Female Civil War Soldiers

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Female Civil War Soldiers

 
Female Soldiers of the Civil War, Part III
By DeAnne Blanton
1993 by DeAnne Blanton

Discharge Document of Female Soldier
Female Civil War Soldier.gif
Female Civil War Soldier

Despite the fact that the U.S. Army did not acknowledge or advertise their existence, it is surprising that the women soldiers of the Civil War are not better known today. After all, their existence was known at the time and through the rest of the nineteenth century. Even though some modern writers have considered Seelye and Cashier, the majority of historians who have written about the common soldiers of the war have either ignored women in the ranks or trivialized their experience. While references, usually in passing, are sometimes found, the assumption by many respected Civil War historians is that soldier-women were eccentric and their presence isolated. Textbooks hardly ever mention these women.

Right: Discharge document for a soldier with "Sexual incompatibility." (NARA, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780s—1917, RG 94)

The writings of Bell Wiley and Mary Massey are good examples. Wiley wrote at some length of "the gentler sex who disguised themselves and swapped brooms for muskets [who] were able to sustain the deception for amazingly long periods of time." But he later refers to them, indirectly, as "freaks and distinct types."(13) Massey erroneously asserted that "probably most of the women soldiers were prostitutes or concubines."(14) For the most part, modern researchers looking for evidence of soldier-women must rely heavily upon Civil War diaries and late nineteenth-century memoirs.

It is true that the military service of women did not affect the outcome of campaigns or battles. Their service did not alter the course of the war. Compared with the number of men who fought, the women are statistically irrelevant. But the women are significant because they were there and they were not supposed to be. The late nineteenth-century newspaper writers grasped this point. 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.

Simply because the woman soldier does not fit the traditional female image, she should not be excluded from, or misinterpreted in, current and future historical writings. While this essay cannot discuss all the soldier-women, their lives and military records, recent chroniclers of the Civil War and women's history have begun to note the gallantry of women in the ranks during the war.(15) Most important, recent works refrain from stereotyping the women soldiers as prostitutes, mentally ill, homosexual, social misfits, or anything other than what they were: soldiers fighting for their respective governments of their own volition.

It is perhaps hard to imagine how the women soldiers maintained their necessary deception or even how they successfully managed to enlist. It was probably very easy. In assuming the male disguise, women soldiers picked male names. Army recruiters, both Northern and Southern, did not ask for proof of identity. Soldier-women bound their breasts when necessary, padded the waists of their trousers, and cut their hair short. Loreta Velazquez wore a false mustache, developed a masculine gait, learned to smoke cigars, and padded her uniform coat to make herself look more muscular.

While recruits on both sides of the conflict were theoretically subject to physical examinations, those exams were usually farcical. Most recruiters only looked for visible handicaps, such as deafness, poor eyesight, or lameness. Neither army standardized the 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 probably 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.(16)

Militarily, the women soldiers faced few disadvantages. The vast majority of the common soldiers during the Civil War were former civilians who volunteered for service. These amateur citizen soldiers enlisted ignorant of army life. Many privates had never fired a gun before entering the army. The women soldiers learned to be warriors just like the men.

Female Soldier Obituary
Female Civil War Soldier.gif
Female Civil War Soldier

Right: Much of the information available on female Civil War soldiers is found in their obituaries. (NARA, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780s - 1917, RG 94)

The women soldiers easily concealed their gender in order to fulfill their desire to fight. An unknown number of them, like Cashier, Jenkins, and Hunt, were never revealed as women during their army stint. Of those who were, very few were discovered for acting unsoldierly or stereotypically feminine. Though Sarah Collins of Wisconsin was suspected of being female by the way she put on her shoes, she was atypical.(17)

Also unusual were the Union women under Gen. Philip Sheridan's command, one a teamster and the other a private in a cavalry regiment, who got drunk and fell into a river. The soldiers who rescued the pair made the gender discoveries in the process of resuscitating them. Sheridan personally interviewed the two and later described the woman teamster as coarse and the "she-dragoon" as rather prepossessing, even with her unfeminine suntan.(18) He did not state their real names, aliases, or regiments.

