President Trump let loose a series of tweets yeasterday morning saying, based on the advise of his generals, that he was going to kick out transgender soldiers from the military. The irony was not only that the military, immersed in a six month long study of they issue was blindsided by the President, and yesteryear General Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff announced that nothing had changed regarding the treatment of transgender military personnel, and instructed the military to continue to respect every military member.
So, today I am posting an article about the women soldiers of the Civil War, many of who based on their personal narratives would be considered transgender today. I hope that you enjoy.
Of course when the Civil War broke out the logical end of this train of though was that 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 in the Union or the Confederacy 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.” 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.”
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 women managed to serve without being caught. Sadly, most of their service 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.” 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.”
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.
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.” 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.” After the war she promoted her service in a book.
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.”
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.” 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.” With her story now sensational front page news and “old comrades in arms came to her defense.” 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.”
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.” 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.” 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.
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.” 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.