She Wore The Pants: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War

season 1, episode 5

When we think of American Civil War soldiers, we always think of men.

But there were women out there on the battlefield, too. Not just as nurses, but as soldiers - they cut off their hair, put on uniforms, and fought disguised as men. And not just a handful of them, either. Some reports put the number of women who went off a-warring somewhere around 400...though it was probably more. We’ll never know, because so many kept their identities a secret. In a time when many couldn’t even conceiveof a woman shooting at people, they fought in nearly every battle. Some were promoted, made officers and spies. 

They suffered everything the men suffered: the threat of death and dismemberment. Deadly diseases, and being far away from home. But they also had to struggle with keeping their identities a secret, and battle with the fear of what would happen if they were found out.

In this episode, we’ll go back in time and explore what it was like to be one of these soldiers. We’ll look at why they fought, what they faced, and what they felt in the midst of America’s bloodiest war.

Put on a badly-cut jacket and lower your voice a few octaves. Let’s go traveling.

Recommended Media

  • They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook. Vintage Civil War Library, Random House, 2002. This is the book that formed the backbone of this episode, and that helped inspire The Exploress in the first place. This book represents ten years of research and a revolutionary treasure trove of stories that prove, entertainingly and thoroughly, that women were there - fighting, surviving, and having adventures. My copy is falling apart, I've thumbed through it so much.
  • Uncivil podcast: "The Soldiers" by Chenjerai Kumanyika and Jack Hitt, Gimlet Media. November 1, 2017. This podcast is a game-changer. It unearthes stories about the Civil War you've never heard of, with amazing interviews that make it very clear why that conflict is still revenant to the America of today. I'm addicted. I hadn't heard this episode before writing mine, but their episode on lady soldiers is outstanding. It taught me something I didn't know about one of the authors of the above book, They Fought Like Demons, and about how the government CONTINUED to deny that women were on the battlefield up until extremely recently. Fascinating stuff.
  • "Struggle for the Breeches: Pants, Women, and Power." DIG history podcast. These ladies sure do run an excellent podcast! This episode really helped me understand the consequences for women wearing pants in the 19th century. For more about Emma Snodgrass and the evolution of pantswearing, give it a listen!
  • The Woman in Battle by Loreta Janet Velazquez. This is Loreta's story in her own fascinating, wild and wanton words. For a 19th-century memoir, it's surprisingly readable, and highly entertaining! Plus it's freely available on Archive.org.

my sources

books/scholarly articles

  • Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott. Harper Perennial, 2015.
  • This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust. Vintage Civil War Library, Random House, 2008.
  • Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse, and Spy: A Woman's Adventures in the Union Army by Sarah Emma Edmonds. Ca. 1863. Freely available on Archive.org.

  • For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War by James M. McPherson. Oxford University Press, 1997.

  • The Civil War Soldier: A Historical Reader. Edited by Michael Barton, Larry M. Logue, NYU Press, 2002.
  • Wild Rose: Rose O'Neale Greenhow, Civil War Spy by Ann Blackman, Random House 2005.
  • Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles, and Altered the Course of the Civil War by H. Donald Winkler, Cumberland House, 2010.
  • The Encyclopedia of Civil War Medicine by Glenna R Schroeder-Lein. Routledge, 2008.

  • "Emma Snodgrass: Cross dresser" by Will Johnson. County Historian, 2010.

  • "Women Soldiers, Spies, and Vivandieres: Articles from Civil War Newspapers" by Vicki Betts, University of Texas at Tyler, 2016.

  • "Women Soldiers of the Civil War" by DeAnne Blanton, Prologue, (Spring 1993, Vol. 25, No. 1), National Archives.

online

 

transcript

warning: may contain weird formatting and spelling errors. I like to edit and ad-lib as I go.

If you’re ready, then let’s go back to a soldier’s camp in 1861.

Let’s make one thing clear from the get go: in Victorian America, no one expects you to go off to the fighting. In fact, you’re not allowed to at all. Although, technically, that’s not even true: no one wrote down any rules about women fighting, because the concept didn’t even enter their minds. Most people don’t think women are even capable of that kind of aggression. We’re living in a world of defined spheres, remember: women’s sphere is domestic, to be chaste and submissive, while men’s sphere is public, assertive and brash. Soldiering isn’t in a woman’s makeup, you see.

But here you are anyway, standing in a soldier’s camp. Imagine it: White tents stretch in every direction, dingy against the churned-up mud. Steam rises up from laundry vats. There are women around - camp followers, and maybe nurses. But mostly, it’s men you see. They’re everywhere, writing letters, chewing tobacco, playing poker, praying, trying not to gag at the collective stink. There’s a smell in the air: greasy fires, wet socks, thick mud, a general ripeness. You can smell the disease pit they call the camp’s privy from where you’re standing. But despite the funk, you’re stomach’s growling. Someone throws you an apple, and you reach out to catch it. You better catch it the right way, though: the manly way. Otherwise, someone’s going to figure out you’re a girl.

So how is it that you even got here? 

In 1861, volunteers are signing up to fight in droves. What’s prompting so many people to join? Well, Victorian America is a place where god, country, and reputation are all wrapped up together in a messy cultural bow. So it stands to reason that soldiers’ motivations often touch on all three.

A strong consciousness of DUTY was super pervasive in Victorian America. To fight for god and country was a moral obligation. But there was also the idea of HONOR - preserving reputation. Especially in the South. No man wanted to be thought a coward or a shirker.

Many people feel what the French call “rage militaire” - an intense patriotic fervor. Both sides, North and South, see the war as a desperate struggle to preserve something sacred. Though they are fighting for different things, and our Southern ladies friends are most certainly on the wrong side of history, their motivations are often strikingly similar.

In the North, there is the idea that they are trying to preserve a sacred Union. It’s what America’s forefathers struggled for - what they died trying to create. The Southerners are the opposite side of the same coin. They feel like they are being threatened - that the North will rape and pillage their land, their way of life, their very rights. Mary Todd Lincoln’s beloved brother in law, a Confederate officer, said he fought for ‘liberty and independence’. They, too, invoke the founding fathers, saying they rebelled against tyranny: now they have to do the same.

Women also want to do their patriotic duty. Some are content to do that from home, in ways that are socially acceptable: sewing, baking, raising money. Others are pining for a different life. Sarah Morgan from Louisiana wrote: 

Oh, if I were only a man. Then I could don the breeches, and slay them with a will. If some few Southern women were in the ranks, they could set the men an example the would not blush to follow.
— Sarah Morgan

But some are writing letters to commanders, asking to be allowed to take up arms. Especially when they saw that some men seemed less than excited to. Anne M. Bond wrote to General Lee, Big Deal Confederate commander, that “Perceiving the reluctance of the men of this city in coming forward in the hour of need and danger, I am now ready with my wheelbarrow to go on the entrenchments - and I am confident there are many women willing to join me.” Whole lady possies are getting together, vowing to protect their towns as a sort of home guard. A group of southern ladies wrote to the Confederate Secretary of War to give their regiment of ladies his blessing. “Our homes have been visited time and again by the vandal foe,” wrote the women. And they were ready to defend themselves. “…we propose to leave our hearthstones, to endure any sacrifice, any privation for the ultimate success of our Holy Cause.” At the beginning, no one though the war would last more than a couple of months, and everyone wanted in on a chance at greatness. Some women just took it a few steps further and became soldiers. Women are patriots, too, you know.

