Women Civil War Soldiers

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Women Civil War Soldiers
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Dr. Mary Walker

(Left) Dr. Mary Walker. Wearing Medal of Honor. Ca. 1866. Mathew Brady Collection (Army). Exact Date Unknown.

Woman Soldiers in the American Civil War
Introduction by The Civil War Society's Encyclopedia of the Civil War

In the last few years, historians have become more and more aware of what was previously thought to be a limited phenomenon in the Civil War: the incidence of women disguising themselves as men and enlisting in the army, for any number of reasons.
There were numerous women openly serving with the armies on both sides, but recognized as female; the Union forces, more so than the Confederates, had in their ranks vivandieres, women who marched alongside the men, often going into battle with them, to provide medical assistance, carry water and ammunition down the line, and to carry messages between troops and their commanders. In addition, women such as Captain Sally Tompkins, who ran a hospital in Richmond for the Confederacy and was rewarded with a salaried rank in the Southern army, and Bridget Divers, who served openly in her husband's company of the First Michigan Cavalry, were tireless fighters in their own ways for the aims of their nations and flags.

But as time goes by, more stories are coming to the surface of women who left home disguised as men and passed through the haphazard enlistment process without being detected for what they really were. With few exceptions, these women served gallantly for all or part of the war; some of them, revealed to be women when they fell ill or were wounded, were either honorably discharged or summarily dismissed, depending on the mood of whatever general caught them or had to deal with them. Some of them even drew veterans' pensions in the years following the war.

Their reasons for serving were as different and varied as the women themselves. Sarah Emma Edmonds, a young Canadian girl, ran away from home to avoid an arranged marriage; she impersonated a male bookseller in the United States for a time, then enlisted in the Union army as Frank Thompson. She served with the Second Michigan Infantry until a bout of malaria made her fear she would be caught in her masquerade; she deserted, but was legally cleared of that desertion long after she had been married and had become a mother.

Jennie Hodgers, who stowed away on a ship leaving Ireland bound for the United States in 1844, disguised herself as one Albert D. J. Cashier and served in the Illinois Volunteer Infantry from 1862 until the end of the war. She was never suspected to be anything more than likeable, shy, and very brave. Her masquerade was only discovered long after the war, when at the age of 66 she broke her leg in an automobile accident-and the doctor at the veteran's hospital found her out. The secret was kept, however, and she successfully drew the veteran's pension she was entitled to for her gallant service.

There were others, of course, known and unknown, but one of the women passing for men in the armed forces who seems to have not only served well, but had a good time doing so, was Loreta Jancta Velazquez of the Arkansas Grays, an infantry unit she raised and equipped at her own expense. Velazquez was the Cuban-born widow of a Confederate soldier who died of an accidental gunshot injury early in the war; she left her New Orleans home in search of adventure, with the romantic notion of becoming a "second Joan of Arc." She created a system of wire shields and braces to hide her breasts, put on a Confederate uniform, and adopted the name Harry Buford. She then traveled to Arkansas, where she would presumably not be recognized, and recruited for her new command.

She was elected lieutenant, and her career as the commander of the Grays began at First Manassas (First Bull Run). Eventually she ended up serving with the army in Kentucky and Tennessee, during which service she was twice wounded and cited for gallantry. She did not seem to care for the private behavior of men, finding that when they were reasonably sure there were no women around, their conversation became disgusting and full of "thoroughly despicable" comments about women.
She wound up in Richmond, where someone figured out she was a woman herself. Temporarily arrested as a possible spy, she convinced Confederate authorities that she was a loyal citizen and embarked on a career as a secret agent for the South. Her operations took her to Canada and to the Federal capital at Washington, D.C. Her postwar narrative account of her adventures, amusing, harrowing, and very well written, contains a comment that might well serve as an epitaph for all the women, known and unknown, who chose this unique and dangerous way to serve their country:
"Notwithstanding the fact that I was a woman, I was as good a soldier as any man around me, and as willing as any to fight valiantly and to the bitter end before yielding."
Early Women Soldiers
by army.mil
American Revolutionary War
During the American Revolutionary War, women served the U.S. Army in traditional roles as nurses, seamstresses and cooks for troops in camp. In the 18th and 19th centuries, garrisons depended on women to make Soldiers’ lives tolerable. Some found employment with officers’ families or as mess cooks. Women employed as laundresses, cooks, or nurses were subject to the Army’s rules of conduct. Though not in uniform, these women shared Soldiers’ hardships including inadequate housing and little compensation.

A few courageous women served in combat either alongside their husