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)

By McCollum, Sean | New York Times Upfront, December 13, 2002 | Go to article overview

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)


McCollum, Sean, New York Times Upfront


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.

TYRANNY OF THE DRESS

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.

FOND OF ADVENTURE

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. …

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