She Went to the Field: Women Soldiers of the Civil War by Bonnie Tsui
They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War by Deanne Blanton & Lauren M. Cook
An Uncommon Soldier by Lauren Cook Burgess
Let’s say you never conceived of the possibility that a woman would disguise herself as a man and fight in a war before the modern era. “What?” you say. “Preposterous!” When you are convinced it is established fact, and, in the case of the American Civil War, had been documented one hundred and fifty times, certain questions would naturally come to mind.
Why would a woman want to fight in a war?
A woman fought in a war for several reasons:
The same passions that sparked a man to war, also sparked a woman: As an author of women’s fiction, this author has made the point more than once that there are far more likeness among men and women than there are differences.
High sense of duty to country: Nineteen-year-old Emily from Brooklyn, New York informed her parents that she had to join up—because she was the next Joan of Arc.
They wanted to be with their husbands, brothers, or even fathers: Lucy Thompson Gauss enlisted in the North Carolina Infantry with her husband so they could stay together. Martha Parks Lindley followed her husband into the sixth U.S. Cavalry, Company D, using the alias Jim Smith.
To get away from home: Mary Ann Clark ran away from an abusive husband and joined the ranks of the Confederacy. A twelve-year-old girl, using the alias Charles Martin, ran away from her parents to become a drummer boy.
To escape a bad situation: Harriet Merrill joined the New York Infantry to flee from servitude in a house of ill repute.
For the generous bounties paid on enlistment: Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, a very poor, working-class, farm woman, took the alias Lyons Wakeman after earning a signup bounty of $152 for enlisting. (A private earned $13 a month.)
Literature: Books such as The Female Volunteer by Eliza Allen (1851), concerning a woman (Eliza, herself) who ran away from a parental marriage arrangement to be with her chosen lover during the Mexican-American War, Fanny Campbell, The Female Pirate Captain: A Tale of Revolution! by Lieutenant Murray (1845), and the legendary Joan of Arc story enticed some women into realizing that an adventurous life was not out of the question for a woman. Fanny Campbell played a large part in influencing Sarah Emma Edmonds to join the Union Army.
Revenge: Charlotte Hope joined the Virginia Cavalry under the alias of Charlie Hopper in response to her lieutenant fiancée’s death in a raid. In A Yankee Maiden, part of Samantha Lee’s reasoning for fighting lay in revenge, the revenge for being disowned by her father for harboring abolitionist beliefs as the sole daughter of the largest plantation in Maryland.
How did a woman get into the army?
First, a woman willing to fight donned an alias. Usually they converted their own first names into similar sounding male counterparts. Easy were Edwina, Fredericka, Georgiana, and Samantha (Edward, Frederick, George, and Samuel). Examples are Frances Day, who soldiered as Frank Mayne for the Union, and Frances Jamieson, who became Frank Abel, also for the Union. Some of the more famous female combatants that had to invent new first names were Loretta Velazquez, who became Lieutenant Harry T. Buford of the Confederate army; Sarah Emma Edwards, who masqueraded as Private Frank Thompson for the Union; Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, who invented Private Lyons Wakeman of the North, and Jennie Hodgers, who donned Private Albert D. J. Cashier of the Yankee persuasion.
In the Civil War, as in the wars to follow, a physical exam was required to determine if the would-be soldier was diseased in any way. How did the female recruit circumvent that? The answer is—they didn’t. Not long after the war started, regulations on physical exams were far less acted upon as not. Both armies were in a frenzy to fill their ranks for most of the war, and it was just a short cut that sped up the process. Besides, most examiners never dreamed a woman would come through the examination line. As the war dragged on, examiners at recruiting stations checked for adequate height, at least a partial set of teeth (for tearing open the paper powder cartridges), and whether or not a trigger finger was present. Nineteen-year-old Sarah Emma Edmonds aka Private Franklin Thompson only had to show bare hands and feet. This is also how children became soldiers near the end of the war. Some women persuaded medical examiners to allow them to pass scrutiny, as was the case of Hattie Marthe, a Pennsylvania newlywed. It also became easy to join by catching up to a regiment and enlisting through its commander, as Mary Galloway did in the Army of the Potomac just after they engaged the Confederates at Antietam. She bypassed the examination process altogether, because the army was grateful just to replenish their shrinking ranks.
No one carried identification, so identifying oneself as well as age determination lay in the honesty of the recruit. In the Civil War Era, it was easy to move to another part of the country and take on a new identity (no IRS to settle with at year’s end, no social security card, no social security tax on income—and most people had no birth certificates nor were ever asked for one).
How did a woman visually hide her gender?
