Women Combatants/Reenactors

It's no secret that in our worldwide, male-dominated societies, man has, for eons of recorded history, written the laws and the history books that still impact on our societies today. It therefore comes to no surprise that the contributions made by women in all of the sciences and world conflicts has either been under-reported, unreported or mis-reported. However, in recent years extensive and in-depth research by scholars and historians have uncovered a wealth of information on women and their profound impact in mathematics, medicine, astronomy, politics, and most importantly, history. The record is now being set straight and credit is rightly being given to women. For instance, one famous woman in America's history is Sacajawea, the Shoshone woman who helped the Lewis and Clark Expedition succeed. Sacajawea has become a national heroine and there are more statues to her than any other American woman. (Clark and Edmonds, Sacajawea of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, p.1). The Lewis and Clark Expedition was an event in American history to be remembered, but what about the event that tore our nation apart for four long years? What about all the women who were caught up in and participated in our nation's greatest struggle, the American Civil War? Why don't Americans remember these women who played an important part in an event that shaped the very country we live in today? When asked, most Americans know who Clara Barton was and her contributions, but she's the only woman from the Civil War that most people have heard about.

Women were nurses and much more during the War Between the States. In recent years historians have uncovered a wealth of information on the major role and impact that women had on American history, particularly during the American Civil War. Records have revealed detailed accounts of women and their service as spies, saboteurs, scouts, nurses and soldiers /combatants to name a few occupations. Records have been uncovered that document women who worked in the telegraph service, including one on the battlefield of Gettysburg. The first official Navy nurses who were Black women enlisted on the U.S.S. Red Rover. Regimental service records have thus far revealed over 135 female soldiers and the current estimate is that about 400 women participated as combatants, however, some feel this estimate is low and the actual number will no doubt continue to grow as more information is uncovered. (Burgess, An Uncommon Soldier, p.2) Historically, women in the U.S. military, until recently (e.g. Desert Storm), were prevented from entering a combat zone. For this reason, women who wanted to fight along side their male counterparts had to hide their true identity. For that reason, the actual number of female combatants during the American Civil War may never be known.

To truly honor and respect all those who fought and those thousands who gave their lives in our country's Civil War, we cannot overlook the contributions of women. People become Civil War re-enactors for a variety of reasons, just like the many reasons the men and women they honor chose to fight for the Union or the Confederacy. However, becoming a re-enactor that is representing a minority during the Civil War is a difficult one. Many companies that re-enact do not welcome women who want to portray those women who disguises themselves as men during the Civil War. These groups state that for reasons of authenticity, you cannot join the company or they direct you to another unit that might be taking women. They say we want to be authentic and there weren't any women in our company. This is a startling statement to be coming from people who are supposed to know their Civil War history. If the majority of women who disguised themselves weren't discovered, they may not have known there was a woman in their company.

James McPherson wrote in the forward to Lauren Cook Burgess's book, An Uncommon Soldier, that Burgess was herself a re-enactor and that when she was discovered coming out of the ladies restroom at a re-enactment at Antietam in 1989 and she was banned from impersonating a soldier. The National Park Service stated that keeping things authentic was important. Burgess didn't take her discharge lying down and sued the park service for sex discrimination. She eventually won her case. (Burgess, p. xii.)

In the last ten years there have been many changes in the re-enacting community. There are still those groups who aren't warm to women portraying soldiers, but there are also those units who are both welcoming and very supportive of the efforts of women re-enactors to be authentic in their presentation of women disguising themselves as men. I am proud to be serving in one of those units. But who were those women who disguised themselves? What were some of their names and what were their contributions during one of the defining moments in our nation's history?

Of the 135 documented cases of women being combatants there are only two whose own writings and words have been authenticated. One of these women had her letters put together by Lauren Cook Burgess and published as An Uncommon Soldier. This is the story of Pvt. Lyon Wakeman 153rd New York Volunteer Infantry, told in her own words in the letters she sent to her family. Her story wasn't even fully told in her family until 1976. For many years they thought they had an uncle who fought in the Civil War, not an aunt. The stigma at the time for a family to say that their daughter was fighting as a soldier wasn't proper social customs at the time. They would have thought she was crazy and her family would have felt the repercussions of social ostracism. Burgess was called in 1991 and has since edited the first collection of letters by a female soldier. Many of the women who fought in the war were from poor agrarian families and many did not read or write and that is why there is so little written today. If the letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman (a.k.a. Lyons) can be found in a family attic, who knows what could still be out there.

