Women in Combat–As Men

Frances Clayton

When you think of women and the Civil War, you think of brave nurses, maybe double agents…spies! Or (if you’re a romance novelist especially, you think of brave Southern Belles plantations from maurauding Yankees.

What you don’t think of are women charging into battle. There were women living in those infantry camps, suffered in prisons, dying for their country.

In the course of researching a book I found this great little tidbit about women fighting in the Civil War right on the front lines.

Both the Union and Confederate armies forbade the enlistment of women. But estimates say as many as 700 women fought in the war on both sides.  These women assumed masculine names, wore manly attire and entered the fight.

Here are a few examples:

Frances dressed as a man

Frances Clayton enlisted alongside her husband. She is is known to have fought in eighteen battles. She survived a battle where her husband was killed then later she was wounded in the same battle but her gender was not discovered. From these pictures, Frances looks a little like the secret transgender love child of Abraham Lincoln, so I get why she passed as  a man.

Mary Owens. She was discovered to be a woman after she was wounded in the arm. She returned to her Pennsylvania home to a warm reception and press coverage. She had served for eighteen months under the alias John Evans.

Loreta Velazquez published her memoirs in 1876. She served the Confederacy as Lt. Harry Buford, a self-financed soldier not officially attached to any regiment.

Loreta Velazquez/Harry T. Buford

Satronia Smith Hunt’s obituary stated she enlisted in an Iowa regiment with her first husband. He died of battle wounds, but she apparently emerged from the war unscathed.


Mary Scaberry, alias Charles Freeman, enlisted as a private in the summer of 1862 at the age of seventeen. On November 7 she was admitted to the General Hospital in Lebanon, Kentucky, suffering from a serious fever. She was transferred to a hospital in Louisville, and on the tenth, hospital personnel discovered “sexual incompatibility.” In other words, the feverish soldier was female. She was immediately discharged.

Mary Galloway was wounded in the chest during the Battle of Antietam. Clara Barton, attending to the wound, discovered the gender of the soft-faced “boy” and coaxed her into revealing her true identity and going home after recuperation.

Not all of the women soldiers of the Civil War were found out and discharged so quickly. Some women served for years, like Sarah Emma Edmonds Seelye.

Sarah Edmonds as Frank Thompson

Sarah Edmonds, a Canadian by birth, assumed the alias of Franklin Thompson and enlisted as a private on May 25, 1861. On April 19, 1863, Edmonds deserted because she acquired malaria, and feared hospitalization would reveal her gender. In 1886, now a married woman, she received a government pension based upon her military service. A letter from the secretary of war, acknowledged her as “a female soldier who . . . served as a private . . . rendering faithful service in the ranks.”

Mary Stevens Jenkins enlisted in a Pennsylvania regiment when still a schoolgirl, remained in the army two years, received several wounds, and was discharged without anyone ever realizing she was female.

Jennie Hodgers — On August 3, 1862, a nineteen-year-old Irish immigrant named Albert D. J. Cashier, described as having a light complexion, blue eyes, and auburn hair, enlisted in the Ninety-fifth Illinois Infantry. Cashier served steadily until August 17, 1865, when the regiment was mustered out of the Federal army. Cashier participated in approximately forty battles and skirmishes in those long, hard four years.

Jennie Hodgers/Albert Cashier

After the war, Cashier worked as a laborer, eventually drew a pension, and finally went to live in the Quincy, Illinois, Soldiers’ Home. In 1913 a surgeon at the home discovered that Albert D. J. Cashier was a woman.  She died October 11, 1914, in an insane asylum—(Mary asks…is that annoying to anyone else???)

Enlisting, though against the rules was probably very easy. Army recruiters, both Northern and Southern, did not ask for proof of identity. Soldier-women bound their breasts, padded their waists, and cut their hair short.

While recruits on both sides of the conflict were theoretically subject to physical examinations, those exams were for deafness, poor eyesight, or lameness. Neither army standardized medical exams, and those charged with performing them hardly ever ordered recruits to strip. That roughly 750 women enlisted attests to the lax and perfunctory nature of recruitment physical checks.

Once in the ranks, successful soldier-women learned to act and talk like men. With their uniforms loose and ill-fitting and with so many underage boys in the ranks, women, especially due to their lack of facial hair, could pass as young men. Also, Victorian men, by and large, were modest by today’s standards. Soldiers slept in their clothes, bathed in their underwear, and went as long as six weeks without changing their underclothes. Many refused to use the odorous and disgusting long, open-trenched latrines of camp. Thus, a woman soldier would not call undue attention to herself if she acted modestly, trekked to the woods to answer the call of nature and attend to other personal matters, or left camp before dawn to privately bathe in a nearby stream.

Some of the comments about these women found in prominent publications include: [these women were] “freaks and distinct types.” “probably most of the women soldiers were prostitutes or concubines.” Some implied they were homosexual. The actions of Civil War soldier-women flew in the face of mid-nineteenth-century society’s characterization of women as frail, subordinate, passive, and not interested in the public realm.




