May 2019

A Queer Civil War Soldier’s Story

As a man who found intimacy with another soldier, in a relationship that outlasted the war, Alphons Richter’s story is queer to modern readers. Untangling the strangeness of the emotional, Richter provides insight into the queer history of the United States.

By Joshua Bader

Alphons Richter was a German immigrant, a volunteer in the 56th New York Infantry, a decorated Civil War hero, and a man who formed an intimate relationship with another man. As an immigrant, he was not unusual, as nearly half a million freshly minted Americans would serve in the Union army over the course of the war. His courage under fire stands out as exceptional, but certainly not unique, and similar stories of valor have long been part of the Civil War narrative. But as a man who found intimacy with another soldier, in a relationship that outlasted the war,  Richter’s story is queer to modern readers. Untangling the strangeness of the emotional, Richter provides insight into the queer history of the United States. Tracing this narrative, as will be seen, requires an entirely new vocabulary of queerness because of the vast divide in sexual thought between Alphons’ day and the present.[1]

Stories like Richter’s have gone unwritten for historiographic reasons. Letters home to family rarely delved into details of sexual escapades. Interpreting these messages in ways that recover soldier’s sexuality from in between the lines is possible, but present political concerns require the historian to be careful and thorough. Conservative readers, unfriendly to LGBTQ causes in the modern day, are unlikely to be persuaded by such evidence, no matter how consistent the stories are with other nineteenth century histories of sexuality. But Richter and other queer soldiers’ experiences have gone unexamined for other reasons related to the present state of the historical profession. The vast majority of work on Civil War era queerness has focused on Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Abraham Lincoln. This is in part a relic of how prolific these men were as writers, leaving far more sources to explore than the vast majority of their contemporaries. But the absence of soldiers like Alphons also has to do with the way historians are trained. Historians of sexuality do not typically take graduate courses in military history. Military historians may be encouraged to think about race, class, and gender, but are not typically enrolled in classes on the history of sexuality. The dissertation process encourages a narrow focus on one topic that can be managed effectively in a few short years of research and can create blinders to the way the subject is connected to the broader tapestry of history. Given the discrete ways in which soldiers coded their intimate experiences for parental readers back home, Alphons Richter’s letters were sorted into archives based on their ethnic and military components rather than what they said about soldiers’ love lives. Richter’s war experience helps to restore masculinity to queer men in military spaces and combats present stereotypes that relegate such men to feminine roles and feminized spaces.[2]

Image 1: Courtesy of the National Archives, Civil War soldiers.

Alphons Richter lived in a vastly different sexual world from the twenty-first century erotic framework. Historian Jonathan Katz has identified the great divide of the homosexual-heterosexual hypothesis as a product of the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Put simply, the words homosexual, bisexual, gay, and queer were not available to Civil War soldiers to describe their eros. Union and Confederate soldiers did not think of a sexual world inhabited by straight and gay men, because that way of ordering the world had not yet been constructed. Men were men and the sexual binary of the Civil War era separated genders, not orientations: Men were carnal and perverse, women pure and holy. Of the modern words available, only sodomite was in use, but Richter’s contemporaries applied it to oral and anal sex in a variety of contexts, whether the man involved was performing the act with another man, a woman, a child, or an animal. Finding words that accurately capture the past meaning of male-male intimacy for a modern audience requires creating a new vocabulary of queerness.[3]

The Prussian born, university educated Alphons Richter first arrived in New York in the late 1850s. Alphons and his older brother Edwin had fled a suffocating German economy and mounting family debts. Edwin would never make it to America, dying as a British officer in the Crimean War. Alphons, for his part, was still a relative stranger to New York in the summer of 1861, having spent his first years as an American as a clerk on whaling ships, travelling as far as the southern tips of Africa and South America. But the war changed the distribution and use of ships in New York harbor. Writing home to his parents in Prussia, Richter said, “In these times of war I found no opportunity to secure a good position on a German ship.” With his previous line of work closed to him, Alphons Richter made a choice similar to the one that his brother had made a few years earlier and signed up with the 56th New York Infantry.[4]

Richter joined the Union war effort for the need of money and to prove his masculinity, but his choice in side was consistent with a Germanic heritage of thought. Older German American refugees of the failed revolutions of 1848 and 1849 had supported Lincoln for president and viewed the war as a continuation of the struggle of republican ideals against the forces of aristocracy. In Richter’s New York, German exile Karl Marx was widely read as the New York Tribune’s European correspondent. Richter’s letters reflect this intellectual current in ways consistent with Marx’s denunciation of the southern Slaveocracy. The Union cause of the American Civil War was intimately connected in Richter’s letters with his desire to “draw my sword in defense of my own fatherland” and Polish efforts to “shake off the Russians.” Richter served both for paycheck and principle.[5]

