“I am a soldier too.” – You may remember those poignant words spoken by Jessica Lynch of the U.S. Army’s 507Th Maintenance Company when her rescuers came to get her from the Iraqi hospital where she was being held prisoner during the early days of the Iraq War.
While women today can openly enlist in the military, women in American history had no such freedom. Some women were allowed to serve as nurses or camp followers, or sometimes they acted as spies. In fact, during the U.S. Civil War, women like Belle Boyd and Rose Greenhow became household names due to their daring exploits spying for their chosen armies. Lesser known in our history is the role of a woman as a fighting soldier.
Many people today never realized that nineteenth century women from both sides of the Civil War put aside their wide skirts and bonnets, cut their hair, donned trousers, and passed themselves off as men.
But, how could a woman sneak into the army in 1861? The answer to that question and many more are explained in Elizabeth D. Leonard’s fascinating book called All the Daring of the Soldier-Women of the Civil War Armies.
In her book, Leonard claims that “probably somewhere between five hundred and a thousand women, who disguised themselves as men, enlisted as full-fledged soldiers during the Civil War.” Ms. Leonard continues to cite well-documented cases, complete with names like Sara Edmonds, Rosetta Wakeman, and Jennie Hodgers, who became Yankees, and Anna Clark and Malinda Blalock, who became Rebels.
There were many reasons women enlisted in both armies, knowing they would be marching off to war. Like the men, some women felt called to service by patriotic duty, some to escape their dreary lives, and some to earn a much-needed paycheck. But, unlike the men, some women enlisted to follow their loved one, unable to bear the idea that he should be gone from her side.
Whether true story or fictional, the story of a female soldier during the Civil War captures the imagination. The image of the Southern woman of the time has been established for many by the book and movie, Gone With the Wind. The idea that Scarlett O’Hara would have dressed in a man’s clothing to march off to war is inconceivable! However, many Southern women did just that. In Secrets and Sacrifices, Charlotte “Charlie” Garrett, follows her husband into the Confederate army and becomes a crack sharpshooter for the Twenty-Fifth Virginia infantry.
To understand how women could enlist during the, mid-nineteenth century, military life must be taken into consideration. So great was the need for recruits on both sides, that a physical examination, if performed at all, was very perfunctory. Sometimes the exam was nothing more than demonstrating the presence of a trigger finger or opening one’s mouth to show teeth strong enough to tear open a powder cartridge.
When a female enlisted, some may wonder, wouldn’t she be noticed right off, short hair or not? Certainly, women were generally smaller in stature, had more highly pitched voices, and were quite beardless. But, there were so many young men and boys signing up, some as young as fifteen, that one more smooth-skinned, small boy would not attract undue notice. Because of the way people dressed during that time period, the mentality of the day was, “if it wore pants, it was male.”
If this lady could make it past the enlistment process, what about the physical demands on a soldier? Since army recruits of the time came from all walks of life, a male clerk struggling to handle his gear would draw no more attention than the young “boy” doing the same. Like the male recruits, these women learned to carry forty to fifty pounds of gear—gun, bayonet, scabbard, ammunition, blanket, canteen, cooking implements, rations, clothing, etc. One can only imagine how many troops had sore muscles, male or female.
Then there was the question about personal hygiene and bodily needs. Camp life for both Confederate and Union troops was not terribly restrictive, thus enabling a woman to take care of her needs by just walking off into the trees and brush, away from prying eyes as Charlotte had to do.
In addition, the uniforms of the day were loose fitting to accommodate many different body types…and she, like all other soldiers, would normally only receive one. Therefore, soldiers of the time rarely changed their clothing. While smelly, another problem for the lady soldier was solved.
Then there was the strictly feminine issue of a young woman’s monthly cycle. In her book, Leonard puts forth the argument that many women soldiers probably became lean and athletic from the long arduous marches and simply stopped menstruating. Or she might have managed to dispose of the evidence of her menstrual periods by burying it or sneaking it in with the similar-looking cloth from the hospital tents.
With all of these ways to escape detection, did the women get caught? Some female soldiers were discovered . The most obvious end to some military careers came when the woman was wounded during battle. In some cases, however, a female soldier gave herself away by an inadvertent act such as her “unmasculine manner of putting on her shoes and stockings.” Charlotte, of Secrets and Sacrifices, had to learn to spit and burp as the men around her to try and blend in. One woman gave herself away by displaying proper table manners! Nevertheless, some female soldiers wanted so badly to remain in the army that, upon being put out of one regiment, she would simply assume a new name and reenlist in another.
But some women were never detected. One lady, who called herself, “Otto Schaffer,” survived the war and lived out the rest of her life as a man. She spent most of her days living as a hermit. The Chicago Times-Herald published the story of “Schaffer,” the war veteran’s death when a bolt of lightning destroyed “his” cabin. It was the coroner who discovered the old soldier’s secret, and “his” identity as a woman was revealed at last.
One cannot help but admire the gumption of these women who, like Charlotte, simply wanted to be with her husband, and the others, who chose to fight for what they believed in, like Jessica Lynch. The brave ladies of the Civil War, and those who continue to fight today, deserve to be remembered and recognized for their sacrifices.
Leonard, Elizabeth D. All the Daring of the Soldier-Women of the Civil War Armies, New York, NY, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1999.
Wylie, Diane. Secrets and Sacrifices. Ladsen, SC: Vinspire Publishing, 2006.