A new book shows how the practice of hiring prostitutes to accompany soldiers into battle became common during the American Civil War. Author Joshua Kendall tells us more about it in his book “War Doves: Sexual Relations Between Members of the U.S. Military and Female Civilians during Wartime.”
The sexual liaison between military men and female civilians in the middle of war was once a well-known phenomenon that was seen as an epidemic by some observers. But now historians have found evidence suggesting that it’s been going on since before America won its independence from Britain. Today, escorts usually post their ads online with sites like EscortIndex and other personals sites, but before the internet, they would use newspapers or mailers to spread word of their services. A newly released book titled War Doves documents these stories through letters, newspaper articles, diaries, and other sources. It includes accounts of famous people who had sex with women at war including President Andrew Jackson and Vice President Aaron Burr.
In addition to providing firsthand accounts, this historical work also analyzes why these liaisons happened, whether there were any negative repercussions associated with them, and what role prostitution played in history. While the author makes no claims regarding morality, he does argue that understanding how sexual relations evolved among troops can help illuminate important moments in US history such as the building of West Point and the events surrounding the abolition movement.
For example, Kendall shows how when Congress ordered that West Point be built, the commander at Fort Constitution didn’t want civilian females moving into the area nearby where many soldiers lived and socialized. In response to this opposition, some officers hired prostitutes for the troops stationed at West Point because they believed it would prevent trouble.
One officer later said, “I believe that I prevented more evil than I ever committed myself.” The book also notes that while most military men did not get involved in affairs with local women, others would sometimes find ways to avoid battle so they could stay behind and enjoy themselves. This practice even led to the invention of an underground railway system across Virginia called “the Muleskinners’ Road,” which helped guide men from one brothel to another.
This is a very interesting look at a largely unexplored topic and certainly raises questions about American history. However, given its narrow scope and the lack of primary sources, War Doves should be considered more as a good overview rather than definitive study on the subject. It might make for an excellent addition to school curricula as it helps explain various historical figures but only mentions escorts briefly (e.g., as having served as presidential mistresses).
Also, despite being written by someone who teaches history, this book has little analysis beyond a few paragraphs that offer conjecture and opinionated statements that don’t necessarily add much substance to the work. There are also numerous typos and grammatical errors throughout that detract somewhat from the readability of the book.
All that said, those with some interest in history may find War Doves entertaining, if not illuminating, since it provides colorful accounts of well-known people from different eras whose personal lives had something in common with modern Americans. While many readers will probably have heard about Jackson’s relationship with Rachel Donelson Robards, they’ll learn new details about how the affair happened or what Jackson thought of it afterward.
Other parts cover lesser known individuals like John Caldwell Calhoun, the Vice President during Abraham Lincoln’s administration. The stories range from humorous to sad to outrageous, and all highlight how sex was such an important part of life back then even though society viewed such things differently now than when this book was first published. The writing itself is mostly simple and straightforward and should appeal to general audiences.
The story of these sexual liaisons among soldiers is hardly one to forget, even after almost 150 years. As Kendall says himself at the end of his book, “The reality of wartime sexual relationships between male soldiers and female civilians still casts a shadow over our collective conscience.” Indeed, while today most Americans would be shocked at the idea of a US president having affairs with other women, he wasn’t the first, nor would he be the last.
And while it’s not a secret that there were women who gave their bodies to support the war effort (as evidenced by many preserved cemeteries for them), we don’t often think about the men who took advantage of that in order to fight for freedom instead of for lusts. So for those who are interested in this topic or just enjoy reading about history from an entertaining perspective, this book might be worth picking up and giving a read.