Sergeant Richter’s military service was nothing short of exemplary. Richter kept the “talk of killing and the dead” short for fear his parents would find it distasteful. Despite the minimization of combat in his letters, his words, and a copy of a letter commending his unit’s performance during the Peninsular campaign, give a glimpse of the battlefield heroics that quickly secured his promotion to lieutenant. In the middle of an assault on an artillery defended camp, Richter was “attacked again by fresh new cavalry regiments.” Richter killed two of the cavalry before he succumbed to “a good gash on my forehead above my left eye” and “collapsed from exhaustion and losing so much blood so quickly.” He would wake up two weeks later in a hospital in Washington, “after receiving a lot of friendly kicks from both horses and men” and losing consciousness. This early venture would not be the only time Richter demonstrated courage under fire. As part of a force of less than eight thousand men, Richter “withstood for three hours the attack of an overhelming(sp) force of the enemy without reinforcement,” and not retreating until all would “have been prisoners of war had they delayed their retreat a few minutes longer.” One third of Richter’s fellow soldiers died in the fighting and General Neaglee was convinced that their “stubborn and desperate resistance” had saved the whole Army of the Potomac from “a disastrous retreat and defeat.”[6]

Richter’s valor was made possible by the intimate relationship he shared with fellow German American, Carl Becker. In the same diary entry he attached General Neaglee’s letter to, Richter’s words focused not on the “bloody battle of Fair-Oaks,” but on Becker. “My friend Becker got cut off from our regiment” and “I had given him up for dead.” Lieutenant Richter “wanted to send some men onto the battlefield to look for him among the dead and wounded.” To his “great joy,” Richter saw Becker coming toward him and the two men embraced. The depth of emotion at both separation and reunion, along with its physical expression, and not the heroics of battle, dominated Richter’s diary entry from the day.[7]

The relationship between Richter and Becker was full of shared domestic duties. The two “put up a small tent together and pass[ed] the time with conversation, enjoying the peace and quiet we’ve been lacking for so long.” Alphons and Carl took turns “cooking and washing our pots ourselves,” with one doing the cooking while the other fished or hunted. Whenever possible, the two men always went on guard duty together. When Richter was “quite sick with colds and fever,” he treasured Becker’s tender ministrations. “Under his care, I recovered more quickly than with the doctor’s medicine.” In his diary, Lieutenant Richter recorded his temporary promotion to command of the company, not as positive, but as a stubborn obstacle against his desire to spend more time his friend and tentmate.[8]

Carl Becker helped radicalize Alphons against the slave system. A Creole slave girl aided Becker while he was searching a plantation for weapons. For her trouble, she was whipped by the plantation owners after the soldiers departed. After they found out, Becker and some other men from the regiment returned and destroyed everything, except what belonged to the slaves, and dragged the plantation owner and his wife to the nearest Union fort for punishment. Richter’s diary reflected how his time with Becker, combined with his firsthand encounter with slavery, transformed the way he viewed the war. “We are truly glad to be fighting for the side that is trying to put an end to all these cruelties and destroy the slave trade.”[9]

The intimate relationship between Richter and Becker stretched across the Atlantic, permanently carving the importance of the two men to each other into the archival record.

Charles Becker shared an important place in Alphons Richter’s life, even in the way he imagined life after the war. Richter praised him in a letter home to his family. “I couldn’t have found a better and braver man and friend among all the Germans in America.” He hoped that circumstances would allow the two of them to “both come home for a visit together.” Carl also wrote to his mother about Alphons and the two mothers in Germany started corresponding about their brave sons in America. “I wanted to fulfill the wishes of our sons that I write to you. I am happy beyond words that our sons are helping each other like brothers in these difficult times.” The intimate relationship between Richter and Becker stretched across the Atlantic, permanently carving the importance of the two men to each other into the archival record.[10]

The hoped for trip to Germany never materialized, but Alphons Richter and Carl Becker did travel to California together after the war. Letters from during the war hint that the war money had become an issue between them. Carl had lost his money and Alphons provided for both of them out of his lieutenant’s salary. After hunting for gold in California, the two were intending to head home to Germany when Carl disappeared with all their money. The circumstances of Becker’s departure, potentially including the intimate relationship between the two, left the authorities hunting for Alphons. Heartbroken, he fled to Texas under an assumed name. Eventually, Richter would go on to marry a sharecropper’s daughter and take up sharecropping himself to supplement his Civil War pension.[11]

