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Secret warriors: female soldiers in the Civil War: eager for adventure, or to accompany their husbands, hundreds of women assumed male identities and marched into battle. (times past).

The Battle of Antietam remains the bloodiest single day of combat in U.S. history. Along Antietam Creek in Maryland on Sept. 17, 1862, more than 23,000 men were killed or wounded--and so were at least two women, who had disguised their sex and became part of the most ferocious fighting of the Civil War.

A survivor of the battle, Private Mark Nickerson of Massachusetts, recounted one discovery:

"A Sergeant in charge of a burying party.... reported ... that there was a dead Confederate up in the cornfield whom he had reason to believe was a woman.... The news soon spread among the soldiers ... and many of them went and gazed upon the upturned face, and tears glistened in many eyes as they turned away. She was wrapped in a soldier's blanket and buried by herself."

Why was she there? And why did an estimated 500 to 1,000 other, women go dress as men and risk their lives to fight for the Union or the Confederacy? Historians delving into this long-overlooked chapter of American history have found that the women went to war for some of the same reasons as their male comrades--patriotism, duty, thrill-seeking. But they had other purposes very much their own.


In the mid-19th century, American women were second-class citizens. They were forbidden "rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men," a group of women's advocates charged in 1848: They could not vote, had limited educational and job opportunities, and almost no rights involving property.

These restrictions pushed some women to seek unusual ways to better their lives--such as dressing and acting as men. Sarah Rosetta Wakeman left her family's farm to work on coal boats in the guise of a man, doubling, her earning power.

After the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Wakeman met a group of soldiers. The Union's $152 enlistment bonus--roughly half the yearly salary of an ordinary worker--plus regular pay, was too good to pass up. She joined the 153rd New York State Volunteers as Lyons Wakeman. In a letter to her family, the five-foot private celebrated her autonomy, saying she was as "independent as a hog on the ice."

Others, like Frances Clayton of Minnesota, and a Confederate woman known only as "Captain Billy," joined up as men to stay close to their soldier-husbands. Yet both remained in uniform, their genders hidden, after their husbands were killed.


Sarah Edmonds, 17, a Canadian, became Franklin Thompson to escape an arranged marriage. She sold Bibles in the U.S. before joining a Michigan regiment. She revealed her desires in an 1865 memoir, Unsexed, or The Female Soldier:

"I am naturally fond of adventure, a little ambitious and a good deal romantic and this together with my devotion to the Federal cause and determination to assist to the utmost of my ability in crushing the rebellion, made me forget the unpleasant items."

Social conventions of the time made it possible for many of these soldiers to conceal their sex. Americans did not carry identification in the mid-1800s, so enlistees could create an alias and assume a new identity. A simple haircut allowed many young women to share the youthful appearance of teenage enlistees. With volunteer armies eager to fill their ranks, physicals were perfunctory: Thompson's exam consisted of "a firm handshake."

Some women bound their breasts, and wore high collars to hide the absence of an Adam's apple. Others were aided in their masquerades by the fact that most soldiers, under their uniforms, wore full-length "long johns," rarely removed, even for bathing. And because camp toilets were often foul-smelling pits, it was not unusual for soldiers to relieve themselves in the privacy of bushes, say DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook in their new book, They Fought Like Demons.

Besides Antietam, women are now known to have fought in most of the war's major battles, including Bull Run, Shiloh, Fredericksburg, Vicksburg, and Gettysburg.

Their true numbers may never be known. Many were unmasked only after being wounded or killed. Kansas infantryman Alfred J. Luther died of smallpox in March 1863 while serving in Louisiana. In a letter home, a Minnesota comrade wrote:

"After death, the somewhat startling discovery was made ... that their companion [Luther], beside whom they had marched and fought for nearly two years, was a woman .... She was brave as a lion in battle and never flinched from the severest fatigues or the hardest duties."

Those who died of disease or were killed in battle were usually buried beside their comrades in arms, regardless of their sex. But survivors who were unmasked were drummed out of their units. Some would travel to a different state, and rejoin in male attire.


Though many civilians were shocked by their acts--when they became known--the courage and exploits of the female soldiers endeared them to fellow combatants. In 1865, United States Service Magazine wrote:

"Those who generalize on the ... unladylikeness of such conduct are unquestionably in the right, according to the practical parlor standard of life; but they know very little of the vast variety of phases which humanity assumes, or of the strange and' wonderful moulds into which it is forced by Nature and circumstances."

After the war, some of the female soldiers kept their male identities. Private Albert D. J. Cashier returned to Illinois and worked as a handyman. Only after a car accident in 1911 did his secret (he was born Jennie Hodgers) unravel. But most of the women likely returned to civilian life in dresses--among them, Franklin Thompson who, as Sarah Edmonds again, married and had children.


Hundreds of Women Secretly Donned Men's Clothing to Win the Right to Fight


* What do you think may have contributed to the long history of discrimination against Women?

* Would you make a contribution to help build a memorial to the women soldiers of the Civil War?


To help students understand one of the more intriguing phenomena in American history, that of women who disguised themselves as men in order to fight in the ranks of the Confederate and Union armies during the Civil War.


ROLE-PLAY: YOU can engage students in the stories of the women who fought in the Civil War by asking them to start thinking and talking like those women, their comrades in arms, and people of the period. One way to do that is to adapt the format of a popular award-winning TV show, Meeting of Minds, that ran from 1977 to 1981. This unique program relied on a host-interviewer (you might choose to have a panel) and actors who played people who lived in the past, who answered questions about the past, the present, and the future.

After students read the article, ask for volunteers or assign students to role-play people in the article. Encourage participants to use their imaginations to fill in gaps in their knowledge. Interject when necessary to keep the dialogue focused. You may use these questions exclusively or add your own.

* To any male soldier: Tell us why women were second-class citizens. What progress have women made since the Civil War era? Do you think a woman will ever lead the U.S. military?

* To Sarah Rosetta (Lyons) Wakeman: Soldiers are not granted much independence, so what independence were you referring to in your letter home?

* To Frances Clayton and "Captain Billy": Why did you stay in the army after your husbands were killed?

* To Sarah Edmonds: You wrote that you were "naturally fond of adventure." Would you join the military today? Do you think you would enjoy an advantage over other women if you could pass as a man today? If so, what would that be?

* To the comrade of "Alfred J. Luther": What lesson might we learn from your shock at the discovery that Luther was a woman? Why do you think the military forced out women whose disguises were discovered? Should the military have found other work for them to perform?

* To "Private Albert D.J. Cashier": Why did you keep your secret for 46 years?
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Article Details
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Author:McCollum, Sean
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 13, 2002
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