Women on the Civil War Battlefront
During the decades leading up to the Civil War, a movement was underway among women to gain equal rights with men. Women increasingly spoke out in public about social ills that they perceived to be deeply harmful, including slavery. In May 1837 the Convention of American Anti-Slavery Women presented a line-up of all female speakers in New York City. The landmark event for women seeking equal rights in mid-century was the now famous Women's Rights Convention held at Seneca Falls, New York, in July 1848, organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In attendance were about 40 men, including the soon-to-be famous Black orator Frederick Douglass.
Young girls growing up during the 1840s and 1850s were exposed to the increasingly independent views of adult females, among them Sarah Emma Edmonds in Nova Scotia (b. 1841) who in 1861 enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Infantry as "Franklin Thompson." New freedom for women was in the air, so it is not surprising that young women sought to participate directly in the Civil War as we now know they did in surprising numbers.
The incipient air of new freedoms for women also manifested in other important areas, especially in the nursing profession and in organization and administration of large-scale public activities such as the Sanitary Commission and Christian Commission, and soldiers aid societies. But bolder women even took up such highly dangerous occupations as spying, smuggling, scouting, and sabotage.
War on a Colossal Scale.
The first thing that the mass enlistment of soldiers for the Civil War did was to totally overwhelm all existing institutions. Tens of thousands of soldiers needed uniforms, weapons, food, and medical care, yet no national organizations existed to provide the fundamental needs or the logistical framework for the huge volunteer armies. The U.S. Army was tiny and widely scattered in the west in small units, primarily to protect settlers and to police Indian affairs. With women playing a very prominent role, soldiers' aid societies were formed to provide the immediate soldier needs of clothing and supplies, and formation of the U.S. national commissions soon followed.
Prior to Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's first ill-fated attempt to capture Richmond in 1862, it was women who recognized the likelihood of unprecedented casualties and who pressed for organization of the Hospital Transport Service to evacuate wounded soldiers via the river systems on the Peninsula. Pioneering nurses served on the hospital ships, often placed in charge of them, and many nurses left poignant memoirs of their experiences.
"To work in a military hospital was a drastic departure from traditional female roles in the South. Army nurses [on both sides] were almost invariably relatively frail or disabled male soldiers detailed for that duty....The growing medical care emergency overrode long-established gender conventions, but not quickly or easily....Civil War imperatives initiated the process of establishing nursing as a legitimate profession for women."
In the Field and on the March.
When the regiments marched off to war in 1861, more often than not they were accompanied by women who were intended to serve as laundresses, nurses, and general helpers. They were soldiers in all respects, other than having formal army training.
These women who "soldiered" with the men (marched, camped, or otherwise participated in army life) fall into four categories, though some served in more than one capacity:
All of these experienced the rigors of camp life, and many were exposed to combat while they served at or near the front lines. Most Daughters of the Regiment played only an ornamental role in camp life, dressed in colorful clothing and leading the soldiers during training mounted on a fine steed. But few of them remained when it came to actual combat.
One of the most famous Daughters who became a battlefield nurse was Anna Etheridge who first served with the 2nd Michigan Infantry, then with the 5th Michigan Infantry in the Army of the Potomac. She was under direct enemy fire on several occasions and received the Kearny Cross for gallantry. One eye witness to her exploits was a sergeant in the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery who came across Etheridge on the battlefield in the vicinity of Petersburg, Virginia, on June 22, 1864. In the midst of an artillery duel and a hot fight during which the regimental lines became confused, the sergeant suddenly found himself standing alongside a "good looking young woman" who was calmly bandaging the wounds of one soldier after another. He had no idea how she came to be there and after the battle made some inquiries and learned her name.
A noted cantiniere or vivandiere (literally suppliers of drink and food) who became a battlefield nurse, and also earned the Kearny Cross for gallantry,
Marie Tepe ("French Mary")
was Marie Tepe ("French Mary") who served along with her husband in the 27th Pennsylvania Infantry, marching and soldiering with the men. At Fredericksburg in December 1862 she was wounded in the ankle, and at Chancellorsville the following May her skirt was riddled by bullets.