It’s worth noting here that volunteer enlistment numbers are high in the early years, but drop off as the war drags on. By 1863, we’ll see the first American draft enacted. Wealthy citizens could actually hire a substitute to go for them, which outraged many. Desertion became a common theme. But EVERY WOMAN SOLDIER is a volunteer: no one is making them. Every one of them has to fight to stay on the field.

Another reason they’re joining up is to be with their families. The delightfully named Melverina Elverina Peppercorn, aged 16, joined the Confederate Army with her twin brother, Alexander the Great, in 1862. Her mother actually let her join, though reluctantly. When her brother was shot in the leg, she stayed by his side to nurse him back to health. Frances Hook, age 22, joined the Union army with her brother because they were orphans, and she couldn’t stand for them to be separated. I’m sad to say that he’ll go on to be killed at the Battle of Shiloh.

Some girls didn’t want to be apart from their lovers. Miss Weisener was a planter’s daughter from Alabama whose father didn’t approve of her poor lawyer beau. But she loved him so much that she ran away to Tupelo, Mississippi, where he was stationed, on the pretext of delivering some supplies to the army. They married in secret and she joined up to fight beside him. What a fun honeymoon that must have been! Frances Clayton, whose before and after shots you should most certainly check out on my Instagram feed, joined up to fight beside her husband.

Sarah Malinda Blalock joined the Confederate army because apparently her sweetheart wouldn’t sign up without her. A pro-Union Southerner, this young Sir wanted to desert from the get go, but that turned out to be more dangerous than he’d thought. During the course of the war, around 500 soldiers are hung, two thirds of those for deserting, and a culture that values honor makes it a pretty horrifying way to go. So he came up with an ingenious plan: strip naked and roll in poison oak, giving himself a rash so bad that he was disqualified from service. Our girl Malinda probably didn’t have to bother with the poison oak. All she had to do was say she was a woman, and off home she was sent.

Martha Parks Lindley enlisted with her husband, William, leaving their children at home even though he begged her not to. She told a newspaper later:

I was frightened half to death. But I was so anxious to be with my husband that I resolved to see the thing through if it killed me.
— Martha Parks Lindley

Even after her husband was injured, she fought out the entire length of her enlistment. She also (illegally) cast a vote that helped Abe Lincoln win his second presidential term in 1864. Get it, girl!

Sometimes these women had help getting in from their family members and amorous partners.But sometimes These gentlemen don’t know their lady relations have followed them.  Nancy Corbin from Tennessee joined the Union army so she could findher lover - her father had driven her out, enraged, for letting herself be seduced by a Yankee. And then there was Charlotte Hope from Fairfax County, Virginia. She joined the Confederate army to avenge her fiance. She said her goal was to kill one Yankee for every year of her dead lover’s life - so, 21. Now that’s intense.

These two core reasons - love of country and love of a man - are the explanations of choice when women get caught in military service. Self-sacrifice and romance fit neatly into the Victorian age, even if they don’t quite fit the image of the ideal woman. You don’t have to look far to find a play or a novel featuring a lady soldier.

The Female Warrior Bold is a defined trope of the age: she’s virtuous, even heroic, a romantic figure of both beauty and daring. Sarah Emma Edmonds, who we’ll hear much more about in our next episode, sights a book called Fanny Campbell, The Female Pirate Captain! as an early inspiration for her successful crossdressing career. 

But there were also real-life lady soldiers models to look to - ones that managed to be heroic while sticking to a pious, virtuous mold. Young Emily from Brooklyn asked her parents to join the army because she thought she was the next Joan of Arc. They promptly took her to Michigan for fear she was having hallucinations - (Why Michigan? Is that a soothing place?), but she escaped and joined up anyway. 

Sarah Loretta Velasquez, who will become quite famous when she publishes a book about her high times with soldiering, cited Joan as an inspiration. “She was a great-hearted patriot, an example of what a woman may do if she only dares, and dares to do greatly.”

But of course, women have other reasons for joining. They’re just less popular with society at large. 

One of them is for the money. Because let’s be honest: no one’s getting rich with farming or manual labor right now. Many of the soldiers stinking up the joint around you are farmers and laborers - they make up 64% of the Union force and 78% of the Confederate one. Not plantation owners or businessmen - most of these soldiers will never have owned a slave. A huge percentage are also immigrants, from Europe, England, Scotland and Ireland. They make up some 25% - 1 in 4 - of the Union army, despite the fact that only about 13% of the population was born overseas. That’s a whole lot of people who may or may not be broke, and who may or may not feel much patriotic zeal.

As a woman, you don’t have many choices in terms of securing your own future. Right now, about half of the female population has to work at least some of the time to make ends meet. The other half - the upper and middle class - never have to, or can afford to stop after marriage. About ⅙ of the population will need to earn throughout their lives.

Let’s say you’re a farm gal. Governessing or teaching is probably out for you, which is too bad, as they might have afforded you a bit of independence. But even if you were higher class, getting married would still be your best bet at security. But let’s say you don’t, or that your husband dies and doesn’t leave you much. 

You can get a job - domestic servant, factory worker, prostitute: we’ve talked about all of these before - but your choices are limited, and so is the pay. Your salary is guaranteed to be less than a man’s no matter how hard you work, because of the prevailing notion that women only ever work to supplement their husband’s income or save a little while they wait to get married. Wage earning is the product of public labor, which by its nature a male activity. It isn’t for you to be the breadwinner: it’s unseemly, and shakes the tree of Victorian belief too hard.

So a soldier’s steady pay, food, board and freedom to work for equal wages might be more attractive than you think. A Union soldier makes $13 a month, and Confederates make $11 for (when they’re actually paid). That’s a lot more than the $4 to $10 a month you’ll make as a domestic. Farmgirl Rosetta “Lyons” Wakeman was proud of her paycheck, most of which she sent home to her in-debt family. 

I am enjoying myself better this summer than I ever did before in this world. I have good clothing and enough to eat. I’ll dress as I have a mind to for all anyone else cares, and if they don’t like it, they should be sorry for it.
— Rosetta 'Lyons' Wakeman

She also added,“I am the fattest fellow you ever see.” By which I think she mostly means living large.

Consider this, too. In an era when it doesn’t take much to be considered a fallen woman - unmarriable, unredeemable - and divorce is difficult and shameful, women have plenty of reasons for wanting to invent a new life besides the steady pay. Confederate soldier Mary Ann Clark joined because her husband left her and her children, running off to marry another woman. A few joined up to escape prostitution. One V.A White left home after having a baby out of wedlock, becoming a high-end lady of the evening in Nashville. “I know that a great many people believe me to be guilty,” she said. “So I thought that I would go where I could wear the game as well as have the name.” She said she made good money, but grew weary of it. So when northern troops stopped nearby, she “pitched in as was always my way of doing...I bought me a suit of blues and had my hair cut short.”

And then there’s the age-old reason: to go for the adventure. Some women are going because they want to spread their wings and see one of the biggest events of their lifetimes. A girl from Wisconsin said she joined to be with family, but also because “plain country life was not enough for my ambition.” Fair enough, lady friend. Fair enough.

