Entertaining and Revolting: Homosociality and Heterosexuality in War Department Correspondence, 1811–1846

Lindsay Schakenbach Regele

Figure 1: Leonard M. Parker to Daniel Parker, December 18, 1815, Daniel Parker papers (Collection 466), Historical Society of Pennsylvania. After complaining about the privileged treatment given to “a particular friend of Mr. Crawford Sec of War,” Leonard drew a frowny face in this letter to his brother, Daniel. Can you find it? Image courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Maybe I should not have been surprised by the references to unprofessional socializing and sexual abuse that I found in the private papers of a United States War Department official at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. But I was. I had called up the papers of Daniel Parker, clerk in the War Department, looking for information on early nineteenth-century army supplies; Parker fielded correspondence from generals, army contractors, and secretaries of war during the 30-plus years (from 1811 until his death in 1846) he was employed by the War Department as chief clerk, adjutant and inspector general, and paymaster general. Although I found some information on supplies, I also quickly learned that Parker’s peers felt free to disclose to him controversial opinions and tawdry personal stories. These stories were entertaining and revolting (for example, one man’s casual account of his assaulting the teenage daughter of a military officer), but I did not plan to do anything with them, since I was writing about the national security dimensions of manufacturing, not its gendered influences or implications. It should have occurred to me sooner that gender was inseparable from economic or military concerns.

When I thought about Parker’s letters in conjunction with other military records I had consulted, I realized that two common themes ran through most of them: masculine intimacy and the importance of confidential correspondence. For the essay I submitted to the JER, I ended up writing about how chauvinistic behaviors and relationships in the War Department contributed to early national bureaucracy, as they operated behind the shield of confidentiality and beyond the purview of democratic legislation. Because the essay focuses on the War Department, not all of Parker’s correspondents were relevant—for example, his younger brother Leonard, who was twenty-one when Daniel started working in the War Department and took over Daniel’s law office in Charlestown, or Leonard’s roommate, D. W. Lincoln. Their letters, however, brought into starker relief the familiarity with which military officers and contractors wrote to Parker.

Leonard boasted about the time he spent fishing, drinking, and looking for girls, even as he complained about slow business and accused Daniel of not doing enough to drum up clients for him. D. W. was from a prominent Massachusetts family, and, like Leonard, expected his family and friends to help him overcome professional difficulties. He worked in the same office as Leonard, and assumed his father’s status gave him license to continue his roguish ways, which usually meant being “drunk nearly all week.” As Leonard and D. W. made clear in their letters, both men felt entitled to their jobs and to assistance from family and friends. D. W. wrote to Daniel for help with a client, and insisted that he “attend to this immediately!” Leonard, meanwhile, pestered Daniel into helping him get reappointed as army judge advocate, and actually drew a frowny face when he lost the position to another candidate (see Figures 1 and 2). This sense of entitlement extended to their relations with young women. D. W. was “making love to Miss Freeman,” but that didn’t stop him from “playing off his gallantry to” other women after a few drinks. Leonard, meanwhile, lusted after D. W.’s sister, hoping to “find her in loose robes.”

Figure 2: Here’s the frowny face.

It makes sense that Parker’s younger brother and friends wrote to him about such behavior, but this subject matter extended to military officers and contractors. Parker received a fair amount of correspondence from men who wove inside jokes, sexual exploits, and chauvinistic bragging into their discussions of financial matters, state and federal politics, and military service. It was so seamless that it might have been easy to miss, were it not for the lack of polite euphemisms that I had assumed camouflaged most nineteenth-century misdeeds.

A young army captain named John R. Bell, for example, bragged that women in Washington referred to him as “the handsome Mr. Bell.” During the winter of 1812, the War Department sent Bell to Pennsylvania to recruit men for the army. He was enchanted by all the “dutch [i.e., German] girls” he saw, but disappointed that recruiting duties kept him from “becoming acquainted” with more of them. One night, he stayed at the home of a general whose fifteen-year-old daughter Bell found quite attractive. Bell boasted to Parker that, “like a solider I attacked her, à la militaire.” He “made approaches regularly to the breast work,” and “impressed a sweet goodnight upon her ruby lips.”  Regardless of whether the general’s young daughter wanted the kiss or the groping, Bell felt entitled to whatever liberties he could take with her.

This culture of chauvinistic entitlement pervaded the War Department and its orbit. Elbert Anderson Jr., an Army contractor from New York, wrote to Parker about his “very handsome circle of female friends,” whom he wished Parker could “have his choice from”—as if the women were his to give. Anderson was married, with children, yet he boasted to Parker about a fancy carriage he had built in New York and told him that “all the young girls and some young married ladies” wanted to ride in it. He wrote, “I am going to have the charge of a pretty woman in my baron’s wagon for five days—at least. Don’t you envy me.”

Figure 3: War Department, Southwest Executive Building, 1816–1819. Courtesy of Office of the Historian, history.state.gov, accessed Jan. 11, 2017.

These sorts of letters reveal how the personal, however ignoble, was inextricably bound with these men’s understanding of their professional lives. Bell, for example, was passed over for the position of chief Indian agent in Florida, after serving as interim governor of Florida in the summer of 1821. By then, Bell was in his thirties and accustomed to getting what he wanted, which was evidenced in a letter he received from Secretary of War John Calhoun.  On a separate research trip to the National Archives in Washington, DC, I found Bell in a volume of confidential and unofficial letters sent by secretaries of war in the 1810s and 1820s. This letter and others in the volume suggest that in the War Department, there seemed to be an understanding that for privileged men, rejection be mitigated by compliments and explanation. Calhoun explained President Monroe’s decision about the position by assuring Bell that the decision had nothing to do with qualifications: Bell, he said, was probably superior, but the other man had a large family, and needed government patronage more than Bell, who already had a lucrative command position. Calhoun closed by reiterating how pleased the department was with Bell.

Participation in this privileged culture of masculinity was an important part of achieving and maintaining political power. Over the course of his career in the War Department, Parker received many letters bragging about women and military feats, insulting “foreigners,” questioning the sexuality of unpopular politicians, and simultaneously thanking him for various military posts and commissions. These letters suggest what would be lost if we only looked at official military correspondence. Early national military, political and economic development depended on patronage that was based on masculine entitlement and confidentiality.

8 March 2020

About the Author

Lindsay Schakenbach Regele is assistant professor of history and Robert H. and Nancy J. Blayney Professor at Miami University of Ohio.

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