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Cross-dressers of the Civil War: hundreds of women disguised themselves as men to fight on both sides--a century and a half before the ban on women in combat was lifted.

On April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee formally surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, effectively ending the Civil War (1861-65).

In the days leading up to the surrender, their armies fought in a series of fierce skirmishes that ultimately left the Confederates starving, horseless, and desperate. Among the final casualties was "a woman in Confederate uniform," according to one Union soldier's diary, "found between the lines of the Appomattox River."

On the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, the nation is reflecting on the more than 600,000 men killed in America's bloodiest conflict. But another group of soldiers fought just as bravely, though they've long been forgotten: the hundreds of women who disguised themselves as men to fight.

There are about 250 documented cases* of women who hid their sex to fight for the Union and Confederate armies, according to DeAnne Blanton of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Like male soldiers, they took up arms and died in nearly all the major battles, from the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861 to Appomattox in 1865. By poring over hundreds of Civil War letters, diaries, newspapers, and other accounts, Blanton and Lauren M. Cook, co-authors of the book They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War, recovered the stories of these secret warriors, who have received little attention.

"Women who went off to fight in the Civil War were really strong, tough women," says Blanton. "History doesn't reflect that."

They enlisted for all sorts of reasons: Some were swept up in the romance of war; others were running away from a bad home life or seeking greater freedom in an era of restricted rights for women. But the three biggest reasons women fought, says Blanton, were "love, money, and patriotism."

Women were second-class citizens in the 1800s. They couldn't vote in most states, and they had limited property rights and educational and job opportunities--grievances that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other women's rights advocates outlined in the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions at the Seneca Falls Convention in New York.

Soldier or Seamstress?

Working-class and immigrant women had it particularly hard. They toiled at low-paying, difficult jobs as seamstresses, maids, and laundresses, or on farms and in mills--earning a fraction of what men typically made. That a private in the Union Army was paid $13 a month--roughly double a maid's salary--helps explain why the majority of the women who took up arms in the Civil War were from working-class backgrounds.

"The army was no harder than the life they were already living," says Blanton, "and they were going to make more money."

Some of the women who enlisted had already been living as men. Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, for example, had worked on coal boats disguised as a man to double her maid's salary. Under the name Lyons Wakeman, she joined the 153rd New York Infantry in 1862 for the Union Army's generous $152 enlistment bonus and to satisfy her spirit of adventure. "I am as independent as a hog on ice," she wrote in an 1863 letter to her family in Afton, New York.

Sarah Edmonds (Franklin Thompson), a Canadian escaping an arranged marriage, lived as a Bible "salesman" in the U.S. for two years before the Civil War, which she joined on the Union side. "I can only thank God that I was free and could go forward and work," she wrote in her 1864 memoir, "and I was not obliged to stay at home and weep."

Fighting as men enabled female soldiers to travel, play cards, and speak their minds--freedoms that were denied to "respectable" women at the time. Many also took advantage of the right to vote, which wasn't formally granted to women until 1920, with the passage of the 19th Amendment: Union soldier Martha Lindley (Jim Smith), for example, cast her vote for Abraham Lincoln in the 1864 presidential election.

Lindley, like many other women, joined the war to be close to a loved one. "I was frightened half to death," she said about joining the 6th U.S. Cavalry in Pittsburgh, "but I was so anxious to be with my husband that I resolved to see the thing through if it killed me."

Frances Hook, a Chicago native who lost both parents at age 3, enlisted in the Union army shortly after the war started to be near her only brother. After he was killed in the Battle of Shiloh in 1862, Hook (aliases Frank Miller, Frank Henderson, and Frank Fuller) kept on fighting until Confederate forces captured her in Florence, Alabama, in 1863. (She was later shot in the thigh while trying to escape but survived.)

And like many of the men who fought, many of the women who enlisted believed in the Union or Confederate cause. As the only living member of her family, Mary Ann Pitman (Confederate Lieutenant Rawley) felt she "ought to help defend my country," adding that she "started out with the most intense feelings of prejudice against the Northern people." Mary A. Brown said she fought with the 31st Maine Infantry because "slavery was an awful thing, and we were determined to fight it down."

How'd They Get Away With It?

