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 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.
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, 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.
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.