Marie had a falling out with her husband and left him, later serving in the 114th Pennsylvania Infantry. After the war she moved to Pittsburgh and married a Union veteran. She divorced him in 1897 and, apparently despondent, took her own life by ingesting poison in May 1901.
The stereotype of socially prominent women serving as Civil War nurses under cozy conditions and convenient hours in well-equipped facilities is far from accurate. Field nurses more typically worked long hours with little or no time for rest, lived in makeshift quarters lacking the basic amenities, and were exposed to all the diseases that were rampant in the army. Such basics as food and medical supplies often were in short supply. These pioneering nurses blazed new trails and set new standards while close to the front lines and in constant danger.
Mrs. Betsy Sullivan was one example of a soldier-nurse who functioned as a member of the regiment. In May 1861 she accompanied her husband John Sullivan in Company K of the Confederate 1st Tennessee Infantry when he marched off to war. "Mother Sullivan" was given the title of Mother of the Regiment for nursing the sick and wounded soldiers, cooking for them, and mending and washing their clothes.
"[She] marched on foot with her knapsack on her back through the mountains of West Virginia, slept on the frozen ground, under the cold skies, a blanket her only covering, her knapsack, her pillow. ...[At the battles of Shiloh and Corinth in 1862 she was] on the battle ground with her boys, carrying bandages and with canteens of water suspended from her shoulders, she bound up wounds and stanched the life blood of many soldiers, moistened the lips of the dying, and closed the eyes of the dead."
At Perryville in October 1862, she was on the battlefield when her husband received a severe head wound and his lieutenant, John H. Wooldridge, suffered the loss of both eyes. When the army retreated from Kentucky, the two men were among the wounded left behind who were taken prisoners. Betsy went with the two men to care for them in prison.
On the Union side Mrs. Jerusha R. Small enlisted with her husband in the 12th Iowa Infantry. She labored as a front line nurse in the regimental hospital, caring for the wounded from the Battles of Belmont in November 1861 and Fort Donelson in February 1862, becoming known as an "angel of mercy."
By the time of Shiloh in April 1862 the strenuous work had impaired her health. At Shiloh her husband was badly wounded and captured, but later escaped. The hospital tent came under enemy artillery fire, and she and her wounded husband were forced to flee for their lives. After her husband had recovered, she succumbed to fatigue and exposure and was bedridden. Because of her frail condition the doctors told her there was no hope for recovery, so she requested to go home to Iowa. There she died within a few days, and many soldiers from the regiment who were home on leave attended her funeral. She was buried with military honors.
During the early stages of the war it was common for women to go into the field as nurses with a particular regiment to care for soldiers from their home town and vicinity, but battle conditions usually led to their caring for any and all wounded on a "first come, first served basis." Husband-wife teams were not uncommon: William H. Holstein, who had served in the Pennsylvania militia during Lee's 1862 invasion, and his wife Anna Morris Holstein left their comfortable home life and served together in various front line hospitals in Maryland and Virginia until the end of the war. In January 1865 at a hospital in Annapolis, Maryland, they helped care for emaciated prisoners who had been released from Andersonville prison.
Catholic nuns also served prominently as nurses at the front lines. William A. Fletcher of the 5th Texas Infantry, who came from a conservative Protestant anti-Catholic area, received care from Catholic nuns after he was wounded during the Chickamauga campaign. His granddaughter later wrote: "Bill had nurtured a special debt of gratitude to the Catholic Sisters of Charity. He was sure that the care given him by these compassionate women in Augusta, Georgia, had saved his leg from amputation." After the war when he became a wealthy businessman he donated large sums of money to the Sisters of Charity and sponsored the foundation of a catholic hospital.
Foot Soldiers North and South.
Most remarkable of all were the young women who enlisted in male disguise and underwent all the same military training, the hardships of camp life, and the direct combat against enemy soldiers as did the men. The historical record shows that women already were serving in the ranks in 1861 and 1862, and by 1865 many had become sergeants or even officers. Several very early examples of female soldiers in male disguise are reported.
