The Facebook Effect in the 19th Century

“Fighting” Joe Hooker, 1814-1879

The American Civil War has its share of unkillable myths. Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball. The Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery in the United States. Civil War surgeons did not regularly hack off limbs without administering anesthesia.

Of course, people didn’t just invent these stories out of thin air. An early commission did claim that Abner Doubleday invented baseball, but they didn’t offer any good evidence to back it up. The Emancipation Proclamation did end slavery, but only in states in rebellion. (And, in practice, only in territory where the Union army could enforce emancipation.) And yes, Civil War surgeons did cut off a lot of limbs, but they generally administered chloroform before doing so.

Another myth that won’t die is that we call prostitutes “hookers” because Gen. Joseph “Fightin’ Joe” Hooker hired prostitutes for his men. In reality, the slang term “hooker” was in use well before Joe Hooker took command of the Army of the Potomac. As with the other myths, though, there’s a speck of truth in the claim. Joe Hooker was a hard-partying sort of guy, thought even that may have been exaggerated by his rivals.

But Joe Hooker wouldn’t have hired prostitutes for his men–even if he wanted to–because it would have been unnecessary. There were plenty of prostitutes working their trade in the 19th century without the additional incentive of a government paycheck. Prostitution was common back then. It wasn’t admired, but it was largely tolerated. (And, in one case, legalized and licensed.)

If people are shocked to learn about widespread prostitution in the 19th century, it’s understandable. We’ve gotten a sanitized version of camp life for common soldiers in the Civil War. Part of that is due to books like The Killer Angels and movies like Gettysburg and Gods and Generals that portray Civil War soldiers and their leaders as marble statues come to life, delivering moralistic sermons every time they open their mouths.

But part of our misunderstanding is due to the Facebook effect. You probably know what I’m talking about even if you’ve never heard the phrase before–we all know people who present a perfect image of their lives on social media that bears only a passing resemblance to the messiness of their actual existence.

Civil War soldiers didn’t have Facebook, but they did write letters home. Most of what we know about camp life in the Civil War is drawn from these letters. But think about it for a minute–who were these letters written to? Mothers, sisters, and sweethearts. Soldiers had good reason to present a sanitized version of their daily lives. No one writes a letter like this:

Dear Mom,

Last night I got shit-faced on rye whiskey and won a bunch of money playing cards. Gotta go–me and boys are making a run into Nashville to pick up some whores. All my best to sis.

Love, Your Son

Understandably, letters like this that did somehow make it through the filter of self-censorship tended to be cleaned up by family members before they were passed down in the family or handed over to the local historical society.

Bell Wiley wrote two excellent books on the reality of camp life called The Life of Billy Reb and The Life of Billy Yank. Any misconception that 19th-century armies were choirboys on holiday will be quickly put to rest by reading these two books or any of the uncensored soldier’s letters that have survived. Here are a few highlights.

Civil War soldiers cursed. And their swearing would sound pretty much like what we’re used to hearing today, if not worse. (Most swear words have their roots in good ol’ Anglo-Saxon and they’ve been in service since before Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales.) I’ve read a few letters from Civil War soldiers that would make Quentin Tarantino proud.

Civil War soldiers gambled. They had time on their hands and they had cards and dice. They’d also bet on races of any kind, including lice. It was common for soldiers to bury their cards before a battle so that they wouldn’t be found on their body if they were killed and then dug back up afterwards.

Civil War soldiers hired prostitutes. This was a lot more common in some places than others. Most soldiers on the frontier didn’t have access to prostitutes, for example, but Nashville was like nothing we have experience of in 21st century America.

Civil War soldiers were no more or less religious than we are now. Some were devout, some were atheists, and most were just casually religious. Interestingly, some were “church shoppers,” who showed up at whatever service was in vogue at the time.

Civil War soldiers drank. Again, this varied. Some soldiers were tee-totallers, but most drank and got drunk when the opportunity arose.

I don’t want to overemphasize this. Civil War soldiers weren’t especially immoral, they just weren’t the angels that we’ve been lead to believe. Many of them were farmboys cut loose from the supervision of parents and the community for the first time in their lives and they took advantage of the situation. Just like pretty much every other army in history.