For the most part, women were recognized after they had received serious wounds or died. 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.(19) One anonymous woman wearing the uniform of a Confederate private was found dead on the Gettysburg battlefield on July 17, 1863, by a burial detail from the Union II Corps.(20) Based on the location of the body, it is likely the Southern woman died participating in Pickett's charge. In 1934, a gravesite found on the outskirts of Shiloh National Military Park revealed the bones of nine Union soldiers. Further investigation indicated that one of the skeletons, with a minie ball by the remains, was female.(21) The identities of these two dead women are lost to posterity.

Some soldiers were revealed as women after getting captured. Frances Hook is a good example. She and her brother, orphans, enlisted together early in the war. She was twenty-two years old, of medium build, with hazel eyes and dark brown hair. Even though her brother was killed in action at Pittsburgh Landing, Hook continued service, probably in an Illinois infantry regiment, under the alias Frank Miller. In early 1864, Confederates captured her near Florence, Alabama; she was shot in the thigh during a battle and left behind with other wounded, who were also captured. While imprisoned in Atlanta, her captors realized her gender. After her exchange at Graysville, Georgia, on February 17, 1864, she was cared for in Union hospitals in Tennessee, then discharged and sent North in June. Having no one to return to, she may have reenlisted in another guise and served the rest of the war. Frances Hook later married, and on March 17, 1908, her daughter wrote the AGO seeking confirmation of her mother's military service. AGO clerks searched pertinent records and located documentation.(22)

Other prisoners of war included Madame Collier and Florina Budwin. Collier was a federal soldier from East Tennessee who enjoyed army life until her capture and subsequent imprisonment at Belle Isle, Virginia. She decided to make the most of the difficult situation and continued concealing her gender, hoping for exchange. Another prisoner learned her secret and reported it to Confederate authorities, who sent her North under a flag of truce. Before leaving, Collier indicated that another woman remained incarcerated on the island.(23)

Florina Budwin and her husband enlisted together, served side by side in battle, were captured at the same time by Confederates, and both sent to the infamous Andersonville prison. (The date of their incarceration has not been determined.) Mr. Budwin died there in the stockade, but Mrs. Budwin survived until after her transfer with other prisoners in late 1864 to a prison in Florence, South Carolina. There she was stricken by an unspecified epidemic, and a Southern doctor discovered her identity. Despite immediately receiving better treatment, she died January 25, 1865.(24)

The women soldiers of the Civil War engaged in combat, were wounded and taken prisoner, and were killed in action. They went to war strictly by choice, knowing the risks involved. Their reasons for doing so varied greatly. Some, like Budwin and Hook, wished to be by the sides of their loved ones. Perhaps others viewed war as excitement and travel. Working class and poor women were probably enticed by the bounties and the promise of a regular paycheck. And of course, patriotism was a primary motive. Sarah Edmonds wrote in 1865, "I could only thank God that I was free and could go forward and work, and I was not obliged to stay at home and weep."(25) Obviously, other soldier-women did not wish to stay at home weeping, either.

Herein lies the importance of the women combatants of the Civil War: it is not their individual exploits but the fact that they fought. While their service could not significantly alter the course of the war, women soldiers deserve remembrance because their actions display them as uncommon and revolutionary, with a valor at odds with Victorian views of women's proper role. Quite simply, the women in the ranks, both Union and Confederate, refused to stay in their socially mandated place, even if it meant resorting to subterfuge to achieve their goal of being soldiers. They faced not only the guns of the adversary but also the sexual prejudices of their society.

The women soldiers of the Civil War merit recognition in modern American society because they were trailblazers. Women's service in the military is socially accepted today, yet modern women soldiers are still officially barred from direct combat. Since the Persian Gulf war, debate has raged over whether women are fit for combat, and the issue is still unresolved. The women soldiers of the Civil War were capable fighters. From a historical viewpoint, the women combatants of 1861 to 1865 were not just ahead of their time; they were ahead of our time.

(Notes and related reading at bottom of page.)

