Social Education 58(2), 1994, pp. 80-82
National Council for the Social Studies
Research in recent years has found strong and growing evidence of the presence of women on Civil War battlefields
in numbers far beyond what had been previously believed. Articles in a women's military journal and two recently published books have begun to report the new discoveries (Larson 1990; Larson 1992; Hall 1993; Middleton 1993). However, the research is ongoing and new case histories are turning up regularly.
Although it has long been believed that over a hundred women may have participated in Civil War combat, some contemporary observers believe that the true number may have been much higher (Livermore 1887, 119-120). Whatever the number, it is important to discover and tell about as many of these women as possible, for their stories deserve a place in women's history and in American history.
Women Disguised as Men
For every documented case of a woman who served in combat, evidence suggests that there could have been two, three, or even four others who were killed in combat and buried without their gender being discovered, or who survived the war with their male disguises intact.
In 1934, some human bones were dug up in a garden on the former Shiloh battlefield, evidencing a hasty burial. The graves had not been registered. The remains were identified by their military paraphernalia as those of Civil War soldiers. One was found to be a female soldier (Brooke 1978, 29).
A former Civil War soldier known as "Otto Schaffer," a hermit farmer in Butler County, Kansas, was discovered to be a woman only at death.1 Many similar examples are known. "Albert Cashier" served a full three-year term of enlistment with the 95th Illinois Infantry regiment and saw extensive combat (Davis 1988, 108-112). Her true identity as Jennie Hodgers was not discovered until 1911 when she was struck by an automobile and injured. Hodgers, as a child, had disguised herself as a boy and stowed away on a ship from Ireland to America.2
Considering the fact that three million soldiers fought in the war, the discovery that hundreds or even thousands of women served in combat is not significant in terms of percentages. But in social and human terms, and especially given the social values of the mid-1860s, even this number takes on significance.
Women of the Civil War era were severely restricted in their ability to travel widely on their own and to experience the freedom that men had in the human adventure, unless they didn't mind being considered "immoraquot; or "loose" women. They were supposed to relish hearth and home, not exploration and adventure. The "proper" role for women during the war was to work in one of the soldiers' aid societies that were formed, to roll bandages and supply clothing and personal hygiene kits to the soldiers. Another acceptable activity was service in the commission formed to work for improvements in hospital care and medical practices (Young 1959, 66-81).
In a sense, the Civil War proved to be a great equalizer for certain bold and adventurous women who seized the opportunity to expand their horizons. Some did so in standard female garb; others disguised themselves as men. Adding ferment to the social change were several women born or raised in other countries, who brought with them to America a streak of independence and some experience in shattering norms.
When the Union and Confederate armies clashed in the first major campaign of the Civil War at Bull Run Creek, Manassas, Virginia, on July 21, 1861, a few women were present on both sides. Among them was Kady Brownell, wife of a Rhode Island mechanic, who enlisted in the 1st Rhode Island Infantry regiment. Her father was Angus McKensie, a Scottish soldier in the British army (Middleton 1993, 26-27).
Brownell trained with the regiment, proved to be proficient with arms, and accompanied her husband on the march. On the Bull Run battlefield, probably uniquely among all the women who served in the war, she was color-bearer, carrying the flag in advance of her unit of sharpshooters. She came under direct fire and was forced to flee with the other soldiers at the end of the day when Confederate forces broke through the Union lines. Later she also performed courageously at the battle of New Bern, North Carolina (Moore 1866, 54-64; Brocket 1867, 773-774).
Two of the more famous women who fought in Civil War combat disguised as men also were at the scene, one on each side. For the North, "Frank Thompson" (Sarah Emma Edmonds) was with the 2nd Michigan Infantry regiment that arrived late on the battlefield and helped cover the Union retreat. Thompson was serving as a male nurse in the old stone church near Centreville, Virginia, and was forced to flee when the Confederates overran their position.
Sarah Edmonds had been born in New Brunswick, Canada, in December 1841, the youngest child of a Scotch-Irish couple that had emigrated from the British Isles early in the 19th century. Her father had wanted strong sons to farm the land, and she had tried to please him, but ultimately had fled the oppressive home environment and adopted male disguise as a means of obtaining her freedom and independence.
By selling bibles and religious tracts, Edmonds worked her way into financially rewarding employment in the United States. At the outbreak of the Civil War, she was living in Flint, Michigan, where she enlisted in the Flint Union Greys, which became Company F of the 2nd Michigan Infantry. She served for two years as a combat soldier, nurse, and spy (Edmonds 1865; Dannett 1960; Talmadge & Gilmore 1970).