Among the more prominent female soldiers were Rebecca Peterman, 7th Wisconsin Infantry; Sarah Emma Edmonds ("Franklin Thompson"), 2nd Michigan Infantry; Mary and Molly Bell, 36th Virginia Infantry; Jennie Hodgers ("Albert Cashier"), 95th Illinois Infantry; and Frances Hook, who served in six or more Illinois regiments. Their stories are reported in detail.
New research by DeAnn Blanton and Lauren M. Cook has established that Rebecca Peterman (whose name previously had been reported as Georgeianne Peterman) served first as a "drummer boy" in the 7th Wisconsin Infantry in 1862, seeing action at Antietam. In the same regiment were her stepbrother and a cousin. As it turns out, quite a few female soldiers had accomplices in the ranks, sometimes relatives and sometimes a boy friend. A Mrs. Watkins and a Mrs. Epping enlisted with their husbands in Company G of the 2nd Maryland Infantry (Union), and after being discovered still continued campaigning with the regiment as laundresses.
Civil War historian Elizabeth Leonard has discussed in detail the issue of how female soldiers could have gotten away with concealing themselves in the ranks. In addition to the help of accomplices, other factors include superficial physical exams especially during busy recruiting periods, different (cruder) sanitary habits at the time, the presence of many beardless young boys who had high-pitched voices, loose-fitting clothing, and nearly constant outdoor living in the field. Quite a few female soldiers did give themselves away in the confines of camp life. (pp. 58-59).
"The evidence is now overwhelming that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young women did, in fact, manage to fool their male soldier colleagues for long periods of time....with the advent of the internet and intensive searching driven by interest in genealogy and the Civil War, more and more examples of female soldiers have come to light."
Horse Soldiers and "She Dragoons."
A particularly large number of women found a home in the cavalry of both armies, the reasons for which make sense when you think about it. Cavalry units were especially informal, frequently had loose discipline, were constantly on the move, camped in the field, and spent little time in barracks or formal encampments. Surprisingly, some women even served in the artillery the field weapons for which were horse (or mule) drawn. Many cases of female cavalry troopers have very strong historical documentation, including a young woman who served in General Phil Sheridan's cavalry escort!
The state of Illinois fielded 17 numbered cavalry regiments during the war, and at least two of the early regiments had female troopers in male disguise. Late in 1861 Jane Short enlisted in the 6th Illinois Cavalry as "Charley Davis," and was wounded in the hand at Shiloh. After recuperating, she returned to the regiment and participated in several other engagements before falling ill and being sent to a hospital. There she was discovered and discharged.
Meanwhile, Sarah Bradbury enlisted in the 7th Illinois Cavalry under the name "Frank Morton. " She went on to serve in several different regiments, finally joining the 2nd Kentucky cavalry as an orderly in General Phil Sheridan's escort. There she became acquainted with another female serving in the ranks as a teamster, Ella Reno. In an indiscreet moment, the two got drunk on apple cider and fell in the river. Their rescuers discovered that they were women, and they were called before Sheridan to explain themselves. Sheridan in his memoirs referred to Bradbury as the "she dragoon."
In one extraordinary day of Civil War history, two female cavalry troopers who were serving in two separate Union regiments were taken prisoner separately after a battle at Philadelphia, Tennessee, October 20, 1863. A female soldier named "Tommy" had been serving with the 45th Ohio Mounted Infantry. She became ill in a Confederate prison and her gender was discovered and she was released in early February 1864. The other, Mary Jane Johnson, had been with the 11th Kentucky Cavalry. She was discovered to be a woman some time during her imprisonment at Belle Isle near Richmond.Among the Confederate troopers for whom at least partial records exist were Diana Smith of the Virginia "Moccasin Rangers"; Mary Ann Pitman, a lieutenant in Forrest's cavalry brigade; and Sarah E. Mitchell of Imboden's cavalry. At least ten female artillery soldiers are known.
The Secret Service: Spies, Scouts, and Saboteurs.