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Author of Romantic Comedy...with Cowboys including the bestselling Kincaid Brides Series

19 thoughts on “Women in Combat–As Men”

  1. Awesome post, Mary! I had heard this but am positively intrigued by your many examples. I don’t get a woman wanting to fight, though. Yuck. And a soldier not changing underclothes for six weeks has me cringing 150years later. Great info!

  2. Great post very interesting and amazing these women soldiers kept their identities hidden for such long periods of time.

  3. I just found so many names, I wanted to use them all. It’s so weird to think they just wanted to stay with their husbands. I mean, sure sending your husband off would be terrible, but it’s not exactly a woman’s first choice to GO WITH HIM!!!

  4. Hi Mary! Those who like this subject should check out a wonderful book called “Sweet Glory” by Lisa Potocar. It’s written for young adults, but as an adult, I really liked it! She really used her research well to write a fictional account of this very thing. Great post! Definitely a lesser-known part of the war.

  5. I had no idea there were so many. Fascinating. I love that you had pictures to share of these brave women.

    To me, what’s even more amazing than that the women would want to join up in order to stay with their husbands, was that their 19th century husbands would actually allow them to do so. Of course, since at least a few of the cases you quoted talked about the men dying and the women surviving, perhaps the husbands arranged for their wives to serve away from the front lines.

  6. I’d heard of this before, but didn’t know there were so many! Interestingly enough, an undisclosed number of women also did this as sailors on the Great Lakes.

    You know, this post makes me want to write a story about one of those disguised females who gets captured as a prisoner of war and then her identity is discovered after she’s imprisoned. What happens to her? Surely she needs some brave prison guard to save her. 🙂

  7. Mary, I loved reading about these courageous women. I think I read somewhere that the actual number of women who fought in the Civil Was is unknown, and could be far more than we know. Great stuff!

  8. Naomi, did you know a BABY was born at Andersonville prison???????????
    A BABY!!!!!!!!!!! A woman was in there with her husband!!!!!!!!!!!!! And she’d been locked up more than a year and no one knew she was a woman until that baby started crying one night.
    It gives me chills. The couple’s names are known it’s not a rumor or anything.
    When the baby was born the woman was immediately taken outside, her husband left inside and the woman lived in a tent right outside the prison walls until the war was over. Her husband survived the imprisonment and they went home together.
    Was that woman tough or NOT? It’s a fascinating story. Worth it’s own blog post.

  9. Margaret I read a LOT of different numbers. Estimates. Mostly the women’s identities came ot light from families reading old diaries. They kept it a complete secret. So, of course if it was a secret, then no one can really know. But honestly, think about the South especially. If my home was being invaded, I’d pick up a rifle and fight? Wouldn’t most women? If I survived and my home was lost I just might want to fight for my home. I can see that more, as one being invaded, than a Northern woman NOT fighting for her home.
    But the North was fighting to preserve the Union and that raised a strong patriotic urge. And if your husband or brother died, you might just want to get in the fight, get revenge, fight for the cause of America.

  10. Still, like Karen said, it was so against the norms. The husbands agreeing to it is almost more amazing than the women wanting to fight.
    ON THE OTHER HAND, especially in unsettled territory, the woman in those harsh lands had to be TOUGH. I write about tough pioneer women all the time.
    No ordinary woman took on a wild land without being strong, hard working, determined and fiercely independent.

  11. Wow! How interesting. Those women must’ve been passionate about their beliefs, their marriages, or their zeal to fight. War is really tough on women. They usually have to overcome lots and lots of hardship. And it’s really no different today than it was back then except that we have modern conveniences. The women still give birth (often alone) and have to raise their children, work, and keep the wolves from the door. My heart goes out to the wives and mothers in the military.

  12. Satronia is a great name!
    Serving in the military as a soldier went against everything those Victorians believed about women – that they were frail, subject to the vapors, had to be protected from the least little stress. Personally I think they enlisted to get out of corsets!

  13. Noble Cause: A Civil War Novel of Love and War by Jessica James deals with this very subject. She also wrote Shades of Gray which is the same story but with a different ending because so many of her readers ask for it. The heroine is a lady soldier in disguise for the North whose greatest adversary is a conferate colonel. They later meet and fall in love while she heals from wounds and bad treatment sustained in a prison camp. They have some very good discussions of how both sides felt about the war. There are always 2 sides and sometimes our enemies aren’t as bad as we think when we get to know them personally. Anyway, for further reading on the subject you described…I recommend Jessica James.

  14. Once again, women proved they were as capable as men, but had to go “underground” to do it. I think Jennie Hodgers was Punished by commitment to an insane asylum more because the authorities had not discovered her deception for so many years, not because they really thought she was crazy.

    Anyone who persists in believing women are weak and not capable of fighting for their country, their family, or themselves, obviously doesn’t know or refuses to acknowledge what history has shown for centuries. Who do they think protected the family and the land while husbands were away at war, prospecting for gold, or traveling elsewhere for a job. They may not always win, but they will fight as hard as they can to protect those they love.

    Thanks for another great post, Mary.

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