Another woman who wrote about her story and the only woman to be recognized as a member of the Army of the Potomac and given back pay and a pension was Sarah Emma Edmonds Seeyle. She enlisted as Franklin Thompson in the First Michigan, Company F. (Record of Service, p.170) Why did she choose to fight as a man? Maybe Edmonds can shed some light on one of the many reasons women chose to fight as men. She wrote in her book, Nurse and Spy, "What can I do? What part am I to act in this great drama?. in the hour of my adopted country's need to express a tithe of the gratitude which I feel toward the people of the North. I was to go to the front and participate in all the excitement of the battle scenes. I could only thank God I was free and could go forward and work and was not obliged to stay home and weep." (Edmonds, Nurse and Spy, pp. 18-20) Edmonds was a nurse, a scout, a mail carrier, orderly and later a spy. She spied for the Union in many disguises, a slave and believe it or not, an Irish washerwoman. (Stern, Secret Missions, pp. 121-129) She deserted her post half way through the war when she contracted malaria and feared being discovered. (Dannett, She Rode with the Generals, p. 231)

Many other women fought as combatants in the Civil War, but their stories are not as detailed as Edmonds or Wakeman. Bridget Divers, First Michigan Cavalry, fought along side her husband as a woman. Loreta Janeta Velazquez fought as Harry T. Buford and started the Arkansas Grays. Jennie Hodgers joined up as Albert D. Cashier as a private in the Illinois Volunteer infantry. She fought until the end of the war and chose to continue to live her life as a man. She was undiscovered until at age 66 when she broke her leg and at the Veteran's hospital and was discovered to be a woman. Belle Reynolds was a newlywed who chose to join her husbands regiment. She marched with the men and carried a musket. She was given a commission as a major in the Illinois militia after her bravery at Shiloh. Nadine Turchin's husband was a colonel in the Illinois Volunteers. When he became ill she commanded the regiment in battle. (Canon, Civil War Heroines, pp.1-56.)

There are so many women that only a record of their service exists today and there is so much more to still be learned about them. How did these women join the army as men and keep their secrets hidden? At this time in history there weren't any rigorous physical exams to enlist and most soldiers slept in their uniforms. Uniforms weren't tightly cut and the layers of wool vests and sack coats hid many women. Many of the women chose to desert before being discovered and many weren't discovered until their death. Many have said that these women were nothing more than prostitutes, but if that were the case then the birth rates at camp would have been high. If these women were prostitutes, then they would have been discovered quickly and would have never hidden their identities for years. That isn't to say that women weren't discovered when they did get pregnant, but some weren't discovered until giving birth. Most of the women looked like young boys and since there were a lot of young men joining up, they fit right in. (Burgess, pp. 1-6)

Hundreds of women fought for their respective beliefs, siding with the North or the South. Many wanted to be close to their husbands or lovers. Others liked the excitement that the war brought to their lives, while it enabled them to get out of their usual roles that society dictated. Whatever the reasons, these brave individuals fought and many died along side their male counterparts and perhaps one day their great contributions and sacrifice will be correctly recognized in future history books and monuments. Their contribution should not and will not be forgotten and their memories will be preserved on the field of battle in Civil War reenactments of today.

Written by: Corporal Jennifer S. Beal (a.k.a. Sammy Blalock) First Bugler, Company A, First North Carolina Cavalry and Sixth US Cavalry.
Contributing Editor: Major Dave Acevedo Pitre Regimental Commander,
First North Carolina Cavalry and Sixth US Cavalry

REFERENCES:

Burgess, Lauren Cook. (1994) An Uncommon Soldier. Oxford University Press: New York.

Cannon, Jill. (1995) Civil War Heroines. Bellephron books: Santa Barbara.

Chang, Ina (1991) A Separate Battle: Women and the Civil War. Puffin Books: New York.

Clark, Ella E. and Edmonds, Margot. ( 1979) Sacajawea of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. University of California Press: Berkely.

Edmonds, Sarah Emma. (1865) Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. W.S. Williams and Company : Hartford, Conn.

Emert, Phyllis. (1995) Women in the Civil War. Discovery Enterprises Ltd.: Lowell, Massachusetts.

Dannett, Sylvia. (1960) She Rode With The Generals: But her regiment thought she was a man. Thomas Nelson and Sons: New York.

Hewitt, Nancy A. (1990) Women Families and Communities. Scott, Foresman/Little Brown Higher Education: Glenview, Illinois.

Larson, Rebecca D. (1993). Blue and Gray Roses of Intrigue. Thomas Publications: Gettysburg, PA.

Record of Service of Michigan Volunteers in the Civil War. 1861-1865. Published by authority of the Senate and House of Representatives of the Michigan legislature. Reprinted by Detroit book Press.

Stern, Philip Van Doren. (1987) Secret Missions of the Civil War. Bonanza Books: New York.

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3/2/98