A number of factors helped women serve undetected. Americans didn't carry ID cards at the time, so a woman could adopt a male identity simply by cutting her hair, picking a man's name, and trading in her dress for men's clothing. Under pressure to fill the regiments, many doctors on both sides conducted superficial physical exams of prospective soldiers, making sure only that they were tall enough, and had some teeth and an intact trigger finger. The women wore high collars to hide the absence of an Adam's apple, and their smooth faces didn't look all that different from those of teenage boys fighting. (The minimum age was 18 for both armies until 1864, when the Confederacy lowered it to 17. But many boys 16 and younger fought on both sides.) Soldiers often went months without bathing or changing their clothes--factors that made it a lot easier for women to hide their sex.

But not all women avoided detection. The most common way women were found out was while receiving medical care for battle wounds or diseases that commonly afflicted soldiers, like malaria, typhoid, --or smallpox. One corporal from New Jersey even gave birth in 1863 while on duty along the Rappahannock River in Virginia. And sometimes an innocent gesture aroused suspicion, like Private John Thompson's "feminine method of putting on her stocking." Once discovered, most women soldiers were kicked out of the army, though some reenlisted in different regiments under different names. In some cases--especially on the Confederate side, as generals became more desperate for troops--the women were allowed to keep fighting.

The women who secretly fought in the Civil War performed their duties bravely and competently, according to authors Blanton and Cook. They served, on average, for 16 months; 11 percent died in battle or from disease, and 15 percent suffered injuries. They kept up with the male soldiers and sometimes surpassed them, with 14 percent of the women receiving promotions, compared with 10 percent of the men.

Despite their contributions, it would take another century and a half--not until 2013--before women got the go-ahead to serve in combat roles in the U.S. military (see Timeline). For Blanton, it symbolized not only a milestone in women's rights but also a belated acknowledgment of the long-ignored military role women played in the Civil War.

"I felt a great deal of satisfaction when the ban was lifted," she says. "I thought, maybe someone's finally paying attention to history."



Civil War

Hundreds of women (like Irish immigrant Jennie Hodqers, above) dress as men to fight in the Civil War--many more than in previous U.S. wars. Others serve as scouts or spies, or as nurses in military hospitals.


World War I

Female telephone operators serve overseas with the Army, and 10,000 Army nurses are stationed near the front in Europe.


World War II

More than 150,000 members of the Women's Army Corps (known as WACs) serve in noncombat jobs. The other service branches also create women's divisions.


2 Percent Rule

The women's divisions become a permanent part of the armed forces, but the number of women can't exceed 2 percent of any one branch. The cap is lifted in 1967.


End of the Draft

The shift from a draft to an all-volunteer force opens the door to greater recruitment of women and an expansion of their roles. In 1976, women are allowed into U.S. service academies.


The Risk Rule

The Defense Dept, adopts the Risk Rule, which excludes women from assignments in areas where they risk exposure to direct combat, hostile fire, or capture.


Persian Gulf War

The 40,000 women deployed to the Gulf are integrated into every type of military unit except direct-combat operations; 15 women die in the six-month conflict.


A Broader Role

The Risk Rule is lifted, allowing women to be assigned to all positions for which they qualify, but excluding them from units whose primary mission is combat.


Afghanistan & Iraq Wars

The two post-9/11 wars are the first in which tens of thousands of military women live and fight alongside men for prolonged periods.


Combat Ban Lifted

In 2013, the Defense Dept. lifts the ban on women serving in combat. The military has until 2016 to fully implement the new rule.


Lexile level: 1325L

Cross-Dressers of the Civil War

America's bloody Civil War came to an end 150 years ago this spring. Researchers have uncovered the stories of hundreds of women who disguised themselves as men to join the fight--but have received little attention for their role.

Before Reading

1 List Vocabulary: Share with students the challenging general and domain-specific vocabulary for this article. Encourage them to use context to infer meanings as they read and to later verify those inferences by consulting a dictionary. Distribute or project the Word Watch activity to guide students through this process, if desired.

