|Loreta Janeta Velázquez aka Henry T. Buford, CSA|
A couple of weeks ago, I heard a story on NPR about the Marine training program to test women’s ability for combat duty. Next week, April 9 will mark the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. Naturally, from these two tidbits I got to thinking about the history of female combatants. From Boudica to Tomoe Gozen to Sgt. Kelly Brown (one of the Marines in combat training), there have been many visible woman warriors through time. However, others had to disguise themselves as men to enlist, such as Continental soldier Deborah Sampson and other Revolutionary War female fighters who contributed to the folkloric figure of Molly Pitcher. For today, I want to focus on the women who disguised themselves in the Blue and the Gray across five Aprils 150 years ago.
aka Jack Williams, U.S.A.
It seems that most women were discovered eventually, often due to wounds or illness and hospital stays. Other women were discovered through their actions, dressing in a feminine manner or possessing an “unmanly” laugh. Practicing manly behavior and habits was vital to the success of their subterfuges. When Minnesota private Frances Clayton was discovered and discharged, the newspaper reported, “While in the army, the better to conceal her sex, she learned to drink, smoke, chew and swear with the best, or worst, of the soldiers” (Hall 28). As one would expect, physical attributes, such as small hands or fair skin, also exposed the deception. In some cases, simply being recognized by an acquaintance could end the ruse. One of my favorite exposé tales involves Sarah Bradbury and Ella Reno, who got drunk on applejack brandy, fell into a river, and were exposed by their rescuers!
Once exposed, most woman soldiers were summarily dismissed. Pvt. “Frank Deming” was discharged from the 17th Ohio Infantry, cited as “incapable of performing the duties of a soldier” (which she had been performing for 9 months) due to a “congenital peculiarity which should have prevented her admission into the Army—being a female” (Blanton and Cook 107). A few discovered women—particularly those who had enlisted with their husbands—were allowed to stay on as nurses or to perform other suitably feminine occupations. There are exceptions, of course; some successfully completed their service without discovery. Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, aka Private Lyons Wakeman, spent a month in the hospital before her death and was buried as a man in 1864. Albert D. J. Cashier, born Jennie Irene Hodgers, served through the end of the war undetected and lived the rest of his life as a man.
aka Frank Thompson,
Of the approximately 3 million people who fought in the Civil War, the number of female soldiers was most likely in the hundreds (Blanton and Cook 205). I could write pages more about the military endeavors, prisoner of war experiences, postwar lives, and personal stories of these remarkable women, but I won’t. For more information about these Civil War combatants as well as those from other conflicts, check out some of the great resources listed below. If fiction is more your style, try the recent novels Neverhome by Laird Hunt (Union) and Sisters of Shiloh by the Hepinstall sisters (Confederate).
by Kristin Noell
|The gravestone of John and Elizabeth Finnern, which reads: "Both members of Co. D. 81 Reg. O.V.I. ...She served in male attire untill her sex was detected when she was detailed as a nurse serving 3 years"|
Abbott, Karen (2014). Liar temptress soldier spy: Four women undercover in the Civil War. New York, NY: Harper.
Blanton, DeAnne and Lauren M. Cook (2002). They fought like demons: Women soldiers in the American Civil War. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.
Burgess, Lauren Cook, ed. (1994). An uncommon soldier: The Civil War letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864. Pasadena, MD: Minerva Center.
Hall, Richard (1993). Patriots in disguise: Women warriors of the Civil War. New York, NY: Paragon House.
Heppinstall, Becky (2015). Women soldiers in the Civil War: How did they get away with it? Ancestry.com Blog. Retrieved from http://blogs.ancestry.com/ancestry/2015/03/26/women-soldiers-in-the-civil-war-how-did-they-get-away-with-it/
Heppinstall, Kathy and Becky Heppinstall (2015). Sisters of Shiloh. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Hunt, Laird (2014). Neverhome. New York, NY: Little Brown.
Bragg, Rick (2003). I am a soldier, too: The Jessica Lynch story. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
Holmestedt, Kirsten (2009). The girls come marching home: Stories of women warriors returning from the war in Iraq. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole.
National Public Radio. Women in combat. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/tags/134163615/women-in-combat.
Thorpe, Helen (2014). Soldier girls: The battles of three women at home and at war. New York, NY: Scribner.
Bohrer, Melissa Lukeman (2003). Glory, passion, and principle: The story of eight remarkable women at the core of the American Revolution. New York, NY: Atria Books.
Young, Alfred F. (2004). Masquerade: The life and times of Deborah Sampson, Continental soldier. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.