Soldiers, Spies & Nurses Remarkable Women of the Civil War

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I have been doing a lot of work on my Gettysburg and Civil War text and as I was doing so I have been working on my introductory chapter. In my last revision of it I had finally decided to add a section on how the war began the process of changing our society in terms of the rights of women.

Like I said I have been revising that chapter and when I got to the section on women I was unsatisfied. This resulted in me deciding to chase some rabbits and see where they led.

The results were amazing enough that I decided to significantly expand that section of the chapter. As I looked at the lives of these women I decided that the revision needed to include at least some of these remarkable women’s stories. The sad thing is in so many histories the role of women, like that of African Americans and other minorities is so often overlooked, and that is a tragedy because all of these things mattered so much then, but also today.

Right now this is kind of a “wave top” view of these women, and for me there is much more to look into.

I do hope that you enjoy this.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Sarah Edmonds as Frank Thompson tending a Mortally Wounded woman fighting as a Man at Antietam

Another development, which in large part is related to the abolition movement was the campaign for women’s rights. “The Civil War uprooted institutions, transformed our politics, influenced social relationships of half a continent, and wrought changes that echo down the generations.” [1]

The Civil War was also revolutionary because it was instrumental in propelling women into positions in American society that they had never before been allowed. The war Some of this was because many women decided to like those who campaigned for the end of slavery and the rights of African Americans to turn the world upside down. The war allowed the women who served, “in uniform or not, war permitted these women to experiment with a series of role reversals in gender,” [2] and in some cases gender and race. These experiments are the beginning of women’s’ equality and to women serving in the military.

William Lloyd Garrison and the leaders of the abolitionist movement came into contact with two southern women who had converted to the abolitionist cause; South Carolina cotton heiresses, Sarah and Angelina Grimke. The two women were passionate as well as eloquent and became popular lecturers on the abolitionist speaking circuit. These women brought Garrison and others in the abolitionist movement into contact with the early leaders of the new women’s rights movement. The leaders of the movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Abby Kelley, and Lydia Maria Child were outspoken in their belief that “a campaign to emancipate slaves could not avert its eyes from the need to emancipate American women from social conventions and legal restraints that prevented them, like the slave, from owning property and voting, and kept them altogether subservient to the interests of white males.” [3] The principals involved in the abolitionist and the women’s movements, those of freedom, emancipation and equality eventually forged a bond between them, and have provided inspiration to others in their quest for political and social equality.

In the 1800s women in the United States were bound by English common law. Single women had few rights while married women had even fewer as:

“marriage very nearly meant the legal annihilation of a woman…once a woman was married all property and property rights were transferred to her husband, and she was permitted to own nothing in her own name. Married women could not make contracts, could not sue, could not buy or sell, except over their husband’s signatures.” [4]

A married woman’s position was as close to being a slave as could be, and only the plight of black female slaves was worse, for they were simply chattel. The few free black women mainly stayed unmarried “in order to maintain what few property rights they were entitled to.” [5] As they also did over blacks, white men ruled over women in all spheres of life.

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Sojourner Truth

While the eventual emancipation of blacks provided more rights for black men, those did not help many black women as Sojourner Truth, a pioneering African-American abolitionist who spent forty-years as a slave said toward the end of her long life:

“There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not one word about colored women; and if colored men get their rights, and not colored women theirs, you see colored men will be master over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before. So I am for keeping the thing going while things are still stirring because if we wait till it is still, it will take a great while to get it going again….I suppose I am the only colored woman that goes on to speak for the rights of the colored women. I want to keep the thing stirring, now that the ice is cracked…” [6]

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Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was among the most vocal of women’s rights advocates. She believed that a woman’s place in the home was ultimately destructive and “reflected her subordinate position in society and confined her to domestic duties that served to “destroy her confidence in her own powers, lessen her self respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.” [7] Stanton noted how the condition of women of her day was “more fully identified with the slave than man possibly can be… For while the man is born to do whatever he can, for the woman and the negro the is no such privilege.” [8] It was a key observation and something even today, a state that some politicians, pundits and preachers would like to return women.

Since nearly all of the most “outspoken feminists had been schooled in abolitionist movement” they were “suspect in the South, where society was conservative, patriarchal, and insistence that ladies live in a kind of earthly limbo.” [9] Since the South was turning away from anything closely connected with the abolitionist moment, many there also rejected any form of women’s rights.