And then there’s the least given, and, to me, most compelling, reason: women join up so they can live like men do.

Jennie Hodgers, who went by Albert Cashier; Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, who went by Lyons Wakeman; and Sara Emma Edmonds, who went by Frank Thompson - were all living as men for years before the war started. It’s hard to know what all their motivations were for this, but one is clear: in living as men, they got to live and work however they pleased. For immigrants and poor migrants like these women, this kind of freedom changed their lives. As long-time pants wearer “Lyons” Wakeman put it, “I am as independent as a hog on the ice.”

Even for women pulling on pants for the first time, you can see how intoxicating it would be after a lifetime of dresses and a constricting role. To abandon the pressures of having to find a husband; to be able to move freely, and make your own way, in the world. Wild child Loretta Velasquez was never a fan of a lady’s trappings. She wanted to be an explorer—to roam the world as free as a man. So when she joined up, she went to a French army tailor, who made her a wire mesh contraption to wear under her uniform that would squash down her breasts. She was very happy with the results.

‘Ah,’ she wrote later, after catching sight of her manly image. ‘I’m an uncommonly good-looking fellow.’
— Loreta Velazquez

Some of these women felt so liberated that they didn’t want to go back after the war. A drummer girl injured at the battle of Gettysburg said: “they may do what they please with her, but she [would] never wear women’s clothes again.”

But pants wearing is a seriously dangerous business. Before the war, in 1852, a Boston woman named Emma Snodgrass was arrested for ‘donning the breeches.’ The New York Time Daily reported, scandalized: “What her motive may be for thus obstinately rejecting the habiliments of her own sex, is not known.” She’d worked on steam ships, and found pants more practical – and guess what? Dressing like a man, she made higher wages. So she kept wearing them until 1856, when she was arrested, called the “unfeminine freak—a girl in man’s clothes.” When a reporters asked why, she said simply, “Well, because I can get along better.” That’s how many people viewed such women…as something derelict, worthy of suspicion…and punishment. Think about THAT next time you pull on your yoga pants.

These women know they’re taking a risk in dressing in men’s clothes and going off to the battlefront, but they go anyway. I think Sarah Emma Edmunds spoke for a lot of women when she said: “I could only thank God that I was free and could go forward and work, and I was not obliged to stay at home and weep.” 

OK, but really: how are you getting away with this?

Well, for one, because the armies need bodies. The War Department say they’re supposed to strip and thoroughly check each recruit, but who has time for that when there are so many? In the beginning of the war, doctors often don’t have time to do proper strip searches. And then later, they’ll need people so badly that they don’t bother to check much at all. 

Let’s see if you measure up to the soldering checklist: 1) Can you see? 2) Do you have at least a partial set of teeth so that you can bite open a wad of gunpowder? 3) do you have a trigger finger? Congratulations: we want you.

When Sarah Emma Edmonds nervously lined up for inspection, the surgeon just looked at her hands, and that was that.

And some women don’t even bother joining up officially. They slip in as free agents, like Mary Galloway did with the Army of the Potomac, tacking themselves onto a regiment or just joining in at the back of a march.They’re caught sometimes, but it’s easy enough to head on over to another state and join another. One girl tried to join up five times - one time, she wasn’t even turned away for being a woman. It was for being too short. There are no birth certificates or photo IDs or searchable databases. All a woman has to do is put on some pants, cut her hair, and choose a different name.

Seriously? You’re thinking. Is that it? I just...put on pants and lower my voice a few octaves? How long can thatruse possibly last? 

Which brings us to a really interesting thing about Victorian America. The characteristics it takes to be a soldier - assertiveness, aggression, initiative - are so tightly bound to the idea of ‘maleness’ that, of course, only men can do it. Gender roles are so rigidly defined, and so tied to the clothes you wear, that a lot of men will never have seen a woman in pants before. If you are dressed as a man and act like one, then you must be one. Simple as that.

Though Jenny Hodgers, aka Albert Cashier, was the shortest person in his regiment at five feet, no one questioned him. One of his fellow soldiers commented later that: “I did not dream that he was a woman,”though they made fun of him for the fact that he couldn’t grow any facial hair.Sarah Emma Edmonds’ messmates used to jokingly call her ‘our woman’ because of how small her feet were, but never guessed at her true identity – they never even thought to look twice. General Poe, who worked with Emma closely, speaks to this nicely:

A single glance at her in her proper character caused me to wonder how I ever could have mistaken her for a man...I readily recall many things that should have betrayed her, except that no one thought of finding a woman in a soldier’s dress.
— Orlando Poe, Union General

The uniforms are loose and badly cut, which helps. It’s surprisingly easy to hide womanly curves in these boxy jackets. 

How hard it is to disguise your sex depends on whether you’re marching, in a camp, or in barracks. The closer and better watched the confines, the harder a time you’re going to have pulling this off. Sometimes, whether or not you’re caught depends a whole lot on how well you can play the man.

It’s no big shock that a lot of the women who successfully passed were farmer’s daughters and immigrant laborers. They’re the ones best practiced at typically male activities - riding, shooting - and a soldier’s life - hard labor, lean conditions. In fact, sometimes these women prove better at soldiering than men do. The whole ‘ideal woman’ mold hasn’t been drummed into them quite as firmly, which means ‘playing the man’ doesn’t feel like such a stretch. 

For some, manning up means perfecting the art of drinking, swearing, and all-purpose manly swagger. If you can swear like a sailor and win a few hands of cards, you’re that much more likely to blend in. Melverina Elverina Peppercorn could apparently spit ten feet. Frances Clayton, whose before and after pictures you should most certainly check out on my Instagram,learned to do it all - hold her liquor, swear, play poker, and smoke cigars. Rosetta “Lyons” Wakeman got in a fist fight to prove her manliness: don’t worry, she beat him. “I give him three or four pretty good cracks,” she wrote. “And he put downstairs with him Self.” 

One guy wrote of two lady Confederate prisoners that “they talk far more worse than any degraded witch possibly could. They are very impudent and can beat any private in the oath uttering line.”

And now, we pause to enjoy some of the oaths you may be uttering:

 

Consarn! = (exclamation) Kind of like goddam. “Consarn it, Richards, stop stealing my musket!”

Dad-sizzle! = (exclamation) Also kind of like goddam. “Dad-sizzle me senseless, I’m sick of eatin hardtrack and roasted rat!”

Thunderation! = (noun) kind of like tarnation. “Thunderation, Armstrong, you out-spit me again!”

Lickfinger! = (noun) basically, it means a kiss-ass. “Quit shinin the general’s boots, you lickfinger!”

 

Anyway. Remember that this is the 19th century, and that means we’re doing very little bathing. For soldiers, this was especially true. Soldiers really aren’t taking their clothes off that much. I guess it was too much of a hassle to strip, and soldiers didn’t have that many pieces of clothing to swap with? So you’re not going to have to worry about stripping down in front of a bunkmate. 

And if you toddle off into the trees to do your business instead of the latrine, no one will think that’s weird. The latrines are open, stinky cesspits, and a lot of soldiers avoid them. They might think you’re a bit shy, but that’s fine.