2 Engage: Discuss with students the roles women have played in war-both in the past and today. Students can also visit the "Civil War A to Z" site to build some background knowledge about the war.

advocates afflicted grievances laundresses memoir skirmishes

Additional Resources

Print or project:

* Word Watch

* "Brave As a Lion" (also on p. 13 of this Teacher's Guide)

* Article Quiz (also on p. 10 of this Teacher's Guide)

* Analyze the Photo (also on p. 14 of this Teacher's Guide)

Digital Guide: "Civil War A to Z" a fun informational site we've created

Analyze the Article

3 Read and Discuss: Have students read the article. Discuss what makes this a secondary source. (It was written in contemporary times by an author who researched the topic but didn't experience the events firsthand.) Then pose the following critical-thinking questions:

* There are about 250 documented cases of women disguising themselves as men to fight in the Civil War, but the author notes that the real number is likely much higher. Explain why that might be so. (Many female soldiers were probably never discovered by their fellow soldiers and never wrote about their experiences in journals or memoirs. Some records could have been lost.)

* The author notes that most women enlisted for "love, money, and patriotism." What text evidence supports this claim? (The text describes Martha Lindley and other women who fought to be near loved ones. It states that a Union Army private was paid $13 a month--double a maid's salary. It also quotes women who enlisted because they believed in the Union or Confederate cause.) * Explain how life changed for women who disguised themselves as male soldiers. (In the 1800s, women had few rights and many restrictions on their behavior. Posing as male soldiers, women could speak their minds, travel freely, earn more money for their work, and in some cases, even vote.)

* Analyze how it was possible for some female soldiers in the Civil War to avoid detection. (People didn't carry ID cards, physical exams were cursory, and soldiers rarely bathed or changed their clothes. What's more, many young male teens also enlisted in the war, so women's hairless faces didn't necessarily stand out.)

4 Integrate the Primary Source: Project or distribute the pdf "Brave As a Lion" (p. 13 of this Teacher's Guide), which features an excerpt from a male soldier's letter about a female fighter. Discuss what makes this a primary source. (It was written in 1863 and describes events of that period.) Have students read the excerpt and answer the following questions (which also appear on the PDF without answers). Discuss.

* What do you think is Haywood's view of this female soldier who disguised herself as a man to fight? What evidence in the letter supports your response? (Haywood seems to admire the female soldier. He writes that she must have been "shrewd to have kept her secret so long" and describes her as "brave as a Lion in battle.")

* What does Haywood believe allowed the female soldier to remain undetected until her death? (Haywood notes that the woman was of "pretty good size for a woman with rather masculine features." He also notes that she fought bravely and had joined well after the regiment formed, so the men didn't know her in her earlier life as a woman.)

* How would you describe the tone of this excerpted letter? (The tone might be described as earnest, since Haywood is enthusiastic in his reporting. The tone might also be described as complimentary and compassionate toward the female soldier.)

* Do you think Haywood is a reliable source for learning about female soldiers of the Civil War? Why or why not? (Haywood is reliable in that he saw the female soldier himself and spoke with her colleagues. But his account is limited in that he can only speculate about what she or other female soldiers thought and felt.)

* What does Haywood think probably motivated the woman to enlist? What additional possible motivations are discussed in the Upfront article? (Haywood thinks the soldier was desperate. He writes, "who knows what trouble, grief, or persecution drove her to embrace the hardships of a soldier's life." The Upfront article indicates that women joined also for a desire to earn more money, fight alongside loved ones, or support either side.)

Extend & Assess

5 Writing Prompt

Do you think that the men and women who fought in the Civil War generally shared the same motivations? Why or why not? Write a brief essay, using evidence from the primary and secondary texts to support your response.

6 Classroom Debate

Choose a side: Should the U.S. have waited so long to lift the ban on women in combat?

7 Quiz & Paired Text

Use the quiz and photo analysis activity on Teacher's Guide pages 10 and 14. Also try pairing this article with Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, and have students compare what each text says explicitly and implicitly about the nature of bravery.


Choose the best answer for each of the following questions.

1. Women in the Civil War served

a only in noncombat roles, such as spying and nursing.

b after President Lincoln issued an executive order requiring the Union Army to allow them to enlist.

c on both sides and in almost every major battle.

d none of the above

2. Which statement is true of the women who served in the Civil War?

a Most were from southern Canada.

b Most were from working-class backgrounds.

c They actually earned less as soldiers than they would have earned as maids.

d all of the above

3. Which of these is NOT cited in the text as one of the top-three reasons women enlisted in the Civil War?

a love

b revenge

c money

d patriotism

4. As soldiers, some women voted; but women wouldn't officially gain the right to vote until the passage of the

a 5th Amendment.

b 19th Amendment.

c 14th Amendment.

d 8th Amendment.