For the South, "Harry T. Buford" (Loreta Janete Velazquez) was serving as a courier for General Bernard Bee on the Bull Run battlefield, and participated in the battle from a position near the center of the Confederate line. She then fought at the battle of Balls Bluff and would go on to fight at Shiloh before becoming disenchanted with combat warfare and deciding instead to use her talents as a detective and spy for the Confederacy.
Velazquez was born in Havana, Cuba, of wealthy parents and raised by an aunt in New Orleans. While still a teenager, she had eloped and married a soldier and served with him at obscure military outposts. Early in the war her husband was killed in a training accident, and she adopted male disguise to fight as a soldier. She was able to pay for her own supplies and equipment, and sought combat commissions from individual commanders (Worthington 1876; Jones 1955, 290-298).
Historical evidence has now been found that at least nine women participated in the battle of Shiloh in Tennessee the following spring. They served as soldiers, nurses, "daughters of the regiment," and sometimes in more than one role.
Belle Reynolds, wife of a lieutenant in the 17th Illinois Infantry, was in the Federal camp that was overrun by Confederate forces on April 6, 1862. She and a female companion pitched in to help care for the wounded soldiers and, after the battle, was awarded the commission of major by the Governor of Illinois for her efforts. After the war, she continued her medical training and practiced medicine both in Chicago and Santa Barbara, California (Moore 1866, 254-277; Middleton 1993, 128-129).
Other women on the Union side were Modenia Weston and Lucy Kaiser, who served as battlefield nurses, and Mrs. Jerusha Small, whose husband was with the 12th Iowa Infantry regiment (Young 1959, 167-170). Three women also were accompanying Confederate regiments on the Shiloh battlefield. Bettie Taylor Phillips served with her husband in the 4th Kentucky Infantry regiment, and Betsy Sullivan (known as "Mother Sullivan") soldiered alongside her husband in the 1st Tennessee Infantry regiment (Andrews 1920, 112-115, 120-126).
Loreta Janeta Velazquez described in her memoirs standing on the battlement at Fort Donelson, before Shiloh, with sleet and freezing rain pelting her in the face and wondering whether it was all worthwhile as the fort fell to a Federal siege. At Shiloh she fought with her former battalion of Arkansas soldiers and was dismayed when, on the second day, the tide turned against the South (Worthington 1876, 164-172, 200-218).
From these experiences, she concluded that Confederate leadership was not what it should be and she became depressed. Ultimately she decided that her best way of contributing to the Confederate cause would be to exploit her skills at disguise and subterfuge as a spy and to give up the soldier's life. She served as a double agent, penetrating the operations of the Northern spy master La Fayette C. Baker (Hall 1993, 140-150). The claims made by Velazquez in her memoirs have been controversial.3 However, recent research has begun to turn up confirmation of key parts of her story (Hall 1993, 207-211).
Another remarkable story is that of Amy Clarke, who was present at Shiloh on the Confederate side with her husband when he was killed in action. She continued in service, but was later wounded and captured and her gender discovered. Union officials released her back into Confederate lines, in a dress that they insisted she wear (Simkins & Patton 1936, 80; Hall 1993, 99-100).
Undaunted, Clarke resumed fighting in Braxton Bragg's command, and was observed by a Texas cavalry soldier in August of 1863 wearing lieutenant's bars (Darst 1971, 37-38). An important clue to her identity and connections was discovered by Stuart Sprague, who found a newspaper story in the Cairo City Gazette of December 25, 1862, about an "Anna Clark," a prisoner of war about to be exchanged. She had been serving as "Richard Anderson" in the 11th Tennessee Infantry. The story exactly fits that of Amy Clarke, including reference to her husband being killed at Shiloh and describing the wounds she had received (Hall 1993, 99). This new information should lead to more complete disclosure of her story.
"Daughters of the Regiment"
In addition to women disguised as male soldiers and those who served as nurses, another category of women variously known as vivandieres or "daughters of the regiment" often became what a contemporary writer termed "half-soldier heroines." That is, they served in whatever capacity was necessary under combat conditions, including occasional fighting as soldiers. Their all-purpose service included marching with the soldiers, providing food and drink during battle (hence vivandiere), doing laundry, and caring for the wounded.
Some vivandieres became famous for their battlefield exploits. Anna Etheridge was daughter of the regiment for the 2nd and 5th Michigan regiments and was constantly caring for the wounded on the battlefield, exposed to enemy fire (Moore 1866, 513-518; Brocket 1867, 747-753). Marie Tebe (known as "French Mary") served as a vivandiere in the 115th Pennsylvania Infantry and was said to have been under fire thirteen times (Rauscher 1892; Faust 1986, 744-745). Both women were awarded the Kearny Cross for gallantry, presented by division commander Brig. Gen. David B. Birney (Birney 1867, 381-382).