Recommended Viewing: The American Civil War (DVD Megaset) (2009) (A&E Television Networks-The History Channel) (14 DVDs) (1697 minutes) (28 Hours 17 Minutes + extras). Experience for yourself the historical and personal impact of the Civil War in a way that only HISTORY can present in this moving megaset™, filled with over 28 hours of American Civil War content. This MEGASET is the most comprehensive American Civil War compilation to date and is the mother of all Civil War documentaries. A multifaceted look at “The War Between the States,” this definitive collection brings the most legendary Civil War battles, and the soldiers and leaders who fought them, vividly to life. From Gettysburg and Antietam to Shiloh, and led by the likes of Sherman, McClellan, Grant, Beauregard, Lee, Davis, and Jackson, delve into the full military and political contexts of these men, their armies, and the clashes between them. Continued below...
American Civil War
American Civil War.jpg
Almost 150 years after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, the unexpected secrets and little-known stories from Civil War history are divulged with fascinating detail. Cutting-edge CGI and accurate dramatizations illustrate archival letters and original diary entries, and the country’s most renowned historians describe the less familiar incidents that add perspective and depth to the war that divided a nation. If the DVDs in this Megaset were purchased separately, it could cost hundreds of dollars. This one-of-a-kind compilation belongs on the shelf of every Civil War buff, and if you know anyone that is interested in the most costliest and bloodiest war in American history, buy this, they will love it.
THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR contains the following programs:
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* April 1865
* Battlefield Detectives: The Civil War (3 Episodes): Antietam, Gettysburg, Shiloh
* Secret Missions Of The Civil War
* The Lost Battle Of The Civil War
* Tales Of The Gun: Guns Of The Civil War
* Eighty Acres Of Hell
* Lincoln
* Investigating History: Lincoln: Man Or Myth
* Man, Moment, Machine: Lincoln & The Flying, Spying Machine
* Conspiracy?: Lincoln Assassination
* High Tech Lincoln
* Sherman’s March
* The Hunt For John Wilkes Booth
* Civil War Combat (4 Episodes): The Hornets’ Nest At Shiloh, The Bloody Lane At Antietam, The Wheatfield At Gettysburg, The Tragedy At Cold Harbor
* Civil War Journal (8 Episodes): John Brown's War, Destiny At Fort Sumter, The Battle of 1st Bull Run, The 54th Massachusetts, West Point Classmates—Civil War Enemies, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Sherman And The March To The Sea
BONUS FEATURES:
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Recommended Reading: Women in the Civil War (401 pages). "For the first time we have in this energetic yet sensitive volume a thorough, comprehensive, and impartial history of the enormous work the women [of both North and South] did when the guns sounded, and the steps they meanwhile took toward the sweeping transformations that followed Appomattox. . . . Miss Massey’s book [is] one of the most original contributions we have had to the literature of the Civil War."—Allan Nevins. Continued below...

"This is a serious book, at once charming, scholarly and highly readable. . . . It is probable that the most enduring consequence of the war for women was the changed conception they come to hold of themselves. . . . Massey most skillfully brings out the contribution the press made toward this result."—New York Times Book Review.

 

Recommended Reading: An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864. From Library Journal: As the debate on the role of women in the military continues, an interesting historical footnote has been brought forth: the publication of the only known surviving set of letters of one of the estimated 400 women who disguised themselves as men to fight as soldiers in the Civil War. Born on a farm in New York in 1843, Wakeman was the oldest of nine children. Few details of her family life are known, nor what exactly precipitated her flight into the army, but glimpses of this strong-minded woman are provided throughout: "I am as independent as a hog on the ice. If it is God's will for me to fall in the field of battle, it is my will to go and never return home." Private Wakeman did not return home: she is buried under her masculine pseudonym. How many more women were buried as men? Civil War historian Burgess provides an intriguing introduction to what is sure to become an area of growing interest. Highly recommended. Katherine Gillen, Mesa P.L., Ariz.. Continued below…

From Booklist: In proportion to its size, this may be one of the most expensive additions to women's studies and military history of late. Yet it should be considered very seriously. It collects the letters of an upstate New York farmer's daughter who in 1862 disguised herself as a man to enlist in the Union army. Not the least remarkable thing about the slim volume is that it demonstrates how common this uncommon soldier's experiences were. Indeed, Wakeman was much more concerned with how the family farm was going than she was about the larger issues of a war in which she served for two years before dying of dysentery. This is only the second published personal account of one of the hundreds of women known to have served in male attire in the Civil War. It is well edited, and the commentary accompanying it is free of both contemporary political jargon and historical error. Roland Green

 