5. Which of these was a factor that made it easier for women soldiers to serve undetected?

a Soldiers often went months without bathing.

b Many men at the time had very long hair.

c Civil War-era ID cards were easy to forge.

d all of the above

6. Which is true of female casualties in the Civil War?

a The Risk Rule kept women from being killed in battle.

b Tens of thousands of women died in the Battle of Shiloh.

c Eleven percent of known female soldiers died in battle or from disease.

d Thousands of women lost their lives, leading President Lincoln to lift a long-standing ban on women in combat.


7. Why do you think physical exams for the army weren't more thorough?


8. Why do you think little attention has been paid to the women who served as soldiers in the Civil War?



1. [c] on both sides and in almost every major battle.

2. [b] Most were from working-class backgrounds.

3. [b] revenge

4. [b] 19th Amendment.

5. [a] Soldiers often went months without bathing.

6. [c] Eleven percent of known female soldiers died in battle or from disease.

'Brave As a Lion'

Eager to support either the Union or Confederate cause or to earn money and freedom, hundreds of women disguised themselves as men and fought bravely on the front lines of the Civil War. Some, like a woman fighting under the name Alfred J. Luther in the 1st Kansas Infantry, were found out only after they lost their lives to disease or injury. Below is a letter that a Union artilleryman wrote to his sister about Sergeant Luther's death from smallpox--and the surprise surrounding the discovery that Luther was a woman. Read an excerpt from Haywood's letter along with the Upfront article about women in the Civil War. Then answer the guestions below.

Excerpt From Letter by Frederick L. Haywood

1st Minnesota Battery

McArthur's Division

Army of the Tennessee

[Camped] Near Lake Providence, Louisiana April 6th, 1863

Dear Sister Loesa,

... Among the many incidents which are constantly occurring in camp, there is one of more than ordinary interest and I will relate it to you. One of the members of the 1st Kansas [Regiment] died in the Hospital yesterday after a very short illness.... After death the somewhat startling discovery was made by those who were preparing the body for burial, that their companion, beside whom they had marched and fought for nearly two years was a woman. You can imagine their astonishment. The [Regiment] is camped near us and I went to the Hospital and saw her. She was of pretty good size for a woman with rather masculine features. She must have been very shrewd to have kept her secret so long when she was surrounded by several hundred men....

The 1st Kansas was one of the first Regiments that entered the service two years ago. This girl enlisted after they went to Missouri, so they knew nothing of her early history. She doubtless served under an assumed name. Poor girl! who knows what trouble, grief, or persecution drove her to embrace the hardships of a soldier's life. She had always sustained an excellent reputation in the Regiment. She was brave as a Lion in battle and never flinched from the severest fatigues or the hardest duties. She had been in more than a dozen battles and skirmishes. She was a Sergeant when she died. The men in the company all speak of her in terms of respect and affection. She would have been promoted to a Lieutenancy in a few days if she had lived....

I do not think of any more of importance to write. Give my love to Lucius and all our friends. You and Lucius had better come down here and make me a visit as I cannot come to see you....

Write Soon.

From Your Brother Fred


1. What do you think is Haywood's view of this female soldier who disguised herself as a man to fight? What evidence in the letter supports your response?

2. What does Haywood believe allowed the female soldier to remain undetected until her death?

3. How would you describe the tone of this excerpted letter?

4. Do you think Haywood is a reliable source for learning about female soldiers of the Civil War? Why or why not?

5. What does Haywood think motivated the woman to enlist? How does his interpretation compare with the views about the motivations of female soldiers expressed in the Upfront article?


1. Both photos are of Frances Clayton, a woman who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Do you think Clayton's disguise as a male soldier is effective? Explain.

2. What do the photos suggest about the era's expectations of men and women?

3. What questions do these photos raise in your mind?


Discuss challenges that Clayton and other female soldiers of the Civil War likely faced.
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Title Annotation:TIMES PAST 1865
Author:Majerol, Veronica
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Date:Jan 12, 2015
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