But what about dealing with your monthlies? Again, there’s the wandering into the trees option. After all, this is a situation where finding a bloody rag on the ground probably won’t prompt any cries of “a harlot has stolen in amongst us!”Also, with the intense hours of marching, stress, and a pretty bad diet, it’s possible you’d quit your cycle altogether. (TFLD 46). Though several women were found out after about a month in service, which leads one to wonder…

The armies are made up of mostly civilians, not trained soldiers. So your skills won’t be any worse than the rest. The gun you'll carry is only 10 to 15 pounds, and your whole pack isn’t more than 30. Even if you haven’t been hauling wheat around all your life, you can do this.

The biggest issue you’ll have is disguising the things you can’t change. Say, the lack of an Adam’s apple, a high pitched voice, or small feet and hands. The lack of facial hair isn’t so big a deal - a lot of teenagers join the army, so a fresh face isn’t going to alarm anyone. That probably explains why a lot of women joined up as drummer boys. Which sounds quaint, but was actually an important job. 

But there’s no escaping that you’ll have to learn two new identities: that of a soldier, and that of a man. Imagine how hard that would be when you’re tired, hungry, scared, lonely. But for others, perfection comes with practice. Loretta Velasquez said that the more comfortable she got in her male clothes and her male persona, the less she had to think about pretending. In a way, it all stopped being pretend. 

Not even southern wild child Loretta Velasquez’s fiancé recognized her fighting beside him, all done up in pants and a fake mustache. When she knelt by his sick bed at an army hospital, he showed her a picture of herself and said, “This is the woman I love. What do you think of her?” Loretta replied that she was a fine-looking lady. And didn’t he think maybe he looked a little like her? Note to self: next time I want to go unnoticed, tack on fake mustache. 

womaninbattlenar00vela_0373.jpg

You guys, I can't even. Loreta Velazquez, trying to tell her secret fiancé that she IS in fact his lady love.

From Loreta's memoir, The Woman in Battle.

The uniforms are loose and badly cut, which helps. It’s surprisingly easy to hide womanly curves in these boxy jackets. 

How hard it is to disguise your sex depends on whether you’re marching, in a camp, or in barracks. The closer and better watched the confines, the harder a time you’re going to have pulling this off. Sometimes, whether or not you’re caught depends a whole lot on how well you can play the man.

It’s no big shock that a lot of the women who successfully passed were farmer’s daughters and immigrant laborers. They’re the ones best practiced at typically male activities - riding, shooting - and a soldier’s life - hard labor, lean conditions. In fact, sometimes these women prove better at soldiering than men do. The whole ‘ideal woman’ mold hasn’t been drummed into them quite as firmly, which means ‘playing the man’ doesn’t feel like such a stretch. 

For some, manning up means perfecting the art of drinking, swearing, and all-purpose manly swagger. If you can swear like a sailor and win a few hands of cards, you’re that much more likely to blend in. Melverina Elverina Peppercorn could apparently spit ten feet. Frances Clayton, whose before and after pictures you should most certainly check out on my Instagram,learned to do it all - hold her liquor, swear, play poker, and smoke cigars. Rosetta “Lyons” Wakeman got in a fist fight to prove her manliness: don’t worry, she beat him. “I give him three or four pretty good cracks,” she wrote. “And he put downstairs with him Self.” 

One guy wrote of two lady Confederate prisoners that “they talk far more worse than any degraded witch possibly could. They are very impudent and can beat any private in the oath uttering line.”

And now, we pause to enjoy some of the oaths you may be uttering:

 

Consarn! = (exclamation) Kind of like goddam. “Consarn it, Richards, stop stealing my musket!”

Dad-sizzle! = (exclamation) Also kind of like goddam. “Dad-sizzle me senseless, I’m sick of eatin hardtrack and roasted rat!”

Thunderation! = (noun) kind of like tarnation. “Thunderation, Armstrong, you out-spit me again!”

Lickfinger! = (noun) basically, it means a kiss-ass. “Quit shinin the general’s boots, you lickfinger!”

 

Anyway. Remember that this is the 19th century, and that means we’re doing very little bathing. For soldiers, this was especially true. Soldiers really aren’t taking their clothes off that much. I guess it was too much of a hassle to strip, and soldiers didn’t have that many pieces of clothing to swap with? So you’re not going to have to worry about stripping down in front of a bunkmate. 

And if you toddle off into the trees to do your business instead of the latrine, no one will think that’s weird. The latrines are open, stinky cesspits, and a lot of soldiers avoid them. They might think you’re a bit shy, but that’s fine.

But what about dealing with your monthlies? Again, there’s the wandering into the trees option. After all, this is a situation where finding a bloody rag on the ground probably won’t prompt any cries of “a harlot has stolen in amongst us!” Also, with the intense hours of marching, stress, and a pretty bad diet, it’s possible you’d quit your cycle altogether. Though several women were found out after about a month in service, which leads one to wonder…

The armies are made up of mostly civilians, not trained soldiers. So your skills won’t be any worse than the rest. The gun you'll carry is only 10 to 15 pounds, and your whole pack isn’t more than 30. Even if you haven’t been hauling wheat around all your life, you can do this.

The biggest issue you’ll have is disguising the things you can’t change. Say, the lack of an Adam’s apple, a high pitched voice, or small feet and hands. The lack of facial hair isn’t so big a deal - a lot of teenagers join the army, so a fresh face isn’t going to alarm anyone. That probably explains why a lot of women joined up as drummer boys. Which sounds quaint, but was actually an important job. 

But there’s no escaping that you’ll have to learn two new identities: that of a soldier, and that of a man. Imagine how hard that would be when you’re tired, hungry, scared, lonely. But for others, perfection comes with practice. Loretta Velasquez said that the more comfortable she got in her male clothes and her male persona, the less she had to think about pretending. In a way, it all stopped being pretend. 

And then there’s a Union woman named Maria Lewis, who helped present 17 captured rebel flags to the War Department. Are you ready for this? She was an African American woman, posing as white, posing as a man. And guess what, said one of her contemporaries? She:

...wore uniform and carried sword and carbine and rode and routed and skirmished and fought like the rest.

Damn straight.

Of course, some women have men friends to help them guard their secret. Those fathers and brothers and lovers who helped them join. But sometimes making friends with fellow soldiers is the best way to blend. These friends might have no idea you’re a woman, but that’s fine - in accepting you as a man, you’re that much less likely to be discovered. 

You might even tell one of these friends. He might not care or report you. It turns out that plenty of male soldiers looked favorably on the woman beside them. They fought bravely and never asked for special treatment: that was enough for a lot of them. Undoubtedly, some of these confidants became lovers. There’s nothing like close quarters and the fact that you might die tomorrow to make bunk mates ready to get up and personal.

Sometimes women recognized and helped cover for each other. It would be a relief to run into another lady soldier in a sea of men - one person with whom you don’t have to pretend. 