To label Alphons Richter as gay or bisexual misses the complexity and queerness of his actual relationships. In a time before the invention of homosexuality as a concept, Richter and Becker could celebrate both their manliness as soldiers and their intimacy to family and friends. Exploring their queer story in all of its strange distance from our own time, our own way of ordering the world, recovers an important part of the experience of men’s relationships with other men. Their contemporaries Whitman, Melville, and Lincoln lived out their own encounters in medical, naval, and private spaces. But male-male intimate relationships existed in combat spaces as well and can be documented from the voluminous letter collections of Civil War soldiers. Telling those stories of men in combat and honoring their masculinity offers a valuable antidote to a toxic present. Queer men were and are capable of serving their country in warzones with courage and distinction.[12]

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Joshua Bader is a transnational American historian working on his Ph.D. at Mississippi State University. He reached history through a wandering path, holding a bachelor’s in Math, another in psychology, a Interdisciplinary Master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma, and three urban fantasy novels through City Owl Press. His research interests are focused on transnational American history, especially America in the Middle East and North Africa.

Further Reading

[1] Don Doyle, The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War, (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2015.) Queer is used in this essay with an intentional double entendre. I have chosen queerness as the central word to organize this essay for a number of reasons. While queer was not used in a sexual sense during the Civil War era, it was available to them to describe something out of the normal, unusual. Nothing in Richter’s letters hints that he saw himself as queer in this sense, but based on the present state of the historiography, Richter is very different from the stories Civil War historians have told. Queer in the sexual sense has growing respectability across the humanities as an analytical framework, indicating someone whose sexual experience, identity, or orientation does not fit into established cognitive constructions. From across the chasm of the homosexual-heterosexual hypothesis, most nineteenth century sexualities are queer to modern readers because they organized themselves into a vastly different social construction. Consider, for example, Lincoln’s decision to share a bed with Joshua Speed for several months after moving to Springfield. No one at the time thought strange of it, but it is a very queer fact to the twenty-first century. Queer in this essay is not a designation of erotic activity, but a reminder that the sexual orientation being examined does not fit into the current world of the homosexual-heterosexual hypothesis.

[2] For a treatment of Whitman and Melville as gay men, see B.R. Burg, Gay Warriors: A Documentary History from the Ancient World to the Present, (New York, NY: NYU Press, 2001.) For a discussion of Lincoln’s sexuality, see the masterful Jonathan Katz, Love Stories: Sex Between Men Before Homosexuality, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2001). Alphons Richter letters. Nordamerika-Briefsammlung, Research Library Gotha, Germany. Unless otherwise noted, I have relied on Susan Vogel’s translations of Richter’s German letters from Walter Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich, Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home, (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2006). Using these standard translations, from historians interested in transnational Civil War rather than in gender and sexuality, removes the objection that I am reading Richter in the way friendliest to my own claims. In consulting the mixed German-English primary sources, I have relied on a pdf created by Wolfgang Helbich from the archive in Gotha.

[3] Jonathan Katz, The Invention of Heterosexuality, (New York, NY: Dutton, 1995). Katz, Love Stories.

[4] Alphons Richter to parents and sister. August 4, 1861. Additional biographical details of the Richter brothers are from Kamphoefner and Helbich, Germans in the Civil War.

[5] October 11, 1861, “The Latest War News,” New York Daily Tribune. “The Latest War News”. Accessed from April 6, 2018. Alphons Richter to parents and sister, October 11, 1862. Alphons Richter to parents, May 28, 1863.

[6] Alphons Richter to parents. January 14, 1862. General Harry Neaglee letter, included in Alphons Richter’s diary entry, May 30/31, 1862.

[7] Alphons Richter diary. May 30/31, 1862.

[8] Alphons Richter diary. September 6, 1862. Alphons Richter to parents and sisters, March 2, 1863.

[9] Alphons Richter diary. September 6, 1862.

[10] Alphons Richter to his parents, November 10, 1862. Caroline Becker to Alphon’s Richter’s mother, January 11, 1863, Alphons Richter Letters, Nordamerika-Briefsammlung, Research Library Gotha, Germany.

[11] Kamphoefner and Helbich, Germans in the Civil War.

[12] As a theme for a separate essay, Richter clearly connected this service to country as a justification for citizenship and created responsibilities for the nation to fulfill to the individual. Queer participation in wartime, by this logic, creates queer claims on American civic participation and equality that continue to the present.

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