This turned out to be the easiest mater, thanks in part to the Civil War taking place when it did—during the Victorian Era (1837-1901—the reign of Queen Victoria of England). A person was defined in gender mostly by clothing. No man ever saw nor heard of a woman in pants back then, so, despite feminine looking facial features, delicate hands, and fair complexion, if a woman wore pants and a shirt, from the man’s point of view of the era, she had to be a man. Women then had only to cut their hair short, cover as much as their fair skin as possible, and take on male habits (described in detail further on).
A woman trying to hide her physical female attributes was greatly aided by the military uniforms. With enlisted recruits (non-officers) the uniforms were more than just a little roomy. Curves were easily lost under the garments. Sleeves were always long, and lesser endowed women would not have to bind themselves on a permanent basis. As an officer, the female warrior was aided in two ways. The tight-fitting vest and coat acted very nicely as a breast-binding device, and the coats were long enough to hide hip curvature.
One thing that worked in the woman’s favor during wartime was the living quarters. Most of the time troops were on the march or camped near a battlefield, so they lived in individual or shared tents for two (but usually individual). This gave them more privacy.
How did a woman learn to act like a man?
Observation. Smart women observed how men behaved, walked, talked, their bad habits, and any other attribute that made them distinctly male. If a woman grew up as a tomboy, she had an easier time of it, for she already knew how to do things as a male, and probably developed gross motor skills that would aid her in soldiering; such as hard riding and shooting. If she were a tomboy, she would have more experience on how to handle bodily wastes away from outhouses.
In all probability, she lowered her voice as much as reality would allow. Thank goodness for them that male and female voices overlap in range (just think of the last time you heard a female voice, turned around, and discovered it issuing forth from a male body).
The following scene from A Yankee Maiden illustrates some of the intricate male mannerisms that had to be mastered by any woman wishing to keep her gender secret. In the scene, Samantha Lee, alias Major Samuel Lee, regimental commander by attrition, has had two recruits delivered to her command tent who have argued to share the same tent in one of the regimental companies:
As their new regimental commanding officer, I turned and glared at the two seated privates in my tent. Walking forward, I yanked a chair from my map table and planted it in front of them. I sat and crossed my legs by laying one calf across my other knee and lit a cigar. Uncrossing my legs, I planted each firmly on the ground a foot from one another while leaning my knees outward so they spread at least eighteen inches apart.
I spoke as Samantha. “Every move you saw me make was distinctly male. Those moves came about because I studied my brothers for years with what I thought at the time was a fool notion of joining the army pretending to be a man.”
They froze and their eyes nearly bulged out past their noses.
I puffed on my cigar, blew a smoke ring, and smacked my right hand on my right knee. “By God … just look at you.” I pointed to the crossed legs of the private on my right. “No man is built in such a way as to cross his legs placing one knee upon the other.” I pointed to the other sitting with her feet and knees drawn together. “And you. The only way a man can sit with knees together is through concentrated effort, for they cry out to fly apart.”
I snatched a capped inkbottle off the table beside me and tossed it at the tight-kneed private. She flew her knees apart and the bottle hit one inner thigh and fell to the ground.
“Now, Private, pick that up and toss it in my lap.” She did. When it arrived, I clamped my knees together and held my hands palms up over my groin. “With men, it’s all about protecting the jewels of the crown. You forgot you weren’t wearing a skirt.”
Many women picked up the coarser habits of the men—such as drinking, smoking, chewing tobacco, spitting, swearing, and gambling. Whoring was one activity female soldiers had to steer clear of (in A Yankee Maiden, Samantha Lee, alias Captain Samuel Lee, found herself involuntarily confronted with whoring when some of her men wanted to “treat” her to a good time. Samantha voluntarily took to smoking small cigars and blowing smoke rings. Her uncle also showed her the fine art of betting at poker. Something that this author did not come across in research was using a super-dull straight razor to give the appearance of shaving—sort of like they do on shaving commercials. Slap the lather on an already hairless face, and scrape it off with the dulled razor—nice illusion. It was all right for a woman warrior to abstain from drinking and swearing, for many men entering the war were of the same persuasion and yet tolerated by their peers.
And now—the more embarrassing questions that everyone will think of, but some might be afraid to ask.
How did a woman handle the passage of bodily wastes?