The term "secret service" during the Civil War was loosely applied to anyone who engaged in clandestine military activities. Much of the spying and detective work was conducted on a freelance basis by patriotic individuals. However, both the Confederacy and the Union also fielded government agents. One of the most famous Confederate agents was Loreta Janeta Velazquez who at certain times was employed by her government, but who also acted on her own more often.
The official and semi-official spying and detective agencies included the Confederate "Secret Service Bureau" ; The U.S. Secret Service headed by Allan Pinkerton; and the "National Detective Police," so named by it's chief, Lafayette C. Baker. In addition, generals in the field often had their own spying operations which frequently employed women as "scouts," "spies," or "detectives."
"By 1864 the use of women military operatives...in the trans-Mississippi states and territories seems to have been common....Early in 1865 a woman named Nora Winder was reporting directly to Maj.-Gen. William T. Sherman on Confederate forces, positions, and troop movements."
"Both men and women engaged in smuggling of weapons, drugs, and medicines...concealed in their luggage or clothing or on their person. Smugglers often doubled as couriers by carrying concealed military messages....Women sometimes concealed messages in their hair or sewn into their clothing."
Among the more famous Confederate female spies were the Moon sisters, educated and outspoken women who engaged in spying and smuggling; Rose Greenhow, who headed an elaborate and highly successful spy network in Washington, D.C.; and the notorious Belle Boyd who led a group of young women who visited Union camps and charmed officers out of important military information.
A number of young women attached themselves to cavalry units and served as scouts, messengers, and occasional spies for a particular officer or unit. Nancy Hart, for example, reportedly aided the Virginia Moccasin Rangers as an independent scout and spy. "She carried messages back and forth between elements of the Confederate army, traveling alone at night, and served as a guide for Confederate detachments."
They Were Determined to Serve.
From the very beginning of the war right up to the end, women sought to enlist in the army practically non-stop. They didn't always succeed, many being exposed at the recruiting offices or early in regimental camp. However, their determination and persistence in trying speaks for itself. Quite a few women who were discovered in one unit and discharged turned around and immediately joined another unit, sometimes serving for long periods of time.
Mostly young girls, they came from all walks of life and were not, as some skeptics might think, simply the dregs of society. Numerous examples are provided to illustrate that they represented a cross-section of society. Younger working class girls tended to seek out the more daring military professions, while more mature , socially prominent women tended to serve as nurses – but there were also exceptions to this general rule.
At first when women were discovered in the army ranks they were derided as coarse "Amazons" and usually assumed to be prostitutes or spies. But as the war progressed and more information became available, these prejudices gradually faded away. New information is reported about a female soldier found in the Union 1st Kentucky Infantry in 1861 using the male alias "John Thompson." Previously she was believed to be a Northern patriot, but she turned out to be a Confederate spy. The Savannah Republican in Georgia rather than ridiculing her editorialized strongly that she should be treated as a patriot, and that the Confederacy should exchange one of more prisoners to obtain her freedom.
Women found in uniform commonly were arrested. But "The civil and military authorities often didn't quite know what to do with the women who were arrested when found in uniform away from camp, and so shuffled them around from place to place hoping someone else would deal with the unwelcome problem posed by their presence."
As for their motivation to enlist, women most commonly said that they did so to be with a loved one. But quite a few stated that their motivation was to gain revenge for the death of a soldier in combat, a husband or a boy friend. This was true both North and South. Among the female soldiers who claimed this were an unidentified woman found among new conscripts in a North Carolina regiment in 1862, and Henrietta Spencer in the 10th Ohio Cavalry in 1863.
"Even as some young women accidentally gave themselves away or were exposed by chance, others succeeded in maintaining their disguises for long periods of time. Almost invariably the long-term female soldiers eventually were exposed due to a calamity [serious illness, becoming a casualty, or being captured]. At least one Union female soldier was severely wounded at Antietam in 1862 and had an arm amputated, and at least one female soldier on each side became casualties at Gettysburg in 1863. A female Union lieutenant was found among the wounded in a Pennsylvania hospital following the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864.