Sarah Emma Edmonds says in her memoir that she found such a soldier wounded at the Battle of Antietam. She must have recognized Sarah as a kindred spirit, because she confessed that she was a woman. Apparently she had enlisted with her brother, who died earlier that day, and she wanted to bury her personally so that no one would figure out her secret. Sarah got two other guys to help her, and no one ever knew but her. We know that Emma wasn’t actually at Antietam, so this story couldn’t have happened to her there. Maybe it happened to someone she knew: our girl Clara Barton certainly discovered a few lady soldiers under her care. Or maybe the story reflects her own anxieties: being buried far from home with no one who truly knows you, or can write your real name above your grave 

So outside of swearing and filthy cesspits, what is soldier life like for a woman? Let’s step on out on the battlefield…

It’s probably a cornfield, or something like it. You’ve got soldiers on either side of you, firing in a long row. You’re holding a musket rifle that only fires three rounds a minute. Filling it with gunpowder requires you to rip the packet open with your teeth. It may seem old school to your modern eyes, but the Minie balls you’re firing are pretty high tech. Invented by a Frenchman in 1849, its hollow base expands when fired and can travel upwards of 250 yards: far for this era. And they don’t just cut clean through you - they shatter bone. 

There’s smoke in your lungs, and you’re about to rush the enemy. You’ll do it in a line, your sharp bayonet pointed outward. You’re unlikely to use it, but you might if you get close enough. It’s loud, messy, and bloody. Your chances of dying out here are 1 in 65, or something like it, although being wounded or catching a disease ups your odds. About 15% of lady soldiers sustain at least one battle wound. Around 1 in 4 soldiers will die of something before their service is out.

Consider, too, that you’re probably malnourished, sick, and have been marching for days. You’ve been eating things like hardtack - an unsatisfying biscuit made from unleavened flour and water. They’re also called “sheet iron crackers”, which should be all you need to know about how tasty these things are. 

There’s also mealy bread, dessicated veggie cubes, and salt beef - often called ‘salt horse’ - which is preserved in saltpeter, or Potassium nitrate, which is also used to preserve dead soldier’s bodies. It smells like death and has to be soaked overnight just to be able to swallow it. As one soldier wrote, “I must say Uncle Sam don’t feed his soldiers as he ought. Hard crackers and salt junk is not the thing for a man to fight on.”

A Confederate staple is coosh: bacon grease and sometimes salt pork, mixed with cornmeal and water and fried into a pancake. That sure does sound like a meal a man who’s never, ever cooked for himself would come up with. That’s one of the things that make lady nurses - and, I imagine, some secret lady soldiers - so crucial. Most of the camp cooks are men, and have legitimately never cooked a thing for themselves. Picture the most helpless college freshman you’ve ever seen trying to make an instant mac and cheese and peanut brittle sandwich in a dorm room microwave - but worse. So much worse.

All of this at a time when refrigeration and preservation aren’t always possible. If boiled meat under a Georgia sun isn’t a recipe for trouble, I don’t know what is. 

And apparently a LOT of soldiers are dealing with ‘flux’, or the ‘Virginia quickstep’, or the ‘Tennessee Trots’. About three-fourths of the Union army suffer from chronic diarrhea at any one time. We can make all the poop jokes we want, but diarrhea kills. people.

But seriously, the average death toll at the big battles is in the tens of thousands. The war will claim the lives of 2 percent of the population - around 620,000 people - more than the total American fatalities in both world wars, the mexican war, the Korean war, the War of 1812 and the Spanish-American war combined. And because neither side is prepared for the carnage, you might lie wounded on the field for days before someone finds you. You run the risk of dying far from home, with no one there who knows who they truly are. 11% of women soldiers died while serving - that we know of. 1 out of 3 of these were from disease. Chances are you won’t have a Sarah Emma Edmunds to bury you. 

One girl, discovered dying at the Battle of Lookout Mountain, asked her colonel to write this sad letter to her parents for her:

Forgive your dying daughter. I have but a few moments to live. The native soil drinks my blood. I expected to deliver my country, but the Fates would not have it so. I am content to die. Pray, pa, forgive me. Tell ma to kiss my daguerreotype.
— A dying female soldier

It’s with pride that I note that, if contemporary reports are anything to go by, these women served faithfully and well. Most served out their full enlistment: on average, they fought for 16 months.Francis Clayton saw her husband fall on the field, right in front of her – but when the call came to attach her bayonet and charge, she did it. Jenny Hodgers, or Albert Cashier, went to the field because soldiers were needed and she wanted a bit of adventure: and she sure got a lot of it. She was much respected and admired by her fellow officers for bravery and daring. She fought in more than a dozen battles, and was never hurt despite the fact that she volunteered for especially dangerous duties – a fact that awed her army mates. Once, when she was captured, she knocked out her guard, took his gun, outran her pursuers, then turned around and taunted them! Another time, she climbed up a tree through heavy sniper fire to re-hang a Union flag that had fallen to the ground. Damn, Albert.

Women are promoted to almost every rank, up to major. The promotion rate for women soldiers is 14% - that’s higher than the men’s.There aren’t any records to suggest that women are court-martialed for military crimes or for failing to perform their duties.I’d like to take my hat off to that.

So how are women caught?

Sometimes they’re caught because they exhibit patently feminine behaviors. One woman was just a little too good at sewing, and was eventually caught out because of how she wrung a dish cloth. For another, it was the particular way she jerked her head. When someone threw a piece of food at them, at few pulled up the corners of invisible apron to catch it. One girl apparently tried to put her pants on over her head? You think she would have worked that one out before she joined. 

And then there was Sarah Bradbury and Ella Reno, who went down in hilarious flames. General Sheridan had the following to say about their misadventure: “while out on a foraging expedition, these Amazons had secured a supply of apple jack by some means, got very drunk, and on the return had fallen into the Stone River and been nearly drowned.” They were found out when someone resuscitated them. Sheridan was mighty embarrassed. 

Ella Reno apparently enlisted four times and was found out in every time, but the apple jack incident didn’t ruin her reputation. She was eventually passed on to Ambrose Burnside, whose amazing mutton chops are where the term ‘sideburns’ comes from, and his secretary said she “was noted for her bravery and daring.”

Dear Able love Ellie Reno.jpg

Our apple jack-drinking  friend Ella Reno wrote to Abe Lincoln begging him to let her stay a soldier after she was discovered. Some excerpts (click on the link for the whole delightful transcript):

“My Ever dear friend—I do not wish you to think me bold as I write to you wholy out of love for my native Country…I have been in the Army for nearly one year and I wish to see it over I am willing to do anny thing to aid or assist…I love liberty So I write this to ask you as a Child would ask a Father iff I can remain in your Service being as I have left my own Father and Adoupted you in stead…I am a Lady in every respect and so I will remain answer if you will pleas be so kind…pleas excuse my poor writing and Speling also.” 

 

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Sometimes women are recognized by someone they know and outed. Exhibit A: this excerpt from a newspaper article from 1861, titled “An Amazon”:

Mary W. Dennis, six feet two inches high, is 1st Lieutenant of the Stillwater company, Minnesota regiment. She baffled even the inspection of the surgeon of the regiment in discovering her sex, but was recognized by a St. Paul printer, who became shockingly frightened at her threats of vengeance upon him if he exposed her, and he decamped.

You tell him, Mary! 

But, amazingly, only 10% of women are caught in the  ranks – some 17% go on to serve openly as women. Yes, you heard that right!

Most arefound out when they’re injured. It’s hard to hide the fact that you’re a woman when someone cuts away your clothes. Women wounded in the face aren’t always discovered, but those hurt in more sensitive areas are pretty likely to be found out. 

