Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse and Spy: A Woman's Adventures in the Union Army
On April 25, 1861, Sarah Emma Edmonds alias Frank Thompson became a male nurse in Company F, of the 2nd Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment. This is 'his' story
Doctors in Blue: The Medical History of the Union Army in the Civil War
An excellent treatment of a rather specialized subject
Despite the fact that the U.S. Army did not acknowledge or advertise their existence, it is surprising that the women soldiers of the Civil War are not better known today. After all, their existence was known at the time and through the rest of the nineteenth century. Even though some modern writers have considered Seelye and Cashier, the majority of historians who have written about the common soldiers of the war have either ignored women in the ranks or trivialized their experience. While references, usually in passing, are sometimes found, the assumption by many respected Civil War historians is that soldier-women were eccentric and their presence isolated. Textbooks hardly ever mention these women.
The writings of Bell Wiley and Mary Massey are good examples. Wiley wrote at some length of "the gentler sex who disguised themselves and swapped brooms for muskets [who] were able to sustain the deception for amazingly long periods of time." But he later refers to them, indirectly, as "freaks and distinct types."(13) Massey erroneously asserted that "probably most of the women soldiers were prostitutes or concubines."(14) For the most part, modern researchers looking for evidence of soldier-women must rely heavily upon Civil War diaries and late nineteenth-century memoirs.
It is true that the military service of women did not affect the outcome of campaigns or battles. Their service did not alter the course of the war. Compared with the number of men who fought, the women are statistically irrelevant. But the women are significant because they were there and they were not supposed to be. The late nineteenth-century newspaper writers grasped this point. The actions of Civil War soldier-women flew in the face of mid-nineteenth-century society's characterization of women as frail, subordinate, passive, and not interested in the public realm.
Simply because the woman soldier does not fit the traditional female image, she should not be excluded from, or misinterpreted in, current and future historical writings. While this essay cannot discuss all the soldier-women, their lives and military records, recent chroniclers of the Civil War and women's history have begun to note the gallantry of women in the ranks during the war.(15) Most important, recent works refrain from stereotyping the women soldiers as prostitutes, mentally ill, homosexual, social misfits, or anything other than what they were: soldiers fighting for their respective governments of their own volition.
It is perhaps hard to imagine how the women soldiers maintained their necessary deception or even how they successfully managed to enlist. It was probably very easy. In assuming the male disguise, women soldiers picked male names. Army recruiters, both Northern and Southern, did not ask for proof of identity. Soldier-women bound their breasts when necessary, padded the waists of their trousers, and cut their hair short. Loreta Velazquez wore a false mustache, developed a masculine gait, learned to smoke cigars, and padded her uniform coat to make herself look more muscular.
While recruits on both sides of the conflict were theoretically subject to physical examinations, those exams were usually farcical. Most recruiters only looked for visible handicaps, such as deafness, poor eyesight, or lameness. Neither army standardized the medical exams, and those charged with performing them hardly ever ordered recruits to strip. That roughly 750 women enlisted attests to the lax and perfunctory nature of recruitment physical checks.
Once in the ranks, successful soldier-women probably learned to act and talk like men. With their uniforms loose and ill-fitting and with so many underage boys in the ranks, women, especially due to their lack of facial hair, could pass as young men. Also, Victorian men, by and large, were modest by today's standards. Soldiers slept in their clothes, bathed in their underwear, and went as long as six weeks without changing their underclothes. Many refused to use the odorous and disgusting long, open-trenched latrines of camp. Thus, a woman soldier would not call undue attention to herself if she acted modestly, trekked to the woods to answer the call of nature and attend to other personal matters, or left camp before dawn to privately bathe in a nearby stream.(16)
Militarily, the women soldiers faced few disadvantages. The vast majority of the common soldiers during the Civil War were former civilians who volunteered for service. These amateur citizen soldiers enlisted ignorant of army life. Many privates had never fired a gun before entering the army. The women soldiers learned to be warriors just like the men.