Both in this chapter and elsewhere, extensive coverage is given to the women who took the record for perseverance and long-term service.: Frances Hook and Elizabeth Compton for the North and Mary Ann Clark for the South. They all kept re-enlisting in another regiment when discovered, were repeatedly in the midst of combat, and were wounded in action.
Casualties of War: Battlefield, Prison, and Hospital.
As in other civil emergencies throughout history, the Civil War led to suspension of habeas corpus and widespread use of military tribunals that tended to supersede civilian courts in many areas, especially the "border states." In such circumstances the numbers and populations of prisons rapidly increase and civil rights tend to get lost in the shuffle.
Military "sweeps" in urban areas for perceived enemies resulted in an extraordinary number of women being imprisoned, often on the flimsiest of charges or no stated charges at all. Among the women imprisoned throughout the war were numerous female soldiers, spies, and saboteurs. Quite a few spent the duration of the war behind bars.
"Women who were caught in soldier uniforms by members of the provost guard or city police officers usually were treated like criminals and thrown in jail, typically suspected of being spies. Without question, they sometimes were spies, but more often they clearly were not. In most cases the woman simply wanted to be soldiers, something beyond the imagination of most police at that time."
Women, therefore, became "casualties" of the Civil War in may senses of the word. They might be arrested by civil authorities while in military uniform under suspicion of being spies or prostitutes, or captured on the battlefield and become prisoners of war (POWs). Dozens of women show up on the inmate lists of the Gratiot Street and Chestnut Street prisons in St. Louis from 1862 through 1865. A few examples:
Newspaper stories of young women being found in uniform were fairly common in 1861 and 1862, including some found in camp and others at the front lines. The prevailing gender conventions and prejudices of the times usually resulted in harsh and unfair treatment of these women.
Among the women who became POWs, by that very fact establishing that they were engaged in combat along with the men, were Margaret Leonard, wife of Newton Leonard of the 2nd Massachusetts Heavy Artillery; the two female cavalry troopers in 1863 reported in Chapter 4; Florena Budwin, while serving in male disguise with her husband, a Pennsylvania artillery captain, in 1864; and the famous female doctor Mary Walker, captured in Georgia in 1864 while treating a wounded Confederate soldier on the battlefield. She was imprisoned in Castle Thunder, Richmond, for four months.
One of the interesting facts uncovered by my research is that women POWs were incarcerated in most of the famous or infamous prisons in both the North and South, which suggests that many more women in these prisons may have gone undiscovered. At least two women are known to have served time in Camp Sumter (Andersonville, Georgia), and several more in Belle Isle, Richmond. A Union Tennessee woman when discovered at Belle Isle and released in 1864, told authorities that there was another woman among the prisoners yet to be discovered.
A very common cause of women in the ranks being discovered was their being wounded or falling seriously ill and sent to hospital. Close medical attention inevitably revealed their secret. Numerous examples of this are reported, including the famous story of Sgt. "Frank Mayne," 126th Pennsylvania Infantry. After being mortally wounded in a battle and discovered to be a woman, she told her story before she died.
In a few cases forensic evidence has been found belatedly while examining a soldier's remains that the soldier was a woman. Two primary examples of this are reported.
Myths and Apocryphal Stories.
Many years after the Civil War, toward the turn of the Century, soldiers during reunions told many a tall tale about their exploits. Published soldier memoirs also were very popular in the 1880s and 1890s. Quite a few apocryphal stories about female soldiers emerged at this time. However, quite a few false claims also were made during the war.
Among the stories exposed as extremely dubious or outright false are those of "Charlotte Anderson," 60th Ohio Infantry; "Sarah Stover" and "Maria Seelye," Missouri regiment, 1863; and one of the most commonly accepted romantic stories of all, "Emily of Brooklyn." Emily was supposed to have idolized Joan of Arc and run away from home in Michigan (where she had been sent to stay with an aunt) to join the army. Mortally wounded at Lookout Mountain in 1863, she sent a touching message home to her parents before dying. Unfortunately, her story is full of contradictions and lacks even rudimentary supporting evidence.
