Monday, 14 August 2017

Female Soldiers of the American Civil War


Today’s subject choice originated by stumbling across a photograph of Albert D.J. Cashier, born Jennie Hodgers in 1843. He served for a full 3 year term after enlisting in the Union army at the age of 19 and fought in over 40 battles against the Confederate Army. When the war was over, Albert continued to live as a man in small town Illinois, voting in elections and enjoying the freedoms that most women did not. He even received his military pension, but never married and lived in a one room house alone. No one knew Cashier’s secret until 1913, when he developed dementia in his old age. Attendants at a state hospital for the insane discovered that Albert was born a female during bathing. He was forced to wear a dress for the first time since childhood and ultimately died from a fall after tripping over his own skirt.

According to the National Archives, as many as 400 women secretly fought during the Civil War while attempting to conceal their gender. Stories of women in uniform being discovered by accident or through medical examination in hospital, were frequent enough that they became common gossip for the army’s trenches.

Alas, Albert Cashier was buried in 1915 in full uniform with military honours and given an official Grand Army of the Republic funerary service. His former comrades, although initially surprised by the news of his gender revelation, rallied in support of Albert and protested his treatment at the hospital.

Other names left out of the history books include Sarah Rosetta Wakeman who enlisted in the Union Army under the false identity of Lyons Wakeman at the age of seventeen. Her letters written during her service remained undiscovered for nearly a century, stored away in the attic of her relatives.

Wakeman was first stationed as a guard in a Union army prison in Washington. Ironically, during her duty there, she met a female prisoner who had been arrested for the crime of impersonating a man to fight for the Union army. Wakeman later died of illness from contaminated drinking water like so many thousands of other soldiers. Her identity was never revealed, not even at the time of her burial. Her headstone reads “Lyons Wakeman”, marked with full military honours at Chalmette National Cemetery in New Orleans.

Pictured above is Frances Louisa Clayton, who enlisted in the Union Army under the alias Jack Williams. Stories and accounts of her life are contradictory, most likely because of conflicting information she gave to keep her identity a secret. She was described as a “very tall, masculine looking woman bronzed by exposure” easily able to pass as a man by her “erect and soldierly carriage”. She was also known to drink any other soldier under the table and adopted masculine habits such as smoking, chewing tobacco, swearing, and gambling. Known by her fellow soldiers as an “accomplished horse-man” and a “capital swordsman”, little else is known of her life.

Sarah Emma Edmonds fought in the Union Army as Frank Thompson and was a purported master of disguise. First serving as a male field nurse before becoming a spy, one disguise required Edmonds to use silver nitrate for dying the skin black, wear a black wig, and walk into the Confederacy disguised as a black man by the name of Cuff. When Sarah contracted malaria, she abandoned duty and checked into a private hospital to avoid discovery. Upon return to her regiment’s station, she saw wanted posters for Frank Thompson who had been labelled a deserter (punishable by execution). To avoid such a fate, Edmonds had no choice but to switch back to her female identity and serve as a female nurse at a hospital in Washington, D.C..

Mary Seaberry was another soldier who was said to be so convincing as a male that none of her fellow comrades suspected for a second until she was admitted into hospital for a fever and discharged on the basis of “sexual incompatibility”.

In my digging, I even came across an online forum dedicated to guessing the gender of subjects in nameless antique civil war photographs. Females in disguise or teenage boys? The forum calls them “Maybe’s”….

Author Bonnie Tsui of She Went to the Field: Women Soldiers in the Civil War, spoke to the Smithsonian about how these women managed to fool the American army:

The lore is that the physical exams were not rigorous at all. If you had enough teeth in your head and could hold a musket, you were fine. The funny thing is, in this scenario, a lot of women didn’t seem any less manly than, for example, the teenage boys who were enlisting. At the time, I believe the Union had an official cutoff age of 18 for soldiers, but that was often flouted and people often lied. They had a lot of young guys and their voices hadn’t changed and their faces were smooth. The Confederacy never actually established an age requirement. So [women] bound their breasts if they had to, and just kind of layered on clothes, wore loose clothing, cut their hair short and rubbed dirt on their faces. They also kind of kept to themselves. The evidence that survived often describes them as aloof. Keeping to themselves certainly helped maintain the secret.

In many cases, being discovered and exposed as women couldn’t deter the female fighters. Lizzie Compton, who enlisted at the age of 14 kept getting discovered when injured in battle. Each time, she packed up her things and moved on to another regimen under a new male identity.

There are many reasons behind why women decided to conceal their identities and join such a horrific war– patriotism, a need for adventure or simply a means of earning money. But the consistent and long-term commitment to the male identity suggests that some of these women may also in fact have been transgender men. It’s an unknown part of history that perhaps leaves room for an untold story…

Of course transgender people have always existed, but from the average history class, you wouldn’t know it. Whether they truly were our modern definition of transgender or women trapped in a man’s world seeking the same freedoms, textbooks rarely mention these historical pioneers of the Civil War. So just a friendly reminder.


Tiffany M Bastedo said...

Wow, what a really informative article. I knew there were a few women in the Revolutionary War because I grew up back East hearing all about it. I never thought about the Civil War, though. Too cool!

C.A.Asbrey said...

Thank you, Tiffany. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Christine Weis said...

Wow...this was really informational and enlightening!! I didn't know about this but yet I am not surprised. Women are amazing beings and can fight just like a man!!! Thanks for bringing awareness to this.

C.A.Asbrey said...

Thank you, Christine. I love it when people enjoy the strange information I collect.

Paige Strand said...

Wow I really liked this article and appreciate the time it took to research all of this. I love seeing people acknowledge those that aren't always quite visibly acknowledged. Thank you :)

ohmummymia said...

Wow I've never heard about female soldiers:) we are so strong!

Kate Parsons said...

This is really interesting! I wonder what it was that made them enlist. And how did they conceal the fact that they didn't grow facial hair? I think that would be a pretty obvious giveaway.

C.A.Asbrey said...

I believe they were so lax about letting anyone join to make up the numbers they probably assumed they were only boys.