But even with the abolition movement there was opposition the women’s rights. In May of 1840 Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society split when leading evangelicals led by the Tappan brothers withdrew from it. But that neither stopped Garrison from working with them, nor Frederick Douglass from embracing them. From this rather inauspicious beginning, the women’s rights movement began to infiltrate society, especially in the field of education. In 1848 at Seneca New York there was a convention that launched the modern women’s rights movement. Led by Stanton and Elizabeth Mott the delegates published a “Declaration of Sentiments, modeled on the Declaration of Independence, proclaimed “that all men and women are created equal” and deserved their “inalienable rights” include the right to elective franchise.” [10] The declaration was bold and its denunciation of the place of women in society to be considered revolutionary in character. Part read:

“He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to elective franchise. He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice. He has withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men – both natives and foreigners… He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead. He has taken from her all right to property, even to the wages that she earns…. After depriving her of all her rights as a married woman, if single, and the owner of property, he has taxed her to support a government which recognizes her only when her property can be made profitable to it. He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow she receives but a scanty remuneration. He closes against her all the avenues to wealth and distinction which he considers honorable to himself. As a teacher of theology, medicine of the law, she is not known… He has created a false public sentiment by giving the world a different code of morals for men and women, by which moral delinquencies which exclude women from society, are not only tolerated, but deemed of little account in man. He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah alone, claiming his right to assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and to her God. He has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead an abject and dependent life.” [11]

The declaration also stated, in words which inflamed many men that: “the history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object of an absolute tyranny over her.” [12]

While the movement made modest progress regarding property rights in some states, they made little progress in terms of elective franchise and better wages and working conditions. During the ante-bellum period, women who lobbied for such rights were met with open opposition and scorn. The press “frequently denounced and ridiculed the “strong-minded women…” [13] Despite such attitudes women did make some significant advancements, particularly in lay aspects of the church, such as Bible societies, moral reform organizations, as well as the abolition and temperance movements, which had gained prominence during the Second Great Awakening.

During the ante-bellum period women made great progress in education. By 1850 the United States was the only country where “girls went to elementary school and achieved literacy in virtually the same proportion as boys.” [14] Likewise a few women entered higher education, particularly at women’s seminaries, which were for all practical purposes boarding schools that produced teachers and writers, as well as the Oberlin College, which was founded by Christian abolitionists and welcomed students of both genders as well as of any racial minority. During the three decades prior to the war women made some specific gains, but more important “was the development to their talents for organization, cooperation, leadership, and self expression. It was a time of beginnings and not fulfillment, a time when most women realized and accepted the fact that they lived in a man’s world, a time when a few dedicated but belligerent visionaries were frustrated in their attempt to remake the social order “overnight.” [15]

However, the war would help bring about many more opportunities for women. In 1850 a follow on conference to the Seneca conference, the National Women’s Rights Convention denied the right of anyone to dictate what women could do with their lives:

“The right of any portion of the species to decide for another portion, of any individual to decide for another Individual what is not their “proper sphere”; that the proper sphere for all human beings is the largest and highest to which they are able to attain; what this is, can not be ascertained without complete Liberty of choice; women therefore, ought to choose for herself what sphere she will fill, what education she will seek, and what employment she will follow, and will not be bound to accept, in submission, the rights, the education, and the place which man thinks proper to allow her.” [16]

Of course when war broke out the logical end of this train of though was should women be allowed to serve in the military. Legally and socially it was not possible for women to serve in the military in 1861, but this did not stop women from doing so. Quite a few women on both sides of the conflict chaffed about not being allowed to fight for their countries, their families and their causes, and despite official prohibitions that kept women from serving in any capacity but nursing, a good number of women found their way to go to war. While men in the North and South “were expected to enlist, any woman actively participating in the Civil War was an oddity if not a renegade.” [17] In some cases this involved hundreds of women taking male identities in order to fulfill their desires to serve their countries.

The motives of these women varied. In some cases women wanted gain the economic privileges of full citizenship, and for others the glory reserved to only to men. In our modern parlance those that took male identities would be considered transvestites or possibly transgender, but for them “transvestitism was a private rebellion against public conventions. By taking a male social identity, they secured for themselves male power and independence, as well as full status as citizens of their nation. In essence the Civil War was an opportunity for hundreds of women to escape the confines of their sex.” [18]

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Frances Clayton (aka Private Franklin Thompson)

During the war hundreds of women went to war, taking on the identity of men. They enlisted under male names and pretended to be men. Unless they were discovered to be women, or unless they confessed to their wartime service either during or after the war, most of their records were lost. In 1861 Private Franklin Thompson “enlisted in Company F of the 2nd Michigan Infantry…unknown to comrades, Thompson actually was Sarah Emma Edmonds.” [19] Edmonds served in the illustrious Iron Brigade until the disaster at Fredericksburg. Well known for her courage as Franklin Thompson, Edmonds participated in some of the bloodiest combats of the war. At Antietam she was caring for the wounded when she came upon a soldier who had been wounded in the neck. That soldier informed Edmonds that she was dying and after a surgeon came by and confirmed what the soldier said the dying soldier told Edmonds:

“I am not what I seem, but I am female. I enlisted from the purest motives, and I have remained undiscovered and unsuspected. I have neither father, mother nor sister. My only brother was killed today. I closed his eyes about an hour before I was wounded….I am Christian, and have maintained the Christian character ever since I entered the army. I have performed the duties of a soldier faithfully, and am willing to die for the cause of truth and freedom….I wish you to bury me with your own hands, that none may know after my death that I am other than my appearance indicates.” [20]

That unknown woman was not alone, at least nine women, eight Union and one Confederate, fought at Antietam and of those five were casualties. Five women, two Federal and three Confederate took part at Gettysburg. All three Confederate women at Gettysburg were either killed or wounded, or captured, including two women who took part in Pickett’s Charge. [21]

Sarah Edmonds published a book Nurse and Spy in the Union Army while recovering from malaria in 1863. The book, which was published the following year, sold 175,000 copies, the proceeds that she donated to care for sick and wounded Union veterans. After the war, Edmonds attended Oberlin College, married, had three of her own children and adopted two more. She “became a member of the Grand Army of the Potomac, the organization for Union veterans of the Civil War. She applied for, and received, a military pension, and upon her death in 1898 was buried with full military honors.” [22] She was the only women admitted to the Grand Army of the Republic.

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Frances Clayton 

Another of the women to serve was Frances Louisa Clayton. Fighting for the Union as a member of the Minnesota State Militia Cavalry and 2nd Minnesota Battery, serving under the command of Ulysses S. Grant she was wounded at Fort Donelson. Like many other women soldiers, Clayton mastered the art of behaving as a man. She “became “a capital swordsman,” but also commanded attention with her “masculine stride in walking” and “her erect and soldierly carriage.” [23] After the war she promoted her service becoming a minor celebrity as she told her story.

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Albert Cashier (aka Jennie Hodgers)

However, most women were more discreet during and after the war regarding their true sexuality. One of the first true cases of what we would now call transvestism was that of Jennie Hodgers, who became Private Albert Cashier. Jennie/Albert hid her sexuality identity for his entire term of service. He enlisted in August 1862 as a member of the 95th Illinois. Cashier was born in Ireland as a woman, Jennie Hodgers. He fought in forty battles and was discharged with the regiment in August 1865. At Vicksburg he was briefly captured by the Confederates while conducting a reconnaissance “but managed to escape by seizing a gun from one of her guards, knocking him down, and outrunning others. Comrades recalled Private Cashier climbing to the top of their fieldworks to taut the enemy into showing themselves.” [24]

After the war “Albert” returned home and lived as a “farmer and handyman and served as a caretaker in his church. He never married.” In 1890 he applied for and received a military pension and in 1911 the now elderly “man” was struck by a car and suffered a broken leg. The doctor threating him discovered that Albert was not a man, but a woman. But the doctor kept his confidentiality and without revealing “Albert’s” secret had the Union veteran admitted to the local Soldier’s and Sailors’ Home at Quincy, Illinois.” [25] A few years later the elderly “man” began to exhibit erratic behavior and was “committed to a public mental hospital and the word was out.” [26] With her story now sensational front page news and “old comrades in arms came to her defense.” [27] Her comrades had never known that “Albert” was a man during or after the war, while the news was a surprise to them they came to her defense. To combat some of the sensationalism in the media Albert’s fellow soldiers testified “to Albert’s bravery in combat and public good works in later life. Albert/Jennie died at Watertown State Hospital in 1915 at age seventy-one. The local post of the Grand Army of the Republic arranged for her burial. Her headstone reads: “Albert D.J. Cashier, Company G, 95th Illinois Infantry.” [28]

Wartime records are sketchy but as a minimum it is believed that “between 250 and 400 women disguised as men found their way into either the Federal or Confederate armies.” [29] Women known to have served had a “combined casualty rate of 44 percent” including the fact that “eleven percent of women soldiers died in the military.” [30] Some of those women are now well known but many others are lost to history. Most women tried to keep their sexual identities secret, even to the point of their death on the battlefield. Most of the women who served in the armies returned home to resume relatively normal lives after the war.