The women soldiers easily concealed their gender in order to fulfill their desire to fight. An unknown number of them, like Cashier, Jenkins, and Hunt, were never revealed as women during their army stint. Of those who were, very few were discovered for acting unsoldierly or stereotypically feminine. Though Sarah Collins of Wisconsin was suspected of being female by the way she put on her shoes, she was atypical.(17)
Also unusual were the Union women under Gen. Philip Sheridan's command, one a teamster and the other a private in a cavalry regiment, who got drunk and fell into a river. The soldiers who rescued the pair made the gender discoveries in the process of resuscitating them. Sheridan personally interviewed the two and later described the woman teamster as coarse and the "she-dragoon" as rather prepossessing, even with her unfeminine suntan.(18) He did not state their real names, aliases, or regiments.
For the most part, women were recognized after they had received serious wounds or died. Mary Galloway was wounded in the chest during the Battle of Antietam. Clara Barton, attending to the wound, discovered the gender of the soft-faced "boy" and coaxed her into revealing her true identity and going home after recuperation.(19) One anonymous woman wearing
the uniform of a Confederate private was found dead on the Gettysburg battlefield on July 17, 1863, by a burial detail from the Union II Corps.(20) Based on the location of the body, it is likely the Southern woman died participating in Pickett's charge. In 1934, a gravesight found on the outskirts of Shiloh National Military Park revealed the bones of nine Union soldiers. Further investigation indicated that one of the skeletons, with a minieball by the remains, was female.(21) The identities of these two dead women are lost to posterity.
Some soldiers were revealed as women after getting captured. Frances Hook is a good example. She and her brother, orphans, enlisted together early in the war. She was twenty-two years old, of medium build, with hazel eyes and dark brown hair. Even though her brother was killed in action at Pittsburgh Landing, Hook continued service, probably in an Illinois infantry regiment, under the alias Frank Miller. In early 1864, Confederates captured her near Florence, Alabama; she was shot in the thigh during a battle and left behind with other wounded, who were also captured. While imprisoned in Atlanta, her captors realized her gender. After her exchange at Graysville, Georgia, on February 17, 1864, she was cared for in Union hospitals in Tennessee, then discharged and sent North in June. Having no one to return to, she may have reenlisted in another guise and served the rest of the war. Frances Hook later married, and on March 17, 1908, her daughter wrote the AGO seeking confirmation of her mother's military service. AGO clerks searched pertinent records and located documentation.(22)
Other prisoners of war included Madame Collier and Florina Budwin. Collier was a federal soldier from East Tennessee who enjoyed army life until her capture and subsequent imprisonment at Belle Isle, Virginia. She decided to make the most of the difficult situation and continued concealing her gender, hoping for exchange. Another prisoner learned her secret and reported it to Confederate authorities, who sent her North under a flag of truce. Before leaving, Collier indicated that another woman remained incarcerated on the island.(23)
Florina Budwin and her husband enlisted together, served side by side in battle, were captured at the same time by Confederates, and both sent to the infamous Andersonville prison. (The date of their incarceration has not been determined.) Mr. Budwin died there in the stockade, but Mrs. Budwin survived until after her transfer with other prisoners in late 1864 to a prison in Florence, South Carolina. There she was stricken by an unspecified epidemic, and a Southern doctor discovered her identity. Despite immediately receiving better treatment, she died January 25, 1865.(24)
The women soldiers of the Civil War engaged in combat, were wounded and taken prisoner, and were killed in action. They went to war strictly by choice, knowing the risks involved. Their reasons for doing so varied greatly. Some, like Budwin and Hook, wished to be by the sides of their loved ones. Perhaps others viewed war as excitement and travel. Working class and poor women were probably enticed by the bounties and the promise of a regular paycheck. And of course, patriotism was a primary motive. Sarah Edmonds wrote in 1865, "I could only thank God that I was free and could go forward and work, and I was not obliged to stay at home and weep."(25) Obviously, other soldier-women did not wish to stay at home weeping, either.
Herein lies the importance of the women combatants of the Civil War: it is not their individual exploits but the fact that they fought. While their service could not significantly alter the course of the war, women soldiers deserve remembrance because their actions display them as uncommon and revolutionary, with a valor at odds with Victorian views of women's proper role. Quite simply, the women in the ranks, both Union and Confederate, refused to stay in their socially mandated place, even if it meant resorting to subterfuge to achieve their goal of being soldiers. They faced not only the guns of the adversary but also the sexual prejudices of their society.