Recommended Reading: Kate: The Journal of a Confederate Nurse. Customer Review: Kate's journal is amazingly well-written, and, as I said in my title, it is obvious from reading it that she is a true Southern lady. When I consider how I write any old thing, any old way, in my own journals, I am impressed by the way Kate kept all the wartime news- both on the battlefield and in her private life- so nicely organized. Don't let the word "organized" fool you, though, into thinking it is boring. This journal is anything but dull. Kate's writing style is intelligent, personal, detailed, and extremely interesting; the amazing part is that most of it is written whenever she can snatch a moment to herself from her nursing duties. Continued below…

From reading Kate's journal one quickly sees her devotion to the South and its "cause" for freedom. She was not a nurse before the war, but when the war began she volunteered to become one. As a nurse, she showed great compassion for the soldiers, doing everything in her power to alleviate their suffering and to make their stay in the hospital as pleasant as possible, under the terrible circumstances in which she worked. Sometimes her burden would seem too heavy, and she would almost make up her mind to quit, but her determination to be patriotic and her compassion for her patients would change her mind. Kate Cumming was a true lady, and this fact also made her journal enjoyable. She is well-mannered; for instance, when she does dislike someone she exercises reserve in writing about them, even though she is writing in her private journal. She does greatly dislike "Yankees", but instead of simply raving bitterly about them, she relates the incidents that cause her to dislike them. Overall, Kate is quiet and observant, and likes to write about the better things that occur in her life (something as simple as meeting a friend on the train, or having something extra nice for dinner) rather than dwell negatively on the hardships that she was experiencing. I highly recommend this wartime journal for anyone interested in a truly personal account of a nurse during the Civil War. The fact that Kate was a Southerner makes it even more interesting, because on the whole she went through more than her Northern counterparts did. She was a patriotic lady, and her attitude throughout the war makes her journal a pleasure to read.

 

Recommended Reading: Women on the Civil War Battlefront (Modern War Studies) (Hardcover). Description: During the Civil War women did a lot more than keep the home fires burning. Expanding on his pioneering Patriots in Disguise, Richard Hall has now produced the most accurate and up-to-date survey available of women who were determined to serve their nation in that time of crisis. Drawing on a wealth of regimental histories, newspaper archives, and a host of previously unreported accounts, Hall shows that women served in more capacities and in greater number-perhaps several thousand-than has previously been known. Continued below…

They served in the infantry, cavalry, and artillery and as spies, scouts, saboteurs, smugglers, and frontline nurses. From all walks of life, they followed husbands and lovers into battle, often in male disguise that remained undiscovered until they were wounded (or gave birth), and endured the same hardships and dangers as did their male counterparts. Hall presents the most complete portrait yet available of these courageous women-including Sarah Bradbury, Lizzie Compton, Frances Hook, and Confederate spy Loreta Janeta Velazquez-many of whom earned the praise of the male soldiers they served with and rose through the ranks to become sergeants, even officers. Through his investigation of specific case histories, he has authenticated many previously undocumented reports while debunking myths and exposing previously published errors about the subject. The book also includes a biographical directory of nearly 400 women participants and dozens of Civil War documents attesting to women's role in the war. As a new synthesis and critical appraisal, Women on the Civil War Battlefront is a richly anecdotal work that unearths a hidden history and opens a new window on women's lives in the nineteenth century. These women were determined to serve, and Hall's research confirms that they did so in significant numbers-and with distinction.

 

Recommended Reading: They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War. Publishers Weekly: At least 250 women served-disguised as men-in the ranks of both North and South during the Civil War. Although works about female Civil War soldiers have appeared over the past several years, this volume, by National Archives archivist Blanton and Cook, a Fayetteville State University employee in North Carolina, makes a nice summation. After covering the major combat actions in which women served (and in which several were killed), the authors reconstruct the reasons why women entered the armed forces: many were simply patriotic, while others followed their husbands or lovers and yet others yearned to break free from the constraints that Victorian society had laid on them as women. Continued below…

Blanton and Cook detail women soldiers in combat, on the march, in camp and in the hospital, where many were discovered after getting sick. Some even wound up in grim prisons kept by both sides, while a few hid pregnancies and were only discovered after giving birth. Many times the rank and file hid them from officers, who were duty-bound to discharge women if they were found out. Some remained in disguise for years after the war; Albert D.J. Cashier (nee Jennie Hodgers) of the 95th Illinois Infantry was only unmasked in 1911, when she suffered a fractured leg in an automobile accident. The authors make a strong case that the controversial Loreta Janeta Velazquez (alias Lt. Harry T. Buford, C.S.A.) actually did perform most of the deeds she wrote about in her 1876 memoir, which has previously been discounted as fiction by most Civil War historians. Solid research by the authors, including a look at the careers of a few women soldiers after the war, makes this a compelling book that belongs in every Civil War library.