Army camps set up sinks, called latrines in modern times. A small ditch was dug with crude seating on boards or rails. Officers had their own at one end of the camp, the enlisted men at the other. The sinks were like public bathrooms with no dividing walls of any kind. If a soldier shed bodily wastes in the sinks, then anyone within the sinks could witness it. Women had to avoid using sinks, even the female sinks set up exclusively for the laundresses. Any soldier getting caught going into or coming out of a female sink could get into serious trouble. Using a male sink would get female soldiers discovered in seconds. Fortunately for the female soldier, many male soldiers were too shy to use the sinks as well. Sneaking off into the woods to do their business in private would not have seemed unusual in the least. This author speculated, taking on the persona of Samantha Lee, of using a bowl inside her Captain’s tent as a chamber pot and burying it within the confines of the tent, but felt the freshly dug up earth would draw suspicion (then there is winter with rock-solid ground. No female combatants, that this author found, wrote about how they overcame their waste disposal problems, which leaves authors on their own to reason it out.
It appears that many women of the period opted out of wearing female drawers during warmer weather. Victorian skirts hung down to the ground making what lay beneath completely secure from male eyes. The drawers had a slit fashioned strategically in the crotch. If a woman were caught outside with no outhouse available, she could find a secluded spot, squat, reach under the skirts, pull the opening apart, and conduct her “number one” business. To this author, that process was the reason skirts and dresses were assigned as appropriate female attire.
When men urinate today, they don’t wipe, but not so for women. How about in Victorian times? How a woman handled her waste removal was not a subject of Victorian literature. When soldiers defecated, they used newspaper (that’s enough to make anyone cringe). Victorian women, when they urinated, either didn’t wipe, or they wiped with something. This author finds it hard to believe that women wishing to wipe would not find something less coarse than newspaper. Samantha Lee, from the author’s A Yankee Maiden, solved the problem by having a multitude of small, square-cut pieces of cotton patches.
However, the question remains on how a woman managed her bodily wastes while wearing pants and stovepipe boots? How inconvenient it would have been to remove the boots, the pants, and lastly the male drawers, which often extended down to the ankles with stirrups that stretched under the arches. Captain Samantha Lee had a most unusual solution.
Finding a log to thrust one’s buttocks over without removing everything would have been a godsend. Of course, it had to be just the right size, not too wide, and not too narrow. But could she always count on one being available?
How did a woman hide her menstrual cycle?
The $64,000 dollar question. Unfortunately, there is no historical information on this that this author could find. How a woman handled her menstrual cycle was also not a subject of Victorian literature. In writing A Yankee Maiden, this author had to go on speculation from female authors on women who fought in the Civil War. The best aid this author received was placing the author’s persona in the female soldier’s boots and working through it logically, as they all would have had to do individually before the situation was upon them.
In Victorian times, the belief was maintained that during a women’s menstrual cycle, she had to remain in respite and attempt nothing strenuous. She had to stay home and rest so she could take care of the nasty business of having a period. It wasn’t until 1908 that the medical profession finally figured out what the menstrual cycle was all about. Before that time, medical professionals commonly speculated that the uterus was a weak organ, and that is why it bled.
Victorian females fashioned some sort of belt system and used what they called feminine cloths (namely, rectangular or square cotton cloth pieces that would absorb). If left to dry, feminine cloths produced a foul odor very quickly and required frequent changing. That was one good reason for the menstruating woman to remain home during her time of month (usually referred to as her monthly).
Where do transgendered males fit in?
If you go looking for answers to this intriguing question, you are completely on your own. This author found nothing written about it; but surely transgendered males (female bodies with male brains) existed in the 1860s as well as today. These are such taboo subjects even today, that in Civil War times these people would have been shunned as deranged, demonic outcasts.
Concerning transgendered males, it was the perfect opportunity for them to live as a man, as they felt they were truly meant to. This author speculates that transgendered males would have been strongly drawn to military service.
Did women fight in wars prior to the Civil War?
Yes. However, the Civil War was famous for producing large numbers of “discovered” female warriors. With 150 documented cases, it is believed that the total figure was closer to 250 for the South and 1,000 for the North.
A word about vivandières.
Women who wanted to be part of the military experience, had one non-clandestine position open to them: that of vivandière, or daughter of the regiment. Many wars previous to the Civil War spawned them, and so, too, did the War Between the States.
The regimental commander had to obtain permission from his superiors to sponsor such a female position. The vivandière aided the fighting man in many ways. She was the “go for” for all the troops. In A Yankee Maiden, nineteen-year-old Sally McAllister rode into training camp trying to join as a soldier. The Regimental commander refused, but Captain Samuel (Samantha) Lee talked him into keeping her as a daughter of the regiment.
The vivandière’s uniform was the same color as the regular troops. She wore a dress that terminated somewhere around the shins with pants underneath. In the summer months many wore cotton pants with wool legs sewn on (with only the wool part showing below the skirts). She donned a hat and either shoes or boots.
