The cruelty of war has been well documented.
And Nora Williams ’21 has spent more than two years researching a specific aspect of it during the Civil War, the 30 years before the war (Antebellum) and the Reconstruction era following it—sexual assaults.
“Originally, I was only going to focus my research on the Civil War, but I didn’t feel right leaving it there because it’d be naïve to think this sexual violence ended after the Civil War,” Williams says. “Women were seen as spoils of war or enemy civilians. During Reconstruction, there was a different war going on during the age of social rebuilding.”
Williams will discuss her research during a Women’s History Month event at Wofford College at 4 p.m. on March 30 in Olin Room 213. Her presentation is titled “‘They Done a Very Bad Act’: Rape in the Civil War and Reconstruction.” It’s one of six events being sponsored by the college’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and Wofford’s Women’s Leadership Group. See the complete list of events.
Williams conducted the research for her honors thesis. She scoured the 13-volume “Report of the Joint Select Committee on the Condition of Affairs into the Late Insurrectionary States,” which has testimonies from congressional hearings after congressmen traveled to former Confederate states to hear grievances. She also reviewed 450 military Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG) records.
“I was able to utilize these resources, but back then, like now, rape was underreported. These women were being terrorized on every single level and there didn’t seem to be much incentive to come forward,” Williams says.
A key driver in women reporting sexual assaults during the Civil War was the Lieber Code, which dictated how Union soldiers were to behave during wartime by recognizing civilian crimes committed by military personnel. Union soldiers found guilty of sexual assault and other crimes could be court-martialed.
“It was the first time Black women could prosecute someone for rape,” says Williams, who says Black women reported rape more than any other group.
Much of her research involving sexual assaults during the war focuses on women who were the victims of Union soldiers.
“My research isn’t taking a sympathetic view with the Confederacy,” Williams says. “Sexual violence will most likely take place in occupied territory. The majority of battles were fought here (in the South), and Southern women were the victims.”
After the war, women were most likely victimized by Southern men.
“A lot of women were targets because of their husbands, and if a husband, father or brother didn’t behave in the way the Klansmen expected them to,” says Williams, who points out that Black men had the right to vote during Reconstruction and white families who were allies for Black people were often met with disdain.
Williams has read the questions women faced when reporting sexual assaults at the time and how married women would be asked if they were involved in extramarital affairs. There are accounts of women being retaliated against by having homes burned and being abandoned by their families and spouses.
“The questions were horrendous, and it’s amazing women continued to come forward knowing what was at risk,” Williams says. “The true scope can never fully be realized because rape is underreported, and these social and cultural values explain why. It’s a culture that silences women. As a society, we’re comfortable with that silence, and when someone breaks it, there are suspicions.”
Dr. Tracy Revels, a Wofford professor of history, was Williams’ honors thesis director.
“Her work restores voices to forgotten victims of war and provides an essential corrective to the idea that the Civil War was a glorious or chivalrous struggle,” Revels says. “Nora’s work is informed by her interdisciplinary studies; she is using concepts from philosophy and sociology, as well as drawing upon unique historical primary sources, to illuminate the past.”
Williams plans to continue her research while pursuing a Ph.D. in history. She’s been accepted to programs at Duke University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the State University of New York at Binghamton. She’s from Johnson City, Tennessee, but she’s living in Spartanburg while deciding on a graduate program. While in Spartanburg, she’s volunteering with SAFE Homes-Rape Crisis Coalition.
“I encourage people to feel a little uncomfortable,” Williams says. “I want them to feel challenged about sexual assaults and rape culture and the trends that take place across human time. Whether or not we know it, everyone knows someone who has been impacted by sexual violence. I hope my talk will lead to empathy and radical compassion.”