April 28, 2013

Forgotten chapter of Civil War: They were soldiers – and women, too

Women sometimes fought alongside of men in the Civil War, but their stories are not well-known.

By BRIGID SCHULTE The Washington Post

Under a deadly barrage of artillery fire, wave after wave of Union troops hurled themselves across an open field outside of Fredericksburg, Va., on a bitterly cold mid-December day and charged up a steep hill in a futile attempt to dislodge Confederates dug in atop Marye's Heights.

click image to enlarge

Frances Clalin Clayton disguised herself as “Jack Williams” to fight in the Civil War. She is seen here around 1865.

Photos by Samuel Masury/ Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

By nightfall, nearly 13,000 Union troops lay dead or wounded - double the number of fallen Confederates - and a "young and good-looking" corporal from New Jersey that a comrade described as "a real soldierly, thoroughly military fellow," was promoted to sergeant for bravery.

One month later, the sergeant, a veteran of the Seven Days Battle and Antietam, gave birth to a baby boy.

"What use have we for women, if soldiers in the army can give birth to children?" an astonished Col. Elijah H.C. Cavins, of the 14th Indiana, wrote to his wife.

The New Jersey sergeant, whose name and fate have been lost to history, was not the only woman disguised as a man fighting at Fredericksburg that day. Sarah Emma Edmonds, using the alias Pvt. Franklin Thompson, spent 12 hours on her horse, often under enemy fire, delivering dispatches as the orderly to Union Gen. Orlando Poe.

A teenage Lizzie Compton, whom fellow soldiers knew as Jack or Johnny, was discovered to be a woman only after the battle when military doctors peeled her blue uniform away to treat a shrapnel wound to her side. Discharged - it was illegal to serve in the military as a woman - Compton would go on to reenlist in and be discovered by six more regiments and serve in the Union army a total of 18 months.

In January, the Pentagon agreed to allow women to fight in combat. But what was ignored in that controversial debate was the long-forgotten history of hundreds of American women who had fought bravely in the nation's wars, won battlefield citations for valor and died on the front lines.

Their ranks include Deborah Sampson, who served for 17 months in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War as Robert Shurtliff, and Lucy Brewer, who served with the Marines aboard Old Ironsides as George Baker during the War of 1812. And historians have found that an estimated 400 to 1,000 women, perhaps more, disguised themselves as men and took up arms in the Civil War.

"We just lifted the ban on women in combat as if it were a new phenomenon. It's not. said Elizabeth Leonard, a historian at Colby College in Maine who has studied women soldiers of the Civil War. "It's that we let these stories disappear."

DeAnne Blanton, a military historian at the National Archives, and Lauren Cook Wike have spent more than a decade meticulously combing diaries, letters, burial records, military reports and newspapers documenting the service of women soldiers.

In their book, "They Fought Like Demons," they found evidence that at least 250 women dressed as men and fought for the North and the South in virtually every major battle of the bloody Civil War.

At least eight women combatants fought at Antietam. Catherine Davidson's right arm was amputated. Mary Galloway was shot in the neck. A woman fighting for the Confederates died in the Cornfield at Antietam. Five women fought at Gettysburg. One Confederate woman was shot in the leg, and two were cut down in Pickett's Charge.

Women soldiers fought in the First Battle of Bull Run. "There were a great many fanatic women in the Yankee army," a Georgia Confederate wrote home, "some of whom were killed." In fighting near Dallas in May 1864, several Confederate women soldiers were killed in an assault on Union lines. "They fought like demons," Sgt. Robert Ardry of the 11th Illinois Infantry wrote to his father, "and we cut them down like dogs."

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