Actual Female Warriors
(reprinted by special permission from the “Female Single Combat Club” URL: http://fscclub.com. Copyright © 2000 LeVV. All rights reserved.
1861-1865: Loreta Janeta Velazquez (1842-1897?), a Cuban born woman, who disguised herself as a male soldier named Harry T. Buford and served the Confederacy as a double agent during the American Civil War. She became famous by publishing her memoirs, “The Woman in Battle: A Narrative of the Exploits, Adventures, and Travels of Madame Loreta Janeta Velazquez”. Everything known about Velazquez comes from her 600-page book. How much of it is true is unknown. Historians have generally doubted its veracity for the improbability of many of her adventures, her frequent vagueness or inaccuracy about names and places, and the absence of any evidence to corroborate her sensational claims. She claimed she met Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Simon Cameron. She described her participation in many important battles.
1861-1865: Amy Clarke, one of the most famous Confederate female soldiers who served in both cavalry and infantry. At the age of thirty, she enlisted as a private in a cavalry regiment with her husband, Walter, so she wouldn’t be separated from him. She used the name Richard Anderson. She fought with Walter until his death at the Battle of Shiloh, Tennessee, on April 6, 1862. Amy had tired of cavalry life, and decided to join the infantry. Her request was approved, and Private Richard Anderson was transferred to the 11th Tennessee Infantry. Her regiment under General Braxton Bragg fought in many battles. On August 29, 1862, the 11th Tennessee met Federal troops in the Battle of Richmond, Kentucky. Amy was wounded and taken prisoner by the Union Army, and they discovered that she was a woman. Her wound was treated, and she was taken to the prison at Cairo, Illinois.
1861-1864: Sarah Rosetta Wakeman (1843–1864), was an American woman who posed as a man and fought in the American Civil War. By the time Sarah was eighteen, she had discovered that she could earn more money if she disguised herself as a male. Before the war, she worked, dressed as a male, as a coal handler on a canal boat. In 1862, she enlisted under the alias of Private Lyons Wakeman and served in the 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers. Her complete letters describing her experiences as a female soldier in the Union Army are reproduced in the book, “An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman”.
1861-1865: Nancy Hart Douglas (1843(46)-1913), was a Confederate spy and soldier. Her mother was first cousin to Andrew Johnson, who became president after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. The young Ms. Hart soon began serving as a scout for the Confederacy, and according to some accounts, she performed scouting duties for General “Stonewall” Jackson. She also acted as a spy, posing as a farm girl who offered the sale of vegetables and eggs to Federal troops. After learning what she could, she then reported her findings about the enemy’s plans and activity in the region. Not long after a large reward was offered for her capture in 1862, Ms. Hart was apprehended by Union forces lead by Lt. Col. Starr, 9th West Virginia, and held prisoner in a make-shift jail. Ms. Hart was a striking young brunette, of exception beauty, which is credited with playing havoc with the Union guards. During one evening, she managed to grab the pistol from her naive young guard, with which she shot the guard dead with a single shot. Leaping out an open second-story window, and stealing Lt. Col. Starr’s horse, she managed to escape behind Confederate lines. About a week later, on July 25, 1862, Nancy Hart guided forces in an attack against the federal forces at Summersville, consisting of 200 Confederates, led by Major R. Augustus Bailey, of Patton’s 22nd Virginia Infantry. During the engagement many of the buildings in Summersville were burned, and Lt. Col. Starr was among the Federals taken prisoner.
1861-1865: Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919), was an American feminist, abolitionist, prohibitionist, alleged spy, prisoner of war, surgeon, and the first and only woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. When the Civil War broke out, she went to Washington and tried to join the Union Army. She was denied a commission as a medical officer but volunteered anyway, serving unpaid as an acting assistant surgeon, the first female surgeon in the U.S. Army.
1863: Pauline Cushman (1833-1893). An actress in the South, her Union sympathies led her into the clandestine world of spies behind Confederate lines. After providing the North with important information, she was captured holding secret papers. General Bragg sentenced her to hanging. She fell ill and Bragg’s army moved on leaving her to be rescued near Shelbyville, Tennessee. President Lincoln was so enamored by her success, that he made her an honorary Major, and she toured the nation speaking about her spying exploits.
1861-1865: Malinda Blalock (b.1842), was a female soldier during the American Civil War who fought bravely on both sides. When the war started, rather than be separated from her husband Keith, she decided to disguise herself as a man and join the army too. She was officially registered on March 20, 1862, as “Samuel ‘Sammy’ Blalock” – claiming to be the older brother of her husband. Her registration papers are one of the few surviving records of female soldiers in the Civil War. Malinda was a good soldier, and her identity was never revealed. One of the army surgeons said of her: “She drilled and did the duties of a soldier as any other member of the Company, and was very adept at learning the manual and drill.” Eventually the couple deserted from the army.
