Friday, April 3, 2015

Women in Blue and Gray

Women in Blue and Gray: Female Soldiers of the Civil War

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.

Frances Clayton
aka Jack Williams, U.S.A.

Women served both the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War. How did they hide in plain sight? By cutting their hair, binding their breasts, and putting on loose uniforms, they disappeared into the ranks. If they didn’t shave, they were likely taken as young teenage boys lying about their age, a problem that was often overlooked due to desperation for soldiers to fill the lines. They were able to hide their bodies more easily than they could in the modern military—the army’s medical examinations didn’t require clothing removal, soldiers rarely changed clothes or bathed, and filthy latrines were avoided in favor of private visits to the woods. As for their menses, which could give the soldier away easily, the physical stress of army life was likely to lead to amenorrhea. While enduring the stress of hiding their true identities, women also fought the same battles, suffered the same injuries and illnesses, performed the same duties, and struggled through the same hardships as their male counterparts.

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.

Sarah Edmonds
aka Frank Thompson,
Why did these women risk their lives to go for soldiers? In many cases, their reasons were no different than those of their male counterparts. Most female soldiers were poor working class or farmers, lured by bounties and salary. Some wanted to avenge the death of a loved one. Some were seeking adventure. “Lots of boys enlisted under the wrong name. So did I. The country needed men, and I wanted excitement,” in Albert Cashier’s words (Hall 25). Also, women were no less patriotic than men, and some felt their inability to fight was a great injustice. “It seems so hard that we who have the wills of men should be denied from engaging in this great struggle for liberty just because we are ladies,” southerner Cordelia Scales opined (Blanton and Cook 25). In addition to the patriots, there were women who wanted to escape troubled home lives or other unfortunate circumstances, such as a life of prostitution. For the 19th century transgender like Albert Cashier, joining up was a way of legitimizing the chosen gender. Of course, many women joined up for the obvious reason—to follow a husband, brother, or other male companion. In some cases, it was a convenient way to elope with an unsuitable mate. In others, it was a matter of “until death do us part.” Martha Lindley, who joined a Union cavalry regiment with her husband, was “frightened half to death…but I was so anxious to be with my husband that I resolved to see the thing through if it killed me” (Blanton and Cook 31). It did not.

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"
Civil War

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? Blog. Retrieved from

Heppinstall, Kathy and Becky Heppinstall (2015). Sisters of Shiloh. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Hunt, Laird (2014). Neverhome. New York, NY: Little Brown.

Modern War

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

Thorpe, Helen (2014). Soldier girls: The battles of three women at home and at war. New York, NY: Scribner.

Revolutionary War

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.

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