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Cardyn’s “Sexual Terror in the Reconstruction South” Essay

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Updated: Jun 2nd, 2021


In “Sexual Terror in the Reconstruction South,” the author, Lisa Cardyn, argues that sexual violence was a societal norm, and it imposed patriarchal and racial beliefs that the Reconstruction and Confederate defeat had created. Additionally, Cardyn claims that sexual terror sought to promote the culture of slavery, which was characterized by violence and rape as tactics to maintain white supremacy.

According to Cardyn, there is “compelling evidence that the American South was an arena of vigorous sexual combat from slavery through the Civil War and Reconstruction when it was avidly pursued by white supremacist groups throughout the region” (263). The chapter seeks to explore the purpose of terror tactics used during the Reconstruction South and the effectiveness of the same in subduing former slave populations and their allies in the region.

Evidence Summary

The author starts by establishing a gap in knowledge concerning the history of terrorism and sexual violence as one of its many forms. She argues that while most scholarly discourses hold that terrorism is peculiar to modern times, it has a long and history that has been suppressed or neglected in scholarly circles. As such, sexual terror has been overlooked in discourses on terrorism because it does not count as part of what could be classified as “terror” in the mainstream way of thinking.

Besides, sexual violence is seen as incidental – a simple byproduct of armed conflict. However, the author argues that despite these attempts to disregard the place of sexual violence as a form of terrorism, it was commonly used in the Reconstruction South, specifically by white supremacists seeking to enforce their dominance and superiority in politics and economics. The main agenda among Southern whites was to ensure that blacks remained submissive without the rights to vote and the capacity to hold political positions.

After the signing of the peace treaty at Appomattox Courthouse, many people thought that the bitter internal strife had been resolved, especially given the fact that the ruling was in favor of the Union. However, the author argues that a vast majority of whites could not concede defeat, and thus some sought to achieve congenial outcomes using extralegal means. Racist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), emerged, and they relied exclusively on terrorism to advance their agenda. According to Cardyn, “terror and terrorism aim to frighten and, by frightening, to dominate and control” (263), and sexual violence was used to achieve the same objectives.

Sexual violence was a common tool used among slave-owners and their minions as a coercion strategy over their slaves. This habit was also common among soldiers during the Confederacy because they ravaged emancipated blacks with the aim of traumatizing them to assert control. Cardyn claims that violent sex was “in each instance, a performance of dominance by its perpetrators and a harshly lived reality for its victims” (264). KKK adherents were animated by ungoverned hate and retribution, and thus sexual violence became one of their preferred ways of unleashing terror to reinstate white supremacy.

The author discusses the different forms of sexual violence that were practiced in the Reconstruction South. The common types included sexualized “whipping and lynching, rape, and genital mutilation, among other tortures to compromise the selfhood, stability, and resolve of the newly emancipated slaves. Cardyn notes that sexualized whipping was the commonest form of terrorism that was unleashed on freed slaves in the south. Chastisement had characterized the life of slaves, and the majority of white Southerners were not willing to give up this pleasure, and thus it mostly accompanied any form of punishment meted on the emancipated blacks.

Sexual violence took many forms, and even males were not spared. For instance, if the perpetrators of this heinous crime disagreed with a freedman, they would visit his homestead and descend on his daughters sexually assault them in his presence. Additionally, such daughters would be forced to dance in front of everyone as part of the evening’s entertainment. Even pregnant mothers were not spared from these grotesque obsessions with white supremacy.

Men would be forced to have sexual intercourse with different females to the amusement of the white southerners. In one instance, Klansmen “took a young negro man who was in the house that night and whipped him, and compelled him to go through the form of sexual intercourse with one of the girls, whipping him at the same time” (Cardyn 266). The girl’s father was forced to sit and watch as his daughter had forced sex. Whipping was a calculated technique to shame its victims into abject submission.

Children and teenagers were seen as soft targets for sexual assault. In Robertson County, Tennessee, first-hand accounts detail how Klansmen would raid homes of freed slaves targeting girls. However, whipping and rape were part of an elaborate plan to use any means necessary to intimidate the freed blacks in the south. Genital mutilation and torture was also a preferred form of sexual terrorism. For instance, Cardyn gives an example whereby “two freedwomen were turned upon their heads, and tobacco, chips, sticks, lighted cigars, and sand were put in their behinds” (270). Men would be tortured and mutilated beyond description.

For instance, men’s phalluses would be cut off in the presence of their fellow blacks to assert their inferiority to the white men. One man had his phallus nailed to wood and given the option to cut it off himself or die, and he decided to cut himself as the only way of gaining his freedom.

White people who supported the emancipation of blacks also faced the wrath of white supremacists. For instance, one white woman was alleged to be cohabiting with a black man, and her punishment is an example of how evil Klansmen were in their quest to advance their white supremacist agenda. She was made to lie on the ground before each side of her office was slit open to create a hole where a padlock would pass. After locking the padlock, the perpetrators threw away the keys and let her loose to suffer excruciatingly. According to Cardyn, Klansmen preferred sexual terrorism because it was both satisfying and effective in achieving their white supremacist agenda.

Do I Buy It?

I believe Cardyn’s accounts and arguments concerning sexual terror in the Reconstruction south. The author uses primary sources and first-hand accounts of what happened, thus making her arguments credible. Additionally, her accounts are consistent with what I have learned about slavery and how blacks would be tortured by white supremacists. Cardyn also explains that Klansmen borrowed heavily from the techniques used by slave-owners and their minions to ensure that their slaves remained submissive. As such, sexual terror in the Reconstruction South was not an isolated occurrence – it had deep-running roots in slavery, which explains why it was executed meticulously to achieve the white supremacist agenda.

Work Cited

Cardyn, Lisa. “Sexual Terror in the Reconstruction South.” United States History to 1865: Reader.

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"Cardyn's "Sexual Terror in the Reconstruction South"." IvyPanda, 2 June 2021, ivypanda.com/essays/cardyns-sexual-terror-in-the-reconstruction-south/.

1. IvyPanda. "Cardyn's "Sexual Terror in the Reconstruction South"." June 2, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/cardyns-sexual-terror-in-the-reconstruction-south/.


IvyPanda. "Cardyn's "Sexual Terror in the Reconstruction South"." June 2, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/cardyns-sexual-terror-in-the-reconstruction-south/.


IvyPanda. 2021. "Cardyn's "Sexual Terror in the Reconstruction South"." June 2, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/cardyns-sexual-terror-in-the-reconstruction-south/.


IvyPanda. (2021) 'Cardyn's "Sexual Terror in the Reconstruction South"'. 2 June.

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