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

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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

Confederate Loreta Janeta Velazquez, disguised as Lt. Harry Buford, fought along with five other women soldiers in the Battle of Shiloh. Maria Lewis, an African-American passing as a white male soldier, served in the 8th New York Cavalry and "skirmished and fought like the rest," a fellow soldier wrote. Four Confederate women were promoted to the rank of captain. At least one was a major.

"We know that because these women were hiding the fact that they were women, they were fully expected to do everything that any other soldier in the company was expected to do," Blanton said.

"They didn't get a pass because of their gender. They were hiding their gender."

It was easy for women to infiltrate the Union and Confederate ranks. Although Army regulations required all recruits to have a physical, the examinations became cursory as each side became desperate for fresh troops. "Often, they'd just have recruits walk by," Blanton said. "And if they weren't lame or blind and if their trigger finger worked, they were in."

(The Army became serious about entrance physicals in 1872, Blanton said: "The Civil War was really the last time women could sneak into the Army and pass herself off as a man.")

Because so many soldiers were teenaged boys who had yet to shave, a woman's beardless face went unnoticed. The ill-fitting uniforms hid their shape, most soldiers rarely bathed and everyone slept in their clothes.

When armies were camped out in the field, it would have been easy for these women to slip away into the woods to take care of bodily functions, Blanton surmised, and months of marching, poor nutrition and the stress of combat most likely interrupted many menstrual cycles.

Sometimes, just the fact that the women wore pants and acted in a way wholly unexpected in the prim, Victorian era of hoop skirts and fainting couches gave them cover. "I readily recall many things which ought to have betrayed her," Poe, Sarah Edmonds' commanding officer, later confessed, "except that no one thought of finding a woman in soldier's dress."

Their service became an open secret. Fellow soldiers wrote home about them and chronicled their exploits, if not their names, in their diaries. Stories romanticizing their adventurous spirits and extolling their patriotism appeared in the New York Times, the Richmond Examiner and the Chicago Daily Tribune. Edmonds and Velazquez penned popular memoirs.

"No editor can turn over a morning's 'exchange papers' without encountering authentic anecdotes of some fair and fast Polly or Lucy who, led by the spirit of patriotism, love, or fun, has donned the blue breeches and follows the drum," wrote the United States Service magazine.

But over time, the stories of these outed women soldiers were forgotten. And once the war was over, hundreds more who'd made it through undetected, learning to spit, smoke, chew tobacco, swear, play cards and swagger like a man, slipped out of their uniforms and into obscurity.

For nearly 50 years, the Adjutant General's Office denied women soldiers existed.

For more than a century, only the family of Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, knew that the body buried in Chalmette National Cemetery near New Orleans was that of a woman, Rosetta Wakeman.

She'd died of dysentery, as many soldiers did, after a long, hot march from Alexandria, Va., to Louisiana.

Wakeman, who grew up on a farm, was working as a man on the canal boats before she enlisted. She was like many of the women soldiers Blanton has found - working-class city girls who toiled in factories or as seamstresses in the North for about $4 a month or semi-literate farm girls from both North and South.

"If you were being paid starvation wages as a woman, $13 a month, which was the Union Army pay for a private, sounded pretty good," Blanton said.

Some women followed husbands or sweethearts into battle. Others, like Kentucky Confederate Mary Ann Clark, whose husband abandoned her and their two children, then took up with a new wife, left her kids with her mother and became Henry Clark to escape her sorrows.

"The fact that women were willing to risk injury, illness, maiming and even death to escape the kind of lives that were available to them at the time, tells you something about just how limited their choices were," said Leonard of Colby College. "I'm as independent as a hog on ice," Rosetta Wakeman wrote gleefully to her family. "I will dress as I am a mind to for all anyone else [cares], and if they don't let me Alone they will be sorry for it."


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