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Pauline Cushman, Union Spy (above) Belle Boyd Confederate Spy (below)

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Other women would serve as spies for both sides, often rendering valuable assistance to their countries. Those who served as spies took their lives into their hands and often provided vital information to the Union or Confederate officers that they served. Pauline Cushman “parlayed her acting talents into a series of elaborate ruses that allowed her to pry information out of admiring and complaisant Confederate officers; Belle Boyd used an equal measure of talent in as a northern Virginia coquette to elide the same kind of information out of Federal officers.[31]

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Rebecca Wright

Even those women who were successful often suffered for their service during and after the war as they learned “that few people completely trusted or respected a spy, not even a “friend.” [32] Many, especially Southern women who spied for the Union were ostracized and persecuted in their communities after the war, and found little support from Northern politicians. Rebecca Wright, a young Quaker schoolteacher in Winchester, Virginia provided information that “enabled him to defeat General Early’s forces” in the Valley of 1864. She lost her job, and her family’s businesses were boycotted by her former friends and neighbors. Rejected for a pension, Sheridan helped Wright obtain “an appointment in a government office, remaining there for the rest of her days.” [33]

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Elizabeth Van Lew (National Park Service)

Elizabeth Van Lew who was a lifelong resident of Richmond and daughter of a wealthy businessman. She helped Union prisoners escape from Richmond’s notorious Libby prison and when Grant besieged Petersburg, Miss Van Lew “supplied him with a steady stream of information” [34]

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Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who had done so much before the war to help slaves escape captivity served throughout the war accompanying Union forces and securing vital information even as she worked to set other slaves free. Her “spying activities included convincing slaves to trust the Union invaders,” [35] any of whom would join the ranks of the newly raised regiments of U.S. Colored Troops.

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Dorothea Dix

Other women served in various roles caring for the wounded. In the North, “Dorothea Dix organized the Union’s army nurses for four years without pay; Mary Livermore headed the Union’s Sanitary Commission, inspecting army camps and hospitals….Scores of others like Clara Barton, volunteered to be nurses.” [36] All of these women did remarkable service, mostly as volunteers, and many witnessed the carnage of battle close up as the cared for the wounded and the dying which often created ethic concerns for the women nurses:

“Clara Barton described her crisis of conscience when a young man on the verge of death mistook her for his sister May. Unable to bring herself actually to address him as “brother,” she nonetheless kissed his forehead so that, as she explained, “the act had done the falsehood the lips refused to speak.” [37]

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Clara Barton

Of the women that served in the ranks, some were discovered, and many remained protected by their fellow soldiers. Quite a few received promotions and even served as NCOs or junior officers. With women now serving in combat or combat support roles in the U.S. Military since Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the stigma and scandal that these cross-dressing women soldiers of the Civil War has faded and as scholars and the public both “continue probing cultural notions of gender and identity, the reemerging evidence that women historically and successfully engaged in combat has met with less intellectual resistance and has taken on new cultural significance.” [38] As the United States military services examine the issues surrounding further moves to integrate the combat arms we also should attempt to more closely examine the service of the brave and often forgotten women who served on both sides of the Civil War.

Notes

[1] Lowry, Thomas P. The Stories the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg PA 1994 p.176

[2] ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.395

[3] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening pp.49-50

[4] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.391

[5] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.391

[6] Ibid. Zinn The Other Civil War pp.53-54

[7] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.74

[8] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.50

[9] Massey, Mary Elizabeth, Women in the Civil War University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln NE 1966 p. 19

[10] Ibid. McPherson Battle Cry of Freedom p.36

[11] Blanton, DeAnne and Cook, Lauren M. They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War Vintage a books, a Division of Random House New York 2002 pp.3-4

[12] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.392

[13] Ibid. Massey Women in the Civil War pp.21-22

[14] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.36

[15] Ibid. Massey Women in the Civil War p.23

[16] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.392.

[17] Silvey, Anita I’ll Pass for Your Comrade Clarion Books, New York 2008 p.9

[18] Ibid. Blanton and Cook They Fought Like Demons p.5

[19] Ibid. Lowry The Stories the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell p.119

[20] Ibid. Silvey I’ll Pass for Your Comrade p.68

[21] Ibid. Blanton and Cook They Fought Like Demons pp. 15-16

[22] Ibid. Silvey I’ll Pass for Your Comrade p.90

[23] Ibid. Blanton and Cook They Fought Like Demons p.58

[24] Ibid. Blanton and Cook They Fought Like Demons pp. 16-17

[25] Ibid. Lowry The Stories the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell p.121

[26] Ibid. Lowry The Stories the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell p.121

[27] Ibid. Silvey I’ll Pass for Your Comrade p.90

[28] Ibid. Lowry The Stories the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell p.121

[29] ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.394

[30] Ibid. Blanton and Cook They Fought Like Demons pp.206-207

[31] ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.395

[32] Ibid. Massey Women in the Civil War p.87

[33] Ibid. Massey Women in the Civil War pp. 103-104

[34] Ibid. Massey Women in the Civil War p.102

[35] Sizer, Lyde Cullen Acting Her Part: Narratives of Union Women Spies in Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford 1992 p.130

[36] Ibid. Silvey I’ll Pass for Your Comrade p.10

 

[37] Faust, Drew Gilpin, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War Vintage Books, a division of Random House, New York 2008 p.12

[38] Ibid. Blanton and Cook They Fought Like Demons p.204

 

 

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