The women soldiers of the Civil War merit recognition in modern American society because they were trailblazers. Women's service in the military is socially accepted today, yet modern women soldiers are still officially barred from direct combat. Since the Persian Gulf war, debate has raged over whether women are fit for combat, and the issue is still unresolved. The women soldiers of the Civil War were capable fighters. From a historical viewpoint, the women combatants of 1861 to 1865 were not just ahead of their time; they were ahead of our time.
By DeAnne Blanton
1. Lauren Burgess, "'Typical' Soldier May Have Been Red-Blooded American Woman," The Washington Times , Oct. 5, 1991.
2. Mary A. Livermore,
My Story of the War: A Woman's Narrative of Four Years' Personal Experience as Nurse in the Union Army (1888), pp. 119-120.
3. "Women Soldiering as Men," New York Sun , Feb. 10, 1901.
4. L. P. Brockett and Mary Vaughan,
Women at War: A Record of Their Patriotic Contributions, Heroism, Toils and Sacrifice During the Civil War (1867), p. 770.
5. Obituary of Satronia Smith Hunt, unidentified newspaper clipping, envelope re women soldiers, Old Records Division reference file, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, Record Group 94, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC (hereinafter cited as RG 94, NA).
6. "Served by her Lover's Side," The Evening Star (Washington, DC), July 7, 1896.
7. Documents numbered 158003, Records and Pension Office file 184934, RG 94, NA.
8. Compiled military service record (CMSR) of John Williams, Seventeenth Missouri Infantry, RG 94, NA.
9. CMSR for Mrs. S.M. Blaylock, Twenty-sixth North Carolina Infantry, War Department Collection of Confederate Records, RG 109, NA.
10. Carded medical records for Charles Freeman, 52d Ohio Infantry, Mexican and Civil Wars, RG 94, NA.
11. CMSR for Franklin Thompson, Second Michigan Infantry; and Enlisted Branch file 3132 C 1884, both in RG 94, NA.
12. CMSR for Albert D.J. Cashier, Ninety-fifth Illinois Infantry, RG 94, NA; and pension application case file C 2573248, Records of the Veterans Administration, RG 15, NA.
13. Bell Irvin Wiley,
Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union (1951), pp. 337, 339.
14. Mary Elizabeth Massey, Bonnet brigades (The Impact of the Civil War) (1966), p. 84.
15. In the last ten years, articles about Civil War women soldiers have appeared in such diverse publications as Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military, Southern Studies , and The Civil War Book Exchange and Collector . For a discussion of a Revolutionary War woman soldier, see Julia Ward Stickley, The records of Deborah Sampson Gannett, woman soldier of the Revolution Prologue 4 (1972): 233241.
16. George Worthington Adams,
Doctors in Blue: The Medical History of the Union Army in the Civil War (1952), pp. 1213; Wendy A. King, Clad in uniform: Women soldiers of the Civil War(1992), pp. 18, 20; and Loreta Janeta Velazquez,
The Woman in Battle: The Civil War Narrative of Loreta Janeta Velazquez, Cuban Woman and Confederate Soldier
17. Massey, Bonnet brigades (The Impact of the Civil War)
18. Philip Henry Sheridan,
Personal Memoirs of P. H. Sheridan, General, United States Army
19. Elizabeth Brown Pryor,
Clara Barton: Professional Angel
20. U.S. War Department, Clara Barton: Professional Angel - Series I Volume XLV Part II
21. Stewart Sifakis,
Who Was Who in the Civil War (1988), p. 14.
22. Document file record card 1502399, RG 94, NA; and "Women Soldiering as Men."
23. John L. Ransom,
John Ransom's Andersonville Diary Life Inside the Civil War's Most Infamous Prison
24. Sifakis, Who Was Who in the Confederacy
25. S. Emma E. Edmonds,
Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse and Spy: A Woman's Adventures in the Union Army (1865), pp. 20-21.