The chapter includes 13 case studies of claimed military service by women that have been found to be unjustified, most of these contemporaneous with the war. Some of these were more or less accepted at face value by historians (including myself). In this book I took a much more critical look at the evidence for or against each case of a reported female soldier. Three factors have contributed to distortion of the historical record:
(1)careless and inaccurate newspaper reporting;
Case Studies: Historical Detective Work.
An important keynote of my book is the extensive research conducted via an in-depth review of the literature and by tapping into Civil War and genealogical web sites on the internet. Particularly valuable as a research tool was the Civil War Database created and maintained by Richard Dobbins in Massachusetts (www.civilwardata.com). Each case on record was intensively re-examined and checked against unit rosters when possible. This chapter illustrates the methods I used and the results for 16 case histories:
Substantial new information has been found for several of these women, especially Loreta Janeta Velazquez about whom I have written extensively. The summary of her exploits here is 9 pages long, including a lot of new documentation..
One of the most extraordinary female soldiers of all was Frances Hook who served in seven different infantry and cavalry regiments, mostly from Illinois but also one each from Michigan and Tennessee. The sequence of her enlistments and battlefield exploits are reconstructed fairly completely on the basis of the new information.
African American Women at War.The efforts of both Black slaves and Freedmen to aid the Union cause in practical ways were far more extensive than is commonly realized. African American women acted as spies, infiltrated Confederate camps, smuggled food to Union prisoners, and sheltered and fed escaped prisoners. At least a few served in the union ranks as soldiers.
Maria Lewis served in the 8th New York cavalry disguised as a white man; Lizzie Hoffman enlisted in the 45th U.S. Colored Infantry; and another woman in the 29th Connecticut Colored Infantry. Examples are also reported of African American women who followed their husbands into the naval service in hospitals and aboard ships.
One of the spies in Elizabeth Van Lew’s Richmond network was a seemingly simple (dumb like a fox) young woman who went by the name Ellen Bond. She was employed as a servant in the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Since she appeared to be feeble-minded, no one was very concerned about what she might see or hear, and as a result she passed along to Van Lew a great deal of military intelligence which was promptly forwarded to Union authorities.
An innocent appearing African American washerwoman in a Confederate camp used the arrangement of the laundry on the clothesline to signal information about troop movements to watching eyes across the river. The clothesline telegraph was later acknowledged by a Union officer to have been "one of General Hooker’s most valuable resources."
One of the more extraordinary African American women was the highly literate and apparently fearless orator Sojourner Truth. Her speeches in support of slave’s rights and women’s’ suffrage sometimes struck sparks. "One angry white man once told [her] that her speeches were no more important than a flea bite." In a typical retort, she countered: "Maybe not, but the Lord willing, I’ll keep you scratching."
Susie King Taylor though born a slave, learned to read and write and was studying to be a teacher when the war broke out. She joined the First South Carolina Volunteers (Union) as a laundress. She traveled with the regiment, learning to fire a musket, and came under enemy fire several times. Taylor became a regimental nurse and cared for badly wounded soldiers. During the war she married a sergeant in the regiment, Edward King, and after the war she opened a school for free Black children.
Then there was Harriet Tubman, a famous "conductor" on the Underground Railroad guiding slaves to freedom in the North before the war, and a soldier and spy during the war, sometimes leading men on forays along the coastal South, destroying enemy property, freeing slaves, and enlisting more Black soldiers in the army.
|Richard Hall is a member of the Authors Guild, and has published several books and articles about the Civil War, including Patriots in Disguise (1995) and Women on the Civil War Battlefront (2006). Two of his articles about female soldiers have been incorporated into history text books. He was interviewed early in 2006 for a forthcoming PBS documentary about Loreta Janeta Velazquez, about whom he has written extensively. Richard is retired from Congressional Information Service in Bethesda, Maryland (now part of Lexis-Nexis) and enjoys historical research, gardening, and collecting 19th Century photographs.|