Expert Witnesses? Army Surgeons, Army Law, and Black Women during the Civil War, by Dr Liz Barnes

‘Court martial – Army of Cumberland, Chattanooga, Tenn. 1865’ (1865 – printed between 1880 and 1889), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. []

On September 1st 1863, Eugene Hannel faced three Army surgeons who had been gathered to testify against him in a court martial. [1] Hannel had been accused of rape by a formerly enslaved woman living and working in the Union-occupied city of New Bern, North Carolina. The testimony of the assembled experts was damning. They spoke to the serious injuries that Hannel’s victim, Rebecca Ann Cradle, had suffered, as well as her continuing mental and emotional distress. The three physicians leveraged their professional expertise to bolster Cradle’s claims of rape, in the process undoubtedly swaying the court to convict Hannel of the crime. While such testimony may seem routine, even expected, to a modern audience, the involvement of surgeons in this proceeding was unusual. Members of a vocation that had only recently been professionalised, these three men used the court martial to assert the value of their skills and establish their special authority to speak before the law.

Prior to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, such a proceeding would be unthinkable in North Carolina. Under civil law in the South, enslaved women could not be raped and had no right to testify against a white person in a court of law. The US Army, however, made no racial distinctions – at least in the letter of the law – when troops raped women during the conflict. In occupied areas, this marked a dramatic legal shift for Black women, some of whom seized on the opportunity to hold attackers legally accountable for the first time. Eugene Hannel was one of dozens of troops court martialled to answer allegations of raping a Black woman; the extensive medical intervention in his trial, however, was unique.

Like many Black women during the Civil War, Rebecca Ann Cradle fled slavery and dedicated her efforts to supporting the cause of the US Army in the American Civil War. She was working as a laundress for the camp at New Bern, one of the thousands of Black women whose labour supported efforts to quash the Confederate rebellion. We know very little about Cradle’s life, and what is left to us highlights one of the worst experiences she faced: Cradle was violently raped by a US Army soldier, an ostensible ally of enslaved people and a man who was directly supported by her labour. Hannel’s attack on Cradle reveals some of the dangers that Black women continued to face even once they had escaped slavery. US Army camps were dirty and disease-ridden, and full of soldiers who were often openly and violently racist. Although the nation was divided over the question of slavery, most Americans from the Northern states were not abolitionist or anti-racist.


‘The effects of the proclamation – freed Negroes coming into our lines at Newbern, North Carolina,’ Harper’s Weekly, February 21, 1863 via the Library of Congress []

Hannel’s attack on Cradle was vicious. The three surgeons spoke about Cradle’s wounds at length and, by nineteenth-century standards, in jaw-dropping detail. The description of their examination of Cradle should give us pause, however. The three men recalled gathering around Cradle’s prone body, forming themselves into a panel to deliberate upon whether or not she had indeed been violated. We know from the testimony of modern rape victims that medical exams after assaults can be unpleasant, painful, and deeply traumatic. In August 1863, the doctors were unaware and seemingly uncaring about Cradle’s comfort during the exam. All three men poked and prodded, both physically and with words, trying to establish for themselves the truth of what had happened to Cradle. One recorded Cradle’s testimony for the court in a rare moment of lucidity during an extended period of extreme emotional distress. Another passed judgements on her sexual health and sexual history.

The three doctors then offered their conclusions to the court. The men testified in Cradle’s favour, asserting that they had seen physical injuries indicative of rape, adding that they believed this to have been Cradle’s first sexual experience. In a time with a very limited understanding of who could be raped, this claim of virginity strengthened Cradle’s allegations. The surgeons also took steps to link Cradle’s emotional distress to the assault itself, asserting professional jurisdiction over matters of the mind as well as the body. Hannel tried to claim that Cradle was delusional, mentally deranged, and therefore not to be believed. The surgeons, on the other hand, testified to Cradle’s lucidity when she offered her own version of events, presenting her disturbed emotional state as temporary and fleeting rather than a symptom of prolonged illness.

In the end, the testimony of the Army surgeons convinced the court. Hannel was convicted of rape, despite his vocal protestations about Black women being traditionally excluded from understandings of victimhood. Hannel’s objections did not fall on deaf ears: his initial sentence of 2 years imprisonment was commuted to just 3 months. Hannel got off incredibly lightly – rape was a capital crime under Army law during the Civil War. The prisoner went a step further, however, requesting a full pardon the month after his conviction. Joseph Holt, the Judge Advocate General of the US Army, rebuffed Hannel’s request, arguing that the short sentence Hannel was serving fell ‘far short’ of what he ‘richly deserves to suffer.’[2]

In testifying to Cradle’s injuries and distress, the three surgeons from New Bern helped to secure the conviction of Hannel and his expulsion from the Army. They also asserted their expertise, establishing the ability of members of the medical profession to claim special authority over matters of the body and mind in legal settings. These three men contributed to a growing trend: the medicalisation of the rape victim’s body and mind. Previously a matter settled primarily by questions of social status and eyewitness testimony, the inclusion of the surgeons in this case made rape into a medical event that could be examined and diagnosed. While for Rebecca Ann Cradle this ensured justice, for rape victims broadly this posed new challenges. What about women who were not physically injured by their assailants? What about those with no access to medical care? In paving the way for Cradle to be believed, these surgeons erected new barriers for other women seeking justice.

The professionalisation of medicine in the mid-nineteenth century also encouraged male intrusion into traditionally female spaces and experiences. Customarily women would speak to the evidence of violation on their fellows’ bodies. Women would step in to provide treatment, and women would tend victims’ bodies and minds. In their drive to establish their own professional reputations, men disrupted long-standing folk healing traditions, absorbing the knowledge of women medical practitioners and claiming it for themselves. The testimony of the surgeons against Eugene Hannel exemplify this moment of transition in women’s healthcare; the legacies of the exclusion of women from medical expertise continues to plague women, especially women of colour, today.

Dr Liz Barnes is working as a Lecturer for the University of Reading History Department. Her recent PhD thesis explored the ways in which Black women’s responses to sexual violence shaped authority in the Reconstruction US South. Her new project focuses on Black women’s experiences of healthcare after emancipation.

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