'I Wanted to Do My Part': Women as Soldiers in Civil War America

Last Updated by Anya Jabour on
Private Ames in Mercy Street Episode 204

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Anya Jabour, Ph.D., has been teaching and researching the history of women, families and children in the 19th-century South for more than 20 years. She is Regents Professor of History at the University of Montana, where she is affiliated with Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and African-American Studies and has received several awards for teaching and research.

In this blog post, Jabour explores the multitude of women who dressed as men to fight—and die—in all the major battles of the Civil War.

 

'I Wanted to Do My Part': Women as Soldiers in Civil War America

After discovering that Private Ames is a woman, Dr. Foster demands, “Why did you join the army?” Ames responds: “I wanted to do my part, same as you.”

Sarah EdmondsSarah Edmonds The case of Private Ames featured in Episode 204 of Mercy Street is based in fact. Historians estimate that as many as 1,000 women may have disguised themselves as men and served in the Confederate and Union armies. Among the best-known and well-documented cases are those of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, a.k.a. Pvt. Lyons Wakeman; Loreta Janeta Velazquez, a.k.a. Lt. Harry T. Buford; Sarah Emma Edmonds, a.k.a. Pvt. Franklin Thompson; and Jennie Hodgers, a.k.a. Albert D. J. Cashier. 

Military records reveal that women fought—and died—in all the major battles of the Civil War, participating in clashes in Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Shiloh, and Vicksburg, among many others. Dressed as men, women took on a wide range of military roles in the Civil War. Sarah Edmonds participated in the Peninsula Campaign as a soldier, spy, and courier—and even ended up working as a (male) nurse at Mansion House Hospital!

Female combatants faced the same dangers as their male counterparts, of course, but they also confronted unique dangers. In particular, they lived in fear of discovery, which might lead to expulsion or imprisonment. Fortunately for the women who disguised themselves as men, enlistment physical examinations were extremely cursory. Moreover, many women soldiers, who usually came from working-class backgrounds, had adopted men’s clothing and male personas in their teens, most frequently in order to obtain better pay and greater independence than “women’s work” in domestic service or the “needle trades” could provide. Their familiarity with “men’s work” as “hired men” and “stableboys” eased their transition to army life and helped them to evade detection. 

Military records reveal that women fought—and died—in all the major battles of the Civil War, participating in clashes in Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Shiloh, and Vicksburg, among many others.

The presence of many underage soldiers in both armies also facilitated their deception; young women in uniform easily “passed” as beardless boys. The conditions of camp life—most soldiers slept fully clothed, rarely bathed, and relieved themselves in the woods—also made it possible to avoid scrutiny. 

A scene from Episode 204A scene from Episode 204 Thus, most cross-dressing soldiers were discovered only when injury or illness brought them under the closer inspection of doctors and nurses, as was the case for Private Ames on Mercy Street. One especially instructive case of belated discovery involved an unnamed New Jersey woman, whose “military bearing” and “gallant conduct” in battle so impressed her senior officers that she was promoted from corporal to sergeant—shortly before she gave birth!

Most women soldiers not only evaded discovery, but also served with distinction. Official reports praised the military record of Pvt. Franklin Thompson (Sarah Edmonds), asserting that the young recruit was devoted to the regiment, “sharing in all its toils and privations, marching and fighting in the various engagements in which it participated ... never absent from duty, obeying all orders with intelligence and alacrity, his whole aim and desire to render zealous and efficient aid to the Union cause.” 

Thompson’s dedication was typical. Fully 15 percent of women soldiers sustained battle wounds; 18 percent were taken prisoner of war; and 11 percent died while serving. Overall, women soldiers had a combined casualty rate of 44 percent, compared to 30 percent for their male counterparts. These figures, combined with women’s 14 percent promotion rate—4 percentage points higher than men’s—all suggest that female soldiers were especially dedicated members of the Civil War military.

An unnamed New Jersey woman, whose “military bearing” and “gallant conduct” in battle so impressed her senior officers that she was promoted from corporal to sergeant—shortly before she gave birth!

After the war, Sarah Edmonds doffed her uniform and resumed life as a woman, marrying and raising several children before successfully applying for a military pension in 1884. Other cross-dressing soldiers, however, lived the majority of their lives as men.

Albert CashierAlbert Cashier Several years after adopting male attire in order to seek more remunerative employment, Irish immigrant Jennie Hodgers—thereafter known as Albert D. J. Cashier—enlisted in the Union Army in 1862 at the age of 19. After being honorably discharged in 1865, Cashier returned to Illinois and resumed life as a male laborer. Cashier successfully maintained a male identity, even joining the Grand Army of the Republic (a Union veterans’ organization), until a broken leg required hospitalization at the Soldiers and Sailors Home in Quincy, Illinois, in 1911. 

Friends and physicians managed to keep Cashier’s secret until 1914, when Hodgers was declared insane and transferred to a mental hospital, dying the following year. While scholars of LGBTIQ history often describe Cashier as an example of a transgender individual, most women soldiers of the era embraced gender nonconformity only for the duration of the conflict. However, whether for a few years or for a lifetime, women who dressed as men in 19th century America clearly rejected the strictures of Victorian femininity and demonstrated women’s capacity to adapt to changing circumstances.

Although the experiences of women in the military were in many ways exceptional, women soldiers, like other groups of women in the Civil War era, sought—and found—ways to increase their independence and expand their horizons.

— Anya Jabour, Ph.D.

 

Sources

  • Amy Benck, “Albert D. J. Cashier: Woman Warrior, Insane Civil War Veteran, or Transman?
  • DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook, They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002), New Jersey soldier quotations p. 15.
  • Lauren Cook Burgess, ed., An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, Alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864 (Pasadena, Md.: Minerva Center, 1994).
  • Sarah Emma Edmonds, Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse, and Spy: A Woman’s Adventures in the Union Army, ed. By Elizabeth D. Leonard (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1999).
  • Elizabeth D. Leonard, All The Daring of a Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1999), Edmonds/Thompson quotation pp. 172-173.
  • C. J. Worthington, ed., The Woman in Battle: A Narrative of the Exploits, Adventures, and Travels of Madame Loreta Janeta Velazquez (1876: rpt., New York: Arno Press, 1972).

 

Anya JabourAnya Jabour, M.A., Ph.D., has been teaching and researching the history of women, families, and children in the nineteenth-century South for more than twenty years. She is Regents Professor of History at the University of Montana, where she is affiliated with Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and African-American Studies and has received several awards for teaching and research. She is excited to be sharing her love for the Civil War-era South with PBS. 
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