 2019 Carrie Peterson

Related Articles