Take Mary Galloway. She was shot in the neck at the Battle of Antietam and lay untended in the field for 36 hours. She didn’t want the doctor to examine her, so nurse Clara Barton had to convince her. Turns out that the bullet went straight through, managing not to hit any major organs, before lodging itself in her back. So the doctor removed it...without ANY ANESTHETIC, mind you, and Clara nursed her back to health. She admitted to Clara that she’d joined the army to find her lieutenant lover, and that she was only sixteen. Clara actually found the man for her: he was in a hospital in Maryland. They’d go on to get married. Well how about that.

But some women are caught because….wait for it….they’re pregnant. Six - count it, SIX - women are known to have served while in the family way. Some of them actually gave birth while on duty, having somehow hidden it all the way through. All of the reports we have of this happening state that the births went fine, and both baby and mother lived through it. This is in a time when it wasn’t uncommon for a woman to  die in childbirth. I just...don’t even know what to say about that.

The following dramatization is based on a true story.

Imagine a woman out on picket duty with a few others soldiers. That’s where soldiers stand guard, minding the boundaries of camps and territories, which is both tedious and dangerous. She’s wearing a baggy jacket. Has she been stealing rations? She’s looking a little...round in the middle.

Lady soldier: “I’m not feeling too well.”

Man soldier: “Quit your whining, Reynolds. We’ve all got the runs.”

Lady soldier: “I REALLY don’t feel well.”

Man soldier: “Thunderation, what’s that thing between your consarn limbs?!”

This particular woman get taken to a nearby farmhouse, and there, as one soldier put it, “the worthy corporal was safely delivered of a fine, fat little recruit.”Her fellow soldiers were so excited that they started up a collection for her and the child. They were concerned she wasn’t married, though, so they got her to admit which soldier knocked her up. They then made him give $8.00 of every paycheck by way of child support. 

When a husband wrote home to his wife about another soldier birth, she responded: “What a woman she must have been. I cannot conceive how she hid it.”

In fact, hiding bodily conditions, wounds and illnesses is something many women soldiers do because they’re afraid of discovery. Sarah Emma Edmonds broke her leg and never got help for it - she suffered from pains in that leg for the rest of her life.“I would rather have been shot dead,” she said later, “than to have been known as a woman and sent away from the army.”

Hospitals at this time aren’t always safe places. Twice as many Civil War soldiers died of disease than battle wounds. In 1864, age 22, Lyons Wakeman died of a slow, horrible dysentery-like disease. And though she was in a hospital for more than a month, probably very weak, it seems that no one ever figured out she was a woman. Which tells you…something about treatment in overcrowded military hospitals.

Infection is a constant, in a war where doctors often didn’t stop to wash their hands or their knives. That’s one of the reasons so many limbs were chopped off.

And in fact, several women had limbs chopped off. A Union soldier writing home about a Confederate woman who met that fate is equal parts sorrow and curiosity: 

I must tell you that we have got a female secesh here. I have not seen her, but they say she is very good looking. They say she has lost a leg. It is a shame she did not stay at home with her mother...but I hope she will get better and get home to her friends.
— A confused Union soldier

As our pregnant friends can tell us, there’s some monkey business happening in camp. As far as I can tell, only one woman ever came forward to said someone tried to rape her when they discovered her sex. But that has to be something women think about, especially when so many caught in the field end up accused of being prostitutes. War is often lawless, and this kind of violence did happen. I don’t see how you wouldn’t fear it, especially if you were taken prisoner.

Sometimes women are caught when they’re taken prisoner – some 18% of women were. Let’s just say up front that Civil War prison camps are bad, bad, bad - bad food, bad hygiene, often appalling treatment and conditions. Often, particularly in the South with its gentleman complex, women are exchanged or released when they’re discovered...though exchange happened less and less as the war went on. Others are segregated from the men and given women’s clothes to wear. But some lady prisoners choose to conceal their sex and suffer alongside their compatriots...or perhaps they fear what will happen to them if the enemy finds out. Being an enemy is bad enough. But a woman enemy who dares to fight? Who knows what emotions that might prompt in a prison where rules aren’t always followed…

Mary Ann Clark had it pretty easy when she was captured in 1862. She told her captors she wanted to stay with her friends in prison, but they ultimately decided to exchange her for a male prisoner -  after she promised to give up the soldier’s life and go home. But halfway there, she changed her mind and reenlisted. She threw those pants back on, joined back up, and rose to the rank of lieutenant. Take THAT. 

But not all women prisoners get special treatment. They are seen as spectacles to shame and jeer at. A Union officer had this to report home to his fiancé about a woman officer they captured at Cold Harbor: “We did capture a fully-fledged artillery woman who was working regularly at the piece; she was very independent and saucy, as most Southern women are.”

But Maggie Simpson, arrested in 1864, wins the prize for having the most colorful description given by a captor...

...she was by no means an ornament to her sex. On the whole, she was rather a scaly looking specimen with a face similar to a crocodile and a voice as sweet as a cracked fiddle or an old cow bell or bellows.
— A soldier (whom we don't like very much in this moment)

She ended up in jail for 30 days - because of spying, you say? Nope: for the crime of crossdressing. So was Lizzie Hoffman, a black woman from Virginia who served two years in the 45th U.S. Colored Infantry, was arrested when she got onto a steamer with the rest of her regiment, sent to a prison in Washington, and forced to change into a dress. They certainly weren’t the only girls to sit in a cell on such a charge.

20 year old Florena Budwin went to the infamously terrible Anderson jailwith her husband, who was killed by some guards. She was eventually transferred to the also horrible Florence, South Carolina, where she got so sick and her cover was blown. Though she was given a private room and good medical care, including medicine and clothes donated by local women, she died there. She was buried with 2,300 other soldiers, and was the only one given a headstone.

Women soldiers worry a lot about getting caught because they don’t know what will happen to them. There aren’t really any martial laws about it - why would there be, when women can’t fight? This grey absence of procedure means that men have no idea what to do with you, and are often making decisions on the fly. And that’s not always good.

Most women, when caught, are just sent home. I’m assuming that’s because the officers in charge of them are so embarrassed by having missed them that they just want them to fade away. If they’re injured, they are usually treated nicely. But so much of how they’re dealt with depends on the views and whims of the men around them. 

Some women, when caught, beg to be kept on in some capacity so they can be with loved ones. Elizabeth Finnern was discovered in the Ohio Infantry in 1861, but she was allowed to stay on as a battlefield nurse and a surgeon’s assistant, as well as laundress and seamstress. She still wore men’s clothes, as it was deemed more practical. One of her regiment fellows said that “in times of danger…[she] carried a musket just as did the soldiers, and in all respects shared the rough life of the men about her.” So basically, she did it all, but she never got paid.

Other women, if kept on, were forced to put on skirts and sidelined. Yet others were summarily dismissed when they asked to stay on. Fannie Lee, upon being discovered, requested a nursing position. She was denied. Apparently she had “so far unsexed herself”as to be unfit for any duty.

For others, the consequences are far more worrying. When one woman was caught in the ranks with her husband, they refused to hear her pleas to stay with him, though she said that he was all she had in the world. Dismissed from service, she threw herself into the Chicago river, and almost drowned. She isn’t the only outed female soldier to try and kill herself.