1861-1863: Mrs. Frances Clayton, was an American soldier from Minnesota who served as a male Frank Martin. It wasn’t difficult for Frances (mother of three) to convincingly play the part of a man. She was tall, masculine, and had tan skin. She was reported to be a good horseman and swordsman, and the way she carried herself in stride was soldierly, erect, and masculine. She was well trained and knew her duties well, and was a respected person who commanded attention in the way she acted. To better conceal her sex, Frances took up all the manly vices. She learned to drink, smoke, chew, and swear, and was especially fond of cigars. She even gambled, and a fellow soldier declared that he had played poker with her on a number of occasions. Frances is known to have fought in the Battle of Fort Donelson in Tennessee, February 13, 1862, where the Union won after three days of fighting. The spouses served side by side until the Battle of Stones River on December 31, 1862. Elmer, her husband, was only a few feet in front of Frances when he was killed, but she didn’t stop fighting. Frances was later wounded in the hip. Her true identify was found when she entered the hospital, and she was discharged January 2, 1863. Frances was on a train home when it was attacked by guerrillas. She was robbed of her papers, and decided to re-enlist. She was wounded three times while fighting bravely for her country, and was once taken prisoner.
1861-1865: Kady Brownell (1842-1915) helped the Union army during the American Civil War. She went with her husband when he joined a Rhode Island regiment. Kady trained with the soldiers. She fought in battle and helped the injured. Kady was determined to enlist with her husband Robert; she approached Governor Sprague who agreed to take her along to Washington and there met up with Robert. She was appointed as a Daughter of the Regiment and color bearer. She was an active participant in the battles of First Bull Run in 1861 (she held the flag high even as Confederate bullets were flying). Afterwards, she re-enlisted into the 5th RI Regiment with her new husband Robert Brownell, at New Bern (1862). Following the Civil War, Kady was the only female to receive discharge papers from the Union Army.
1862: In the summer of 1862, the “Sidesaddle Soldiers” of Rhea County in Tennessee created the only female cavalry. These girls were frustrated, because their gender prevented them from enlisting in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. They named their unit the Rhea County Spartans. Almost all of the “sidesaddle soldiers”, as they were called, had fathers or brothers in the Confederate Army. Being all from prominent families in the area, the girls practiced and drilled. Mary McDonald, one of the oldest of the group, was elected captain and Caroline McDonald, her sister-in-law, became first lieutenant.
1862-1865: Jennie Hodgers, aka Albert D. J. Cashier (1844-1915), was an Irish immigrant. As the Civil War escalated in July of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln sent out a call for an additional 300,000 men to serve in the Union Army. Although she was not a man, illiterate nineteen-year-old Jennie Hodgers wanted to help her country. On August 6, 1862, she enlisted in the Union Army as an infantryman in the 95th Illinois Infantry Regiment. She was five feet, three inches tall – the shortest person in her regiment – and weighed 110 pounds. Jennie passed a physical examination – just a quick look at the eyes and ears, no undressing involved. At that moment Jennie Hodgers was transformed into Albert D. J. Cashier, Private First Class. Over the next three years, the 95th Regiment traveled thousands of miles and took part in forty battles, including the siege of Vicksburg and the Red River Campaign. When she was captured by a Confederate soldier during the Vicksburg Campaign, she knocked his gun out of his hand and ran away.
1862-1864: Mary and Mollie Bell, aliases Bob Martin and Tom Parker, were adolescent farm girls from Virginia. The girls decided to conceal their sex and enlist in a cavalry regiment under the command of Confederate General Jubal Early. The Bells served for two years, and earned the respect of their comrades for their bravery. Mary was promoted to the rank of Sergeant, and Mollie to the rank of Corporal. The girls hid their true identity with the help of their captain, but he was captured in 1864, and the Bells made the mistake of telling their secret to a lieutenant, who told General Early. The sisters were falsely accused of being prostitutes, briefly imprisoned, and later sent home, still in uniform.
1863-1865: Mollie Bean, was a North Carolina woman who, pretending to be a man, joined a unit of the Confederate army in the American Civil War. She was captured in uniform by Union forces outside Richmond, Virginia, in February 17, 1865, shortly before the end of the war. She may have fought at the Battle of Gettysburg. Despite the fact that she had been wounded twice in her two-year service for the Confederate Army, she was accused of being “manifestly crazy,” but also of being a spy, and was incarcerated at Castle Thunder.
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