Bridget Deavers (known by the men as "Biddy") accompanied the 1st Michigan Cavalry and saw extensive combat in Virginia during the 1864-1865 campaigns. Charlotte McKey, a prominent Civil War nurse, knew Bridget and recorded in her diary on March 28, 1865, "[She] has probably seen more of hardship and danger than any other woman during the war" (McKey 1876, 124-125). Bridget repeatedly displayed coolness and bravery under fire, and acquired considerable skill as a medical practitioner on the battlefield (Moore 1866, 109-112, 533-535; Brocket 1867, 771-773).
An Unfolding Story
In addition to the present author and Professor Sprague, two others intensively investigating the role of women in the Civil War are C. Kay Larson and Lee Middleton. The combined effort is turning up significant new information. Larson has concluded from her research that "the roles the women played were more numerous and more martial than many of us have been previously led to believe" (Larson 1992, 56). Middleton has documented well over 100 women and plans a new edition of his book with even more biographical sketches (Middleton 1993).
The full story of women in the Civil War is still unfolding, and the vigorous research currently under way promises to produce many exciting new discoveries.
1Prof. Stuart Sprague, Morehead State University, kentucky, found information about "Otto Schaffer" in Record Group 94 at the National Archives.2Personal history and summary of regimental activities were found in the pension files of "Albert Cashier" in the National Archives.3Simkins and Patton (p. 81) report that "The only person impressed with the valor and worth of Loreta Janeta Velazquez was that woman herself . . . . the stories of her adventures have an air of the tawdry and the unreal." Faust (p. 779) states that Velazquez "chronicles and unbelievable series of adventures with more characteristics of fiction than of fact."References
Andrews, Matthew P. Women of the South in War Times. Baltimore, Md.: Norman, Remington, 1920.[Birney]. Life of David Bell Birney, Major-General United States Volunteers. Philadelphia: King Baird, 1867.Brocket, L.P., and Mary C. Vaughan. Woman's Work in the Civil War: A Record of Heroism, Patriotism and Patience. Philadelphia: Zeigler, McCurdy, 1867.Brooks, Fred. "Shiloh Mystery Woman." Civil War Times Illustrated, August 1978: 29.Dannett, Sylvia G.L. She Rode With the Generals: The True and Incredible Story of Sarah Emma Seelye, Alias Franklin Thompson. New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1960.Darst, Maury. "Robert Hodges, Jr., Confederate Soldier." East Texas Historical Journal 9 (1971): 37-38.Davis, Rodney O. "Private Albert Cashier as Regarded by His/Her Comrades." Journal of the Illinois Historical Society, Summer 1988: 108-112.Edmonds, S. Emma E. Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. Hartford, Conn.: W.S. Williams, 1865.Faust, Patricia L., ed. Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper and Row, 1986.Hall, Richard. Patriots in Disguise: Women Warriors of the Civil War. New York: Paragon House, 1993.Jones, Katharine M. Heroines of Dixie: Confederate Women Tell Their Story of the War. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1955.Larson, C. Kay. "Bonny Yank and Ginny Reb." MINERVA: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military VIII-1 (Spring 1990): 33-48.-----. "Bonny Yank and Ginny Reb Revisited." MINERVA: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military X-2 (Summer 1992): 35-61.Livermore, Mary A. My Story of the War: A Woman's Narrative. Hartford, Conn.: A.D. Worthington, 1887.McKay, C.E. Stories of Hospital and Camp. Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen, and Haffelfinger, 1876.Massey, Mary Elizabeth. Bonnet Brigades. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966.Middleton, Lee. Hearts of Fire: Soldier Women of the Civil War. Torch, Ohio, 1993.Moore, Frank. Women of the War: Their Heroism and Self-Sacrifice. Hartford, Conn.: S.S. Scranton, 1866.Rauscher, Frank. Music on the March, 1862-65, With the Army of the Potomac. Philadelphia: William F. Fell, 1892.Simkins, Francis Butler, and James Welch Patton. The Women of the Confederacy. Richmond, Va.: Garrett and Massie, 1936.Talmadge, Marian, and Iris Gilmore. Emma Edmonds: Nurse and Spy. New York: Putnam, 1970.Worthington, C.J., ed. The Woman in Battle[Memoirs of Loreta Janeta Velazquez]. Hartford, Conn.: T. Belknap, 1876.Young, Agatha. The Women and the Crisis: Women of the North in the Civil War. New York: McDowell, Oblensky, 1959.Richard Hall is a freelance editorial consultant and editor. He has published several articles on the Civil War and is the author of Patriots in Disguise: Women Warriors of the Civil War, published by Paragon House.