Women caught in the ranks are often suspected of being spies. Spies are sent to prison, which we’ve learned is not a place we want to be sent. 

But sometimes, when discovered, the brass decide their duplicity will make them goodspies, and employ them as such. And they’re pretty successful. Loretta Velasquez, by her own account quite a wild and crazy minx, earned two dollars a day as a double agent in Washington, pretending to spy for the Union when really she was spying for the Confederate cause. She said:

I needed no model. My experience convinced me that a courageous and resolute woman who had a talent for assuming disguises could perform important services that a man could not even attempt.
— Loreta Velazquez

Mary Ann Pitman was also taken from the fighting to become a spy for the Confederacy. She spent three years passing back and forth through the lines with supplies and secrets, cleverly changing her clothes from pants to dress and back again.

Some women soldiers are, unfortunately, suspected of being prostitutes. A woman wearing pants and being independent? HARLOT! But as we found out in episode 4, it’s not a charge to be taken lightly. But we’ll talk more about all that in another episode.

A popular theatrical pastime during this era were plays in which you could go and see actresses perform in “breeches parts” – costumed in trousers or tights, performing male roles – with pretty much the sole purpose of titillating the audience. Such women appeared free, wild, up for anything. Popular actress Pauline Cushman, whose scantily clad costumes were known, according to one reporter, to make a man “lost all restraint over himself”, took to wearing a full military uniform while performing for Union troops. So imagine, as a lady soldier, seeing the men around you whooping and making lewd comments about a woman on stage in pants. How would that make you feel: What would that make you fear?One woman reported later that a fellow soldier tried to rape her when he found her out. She can’t have been the only one.

Charges of harlotry are usually made by commanders, not your fellow grunts, probably because they’re made about the fact that they were duped. Regardless, it must have stung girls who risked their lives for their country to be accused of joining up to drum up such scandalous business. A commander accused Mary and Mollie Bell, who by all accounts served well during their two years, of “demoralizing several hundred men” and using their disguise as a way to “hide their iniquity”. They were sent to the horrible Castle Thunder for almost a month.

On the other end of the spectrum, especially in the Confederate army, lady soldiers are sometimes allowed to keep fighting even after their sex is discovered. This is probably because the South is greatly outnumbered, and they can’t afford to send good soldiers away. Take a woman called Captain Billy. When someone saw her in command of a company at a North Carolina train station in 1863, he ran straight to the general to tattle of her. But General D.H. Hill said, “My boy, that woman is an example for some of these men staying at home.” 

Over the course of the war, some women get comfortable enough that they stop pretending. A few women, especially ones in the wilder western theater, never bother pretending at all.

When I discovered that women fought in the Civil War, I thought I’d stumbled on some deep dark secret. But it turns out that, in the 1860s, women in the ranks are no secret at all. There are lots of newspapers reporting on women soldiers. Novels are published, both fictional and not, about women soldiers during and after the war. It seems like the public can’t get enough of them.

They especially love the romantic tales that follow the Female Warrior Bold motif. One woman, interviewed in 1863, and unnamed in the story to protect her privacy, said she’d followed her brothers to war to be a nurse. But then she decided to be a soldier, and was there for the death of both her brothers. She was then injured herself, and fell in love with an officer. He must have dug her, too, because when she confessed her sex, he asked her to marry her. Awww.

News stories actually have a lot to tell us about the confusing and often contradicting attitudes of the day toward lady soldiers. Here are a smattering, from North and South:

On May 14, 1861, the CHARLESTON MERCURY said: "Thirty women were discovered in Ellsworth's zouaves after the regiment arrived in Washington. They were sent home. The Zouaves, we fear, are not all of the highest moral character."

A week later, that same paper said this of a woman who’d officially volunteered to be a nurse: “The young lady had of her own free will chosen to brave the dangers of the battle-field, and must indeed be nerved by the fortitude of a--we like to have said, "hero"--well, "hero" be it, for she looked the hero…”   

In 1862, The DUBUQUE HERALD said: “Being a woman, she could not well put away womanish ways, and she was arraigned before a military tribunal, where she plead guilty to the charge of belonging to what is generally denominated the softer sex.” 

The WEEKLY COLUMBUS [GA] ENQUIRER, said: "In calling the roll of a regiment of conscripts who had just entered the camp of instruction at Raleigh, N.C., last week, one more "man" was present than called for by the list...The soldier was charged of being a female, when she confessed the truth and acknowledged that she had determined to accompany her friends in the perils of war, and avenge the death of a brother who fell in the fight near Richmond. We have heard nothing in any degree to implicate the good character and standing of this gallant heroine."                       

The CHICAGO DAILY TRIBUNE said, of a woman tried for her crossdressing: “She stood in the presence of the Magistrate with not a bold, but confident air, answered the few questions she wished to respond to deliberately, and apparently truthfully, betraying but little of the modesty and shrinking nature we have been the habit of attributing to the share of the gentler sex.”

Without fail, almost every article mentions what the woman looks like - more specifically, whether they are pretty or not. I imagine that some of that has to do with the novelty of the subject matter: these authors are trying to sell papers and paint an evocative picture. But still...sigh.

They’re described as Amazons, paragons, angels or harlots, all depending on how she acts and how she’s viewed. If a woman joined up and fought for the right reasons - the approved reasons - she is often heralded in the media. If she joined for adventure, money or escape, they’re far less kind.

But how do your fellow soldiers feel about it? In their letters, we find shock, hilarity, outrage, awe, appreciation, curiosity, and acceptance. The ones who are caught and turned out early are often the butt of jokes and ridicule. But the ones who serve, and serve well, for long periods, are mostly spoken of fondly. A fellow soldier said that Lizzie Compton acted fearlessly. A friend of Rebecca “Georgiana” Peterman said that she was “one of the most gallant soldiers he ever saw.” Another girl, who died in hospital, prompted compassion and admiration in some of the men around her. One wrote home: “Poor girl! Who knows what trouble, grief, or persecution drove her to embrace the hardships of a soldier’s life….she was brave as a lion in battle and never flinched from the severest fatigues or the hardest duties.” When you fight beside someone, it forms a special bond. And as we’ll see, those bonds will show themselves in touching ways when the war is out.

Sarah Emma pension_Nat Archives.jpg

Lady vets like Sarah Emma Edmonds had to fight hard for a pension. They had to not only show that they served, but that they are the men they said they were: not an easy task in an era before people were easy to track. Often, their fellow soldiers were happy to help, even if the government was very invested in pretending that women weren't there. Years later, the government said there was no record of women having fought in the war. This government document begs to differ.

 

Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration

 

Let’s hop forward in time to 1865. By now, the average female army soldier will have served a grueling 16 months. That’s more than a year of shooting, being shot at, being sick and far from home. What will life look like for a lady veteran? 

After the war, some women will seek notoriety for their service - several will write books about their experiences, and some will talk about their them with the press. Most will put a dress back on and continue on with life as it was before. Others will never again want to give up what one lady soldier called her“citizen’s dress.”