 

Recommended Reading: She Went to the Field: Women Soldiers of the Civil War. Description: Women Soldiers of the Civil War profiles several substantiated cases of female soldiers during the American Civil War, including Sarah Rosetta Wakeman (aka Private Lyons Wakeman, Union); Sarah Emma Edmonds (aka Private Frank Thompson, Union); Loreta Janeta Velazquez (aka Lieutenant Harry T. Buford, Confederate); and Jennie Hodgers (aka Private Albert D. J. Cashier, Union). Continued below…

Also featured are those women who may not have posed as male soldiers but who nonetheless pushed gender boundaries to act boldly in related military capacities, as spies, nurses, and vivandieres ("daughters of the regiment") who bore the flag in battle, rallied troops, and cared for the wounded.

Notes

1. Lauren Burgess, "'Typical' Soldier May Have Been Red-Blooded American Woman," The Washington Times, Oct. 5, 1991.

2. Mary A. Livermore, My Story of the War (1888), pp. 119-120.

3. "Women Soldiering as Men," New York Sun, Feb. 10, 1901.

4. L. P. Brockett and Mary Vaughan, Women's Work in the Civil War (1867), p. 770.

5. Obituary of Satronia Smith Hunt, unidentified newspaper clipping, envelope re women soldiers, Old Records Division reference file, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, Record Group 94, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC (hereinafter cited as RG 94, NA).

6. "Served by her Lover's Side," The Evening Star (Washington, DC), July 7, 1896.

7. Documents numbered 158003, Records and Pension Office file 184934, RG 94, NA.

8. Compiled military service record (CMSR) of John Williams, Seventeenth Missouri Infantry, RG 94, NA.

9. CMSR for Mrs. S.M. Blaylock, Twenty-sixth North Carolina Infantry, War Department Collection of Confederate Records, RG 109, NA.

10. Carded medical records for Charles Freeman, 52d Ohio Infantry, Mexican and Civil Wars, RG 94, NA.

11. CMSR for Franklin Thompson, Second Michigan Infantry; and Enlisted Branch file 3132 C 1884, both in RG 94, NA.

12. CMSR for Albert D.J. Cashier, Ninety-fifth Illinois Infantry, RG 94, NA; and pension application case file C 2573248, Records of the Veterans Administration, RG 15, NA.

13. Bell Irvin Wiley, The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union (1951), pp. 337, 339.

14. Mary Elizabeth Massey, Bonnet Brigades (1966), p. 84.

15. In the last ten years, articles about Civil War women soldiers have appeared in such diverse publications as Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military, Southern Studies, and The Civil War Book Exchange and Collector. For a discussion of a Revolutionary War woman soldier, see Julia Ward Stickley, "The Records of Deborah Sampson Gannett, Woman Soldier of the Revolution," Prologue 4 (1972): 233—241.

16. George Worthington Adams, Doctors in Blue: The Medical History of the Union Army in the Civil War (1952), pp. 12—13; Wendy A. King, Clad in Uniform: Women Soldiers of the Civil War (1992), pp. 18, 20; and Loreta Janeta Velazquez, The Woman in Battle (1876), p. 58.

17. Massey, Bonnet Brigades, p. 80.

18. Philip Henry Sheridan, Personal Memoirs (1904), 1: 254—255.

19. Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Clara Barton, Professional Angel (1987), p. 99.

20. U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (1889), series 1, Vol. 27, part I, p. 378.

21. Stewart Sifakis, Who Was Who in the Civil War (1988), p. 14.

22. Document file record card 1502399, RG 94, NA; and "Women Soldiering as Men."

23. John L. Ransom, Andersonville Diary (1881), pp. 20-21.

24. Sifakis, Who Was Who, p. 86.

25. S. Emma E. Edmonds, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army (1865), pp. 20-21.

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