One Brief Moment Part Two: Women Soldiers, Spies and Nurses in the Civil War

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today and for the next few days I am going back to a part of my Gettysburg and Civil War text dealing with women’s rights. This one continues yesterday’s article, and deals with some of the facts about women who masqueraded as men in order to serve as soldiers. I have spent a lot of time working on this section recently, and will probably do some more in the coming weeks, but I think that you will find it interesting, and still relevant in our society.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Of course when war broke out the logical end of this train of thought 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. Even so, “women were not expected to defend their country, and when they did nevertheless and were found out, they learned that they were not necessarily a welcome addition to the military. Women who returned home after the Civil War as veterans reaped few of the societal rewards for having rendered such service.” [1] 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.” [2] 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.” [3]

During the war hundreds of women went to war, dreaming of being a second Joan of Arc, taking on the identity of men, however, their idealistic vision of wanting to serve the cause of their country, was not viewed favorably by many, men and women alike, as “they were usually viewed by contemporaries as mentally unbalanced or immoral.” [4] Their morality was question, their motivation was questioned, and their character was questioned, all because they broke long held social, and religious barriers in order to fight for what they believed.

These brave and socially progressive women 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.” [5] 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.” [6]

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. [7]

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Sarah Edmonds

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.” [8] She was the only women admitted to the Grand Army of the Republic.

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.” [9]

Albert-Cashier

However, most women were more discreet during and after the war regarding their true sexuality. Private Albert Cashier hid his 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.” [10]

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 treating 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.” [11] 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.” [12] With her story now sensational front page news and “old comrades in arms came to her defense.” [13] 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.” [14]

There are similar accounts of women who served as soldiers in the Confederate army including Mrs. Amy Clarke who enlisted with her husband and continued to serve until after his death at the Battle of Shiloh. Her gender remained secret until she was wounded and captured by Union forces. As “soon as she had recovered they gave her a dress and sent her back into Confederate lines; but a short time later she was seen in Mississippi making plans to re-enlist.” [15]

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.”  [16] A more recent estimate is that in the Confederate army alone there were some 250 women who served as soldiers during the war. [17] Casualties were high for the women that are known to have served as soldiers, they had a “combined casualty rate of 44 percent” including the fact that fully “eleven percent of women soldiers died in the military.” [18] 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.

Other women would serve as spies for both sides, often rendering valuable assistance to their countries. The women who served as spies often took their lives into their hands; however, they 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.[19]

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Elizabeth Van Lew

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.” [20] 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 former friends and neighbors boycotted her family’s businesses. Rejected for a pension, Sheridan helped Wright obtain “an appointment in a government office, remaining there for the rest of her days.” [21] Elizabeth Van Lew 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” [22]

To be continued….

Notes

[1] Ibid. Blanton and Cook They Fought Like Demons p.209

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

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

[4] Ibid. Massey Women in the Civil War p.79

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[15] Ibid. Massey Women in the Civil War p.81

[16] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.394

[17] Ibid. McCurry Confederate Reckoning  p.87

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

[19] ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.395

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

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

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

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