Regardless, life after war is hard for many, especially as they start to age. Given the limitations of 19th-century medicine, there are lingering injuries and ailments to deal with. This is particularly true for women, many of whom were afraid to seek out medical help. Such ailments, both emotional and physical, can make it hard to make a living. Just like before the war, your chances of thriving have much to do with your position in society.

Poor women who fought, especially those who aren’t married, struggle. Maria Lewis, the African American woman who passed as both white AND a man so she could fight for the North, must have had no safe haven to return to. She turned herself over to abolitionists helping freed slaves in Alexandria, Virginia. Like so many women vets, we have no record of what ultimately happened to her.

If you’re a male vet in the North, you’re eligible for a soldier’s pension. Nurses are, too, as well as widows and orphans. At first, they’re only paid out from time of application, but by the late 1870s there are laws that allow you to get a lump sum for the time you may have missed. 

As the losers, Southerners won’t get pensions for much longer. It’ll take years for their ruined states to come up with such plans, and until then you’ll have to do your best to pick up the pieces of your ruined home.

But guess what? I’m SURE this will shock you, but if you’re a woman veteran, you won’t get a pension. Because according to the government, women soldiers never existed at all.

Some married women choose not to call in their chips with the government, even when they end up destitute in older age. Mary Brown fought with her husband, Ivory, then went home to Maine and lived on their small farm. But when Ivory’s health started going downhill, the childless couple couldn’t keep up the farm. They lived on charity and Ivory’s pension, until Ivory died in 1903. Mary lived on, fending for herself for several decades, getting more and more sick as a result, as she said, of drinking ‘bad water’ in the war. By the 1930s, she was old and very sick in Portland, with what she described a “lizards in her bloodstream.”She spent years in a hospital as a charity case, dying at the age of 98. And in all that time - 70 years - Mary Brown NEVER claimed her soldier’s pension.

She’s not alone in this. Maybe women don’t claim their pensions because they don’t know, or don’t think, they’re entitled to one. Some just don’t want to public attention that trying to get a pension would require.

For those who fight, there are two glaring hurdles: first, that you have to offer proof that you were the man you say you are, and second, the government doesn’t want to admit you were ever there at all. 

Though Sarah Emma Edmonds’ book about her time in the army sold like hotcakes, she didn’t go public with her identity until 1883. But government wanted proof that she was, indeed, who she said she was, and in a time when there were no selfies or fingerprint recognition tests or, really, any solid way to prove she’d been Frank Thompson, she had to rey on her former brothers in arms to write letters swearing that they knew her. And they did. But still, such claims are a game of he said, she said, and they have to swim against the tide of suspicion that such claims are a scam to swindle the government. Sarah eventually won, but even the written decision dismissed and minimized the role she played as a soldier. Cases like hers depended entirely on men: the ones who served with her, the ones writing stories in the press about her, and ones behind official desks.  

That story ended happily, partially because Sarah put on a dress and lived a conventional life after the war. Not so for many women, who chose to continue living life as men, including Jennie Hodgers, aka Albert Cashier. 

Albert lived as a man before the war, and continued to live as one for the rest of her life. She never talked much about her motivations with anyone, so it’s hard to know what drove this decision. Was it because men’s clothes better fit her identity, desires and proclivities? Was it because this Irish immigrant with no family to speak of couldn’t make a good living any other way? Was it both?

After being mustered out of the infantry, she went back to Illinois and worked a number of jobs over the years: farmhand, babysitter, janitor, handyman, and co-owner of a nursery, which she ran with a fellow veteran. She was well liked, so much so that a local family reserved as spot for her in their home funeral plot. And all that time, everyone thought she was a man.

She didn’t go for a pension until 1890, when a local lawyer helped her get a pension. But not as Jennie Hodgers: as Albert Cashier. No one, not even a doctor, knew her secret until a decade later, when a Senator accidentally ran over her leg with his car. After that, she never was able to support herself again, and became an invalid at age 66. The guilty senator helped get her into a Sailors and Soldiers’ home, swearing the staff to secrecy so she could stay in the all-male home. For three years, she got increasingly sick and senile. Meanwhile, her secret leaked out to the public.

The State Department was fuming: they accused her of defrauding them for decades, using a false name to get money she wasn’t owed. So they sent investigators to try and find out the truth of the matter. Meanwhile, her friends, acquaintances, old army buddies, and the world at large were reading about her in the newspaper. Imagine how vulnerable that would make you feel, to have your life exposed and your identity debated, in a society where such a life would have been considered shameful. In the midst of all that, the Soldiers’ home thought she had become too senile for them to care for, and they had her declared insane.

Albert Cashier was put into an asylum. During the year and a half she was there, they forced her to wear skirts against her wishes. And because she had spent most of her life wearing pants, she tripped over her hem and broke her hip. She was put into bed and never really got up.

But members of the 95th Illinois Infantry rallied around her, both with the Pension Bureau and by going to visit her - their commanding officer went more than anyone else. They hadn’t known she was a woman when she served with them, but ultimately, to them, it didn’t matter. She served beside them - fought and risked her life with them. They were enraged when she was forced into the women’s wing of the asylum, and angry at what they saw as the government’s ploy to save money by defrauding her. The Pension Bureau raked through her life, calling in many witnesses to try and poke holes in her character or her sanity. But the men deposed spoke highly of her as a soldier. In 1915, the government decided that she could keep her pension. Albert Cashier died that same year.

The local veteran’s chapter gave her a full military burial, in her uniform, with a Union flag draped over her coffin.

A good number of women veterans would become part of their local veterans groups, and are also given military burials. So it seems that, while perhaps not all, MOST of the men they served with didn’t care that they were women: just how well they served.

***

But then, they were scrubbed from the history books – literally written over by people who didn’t want to acknowledge they were there. How does that even happen?

While not all people in Victorian America loved the idea of women soldiers, they were an accepted fact: included in reviews of the war and seen in the public consciousness as heroic, or at the very least worthy of notice.

But by a half century later, in 1909, the government put out a statement about it. When someone wrote in to ask how many women fought in the war, they responded:“I have the honor to inform you that no official record has been found in the War Department showing specifically that any woman was ever enlisted in the military service of the United States.”

Even though there were newspaper stories at the time about it; even though there WERE official government records, even congressional orders explicitly giving someone they knew to be a woman a soldier’s pension. But somehow, by the 1930s, the scholars who did talk about them cast them as loose women, deranged, depraved. By the 1960s, they’d vanished entirely. But they were always there: fighting valiantly, nursing, spying…and dying for their country. They were there by choice, defying the notion that women couldn’t pick up a musket and fight for what they thought was right.

And for that I raise my glass, put a hand on my heart, and salute them.

Theme Music and Logo 

My main squeeze, Paul Gablonski

Voices

  •  John Armstrong = swearing ruffian and the young soldier who helped a mate give birth
  • Phil Chevalier = newspaper man and the soldier who wasn't a fan of salt junk
  • Jacque Chevalier = Loreta Janeta Velazquez
  • Claire Burke = Sarah Emma Edmonds
  • Kaitlin Seifert = proud Southern lady
  • Andrew Goldman = soldier
  • Billy Kaplan = soldier
  • Avery Downing = soldier
  • Steven Reichel = Orlando Poe

music

Most of the music you heard in this episode is courtesy of Lobo Loco, which you can find here. The rest comes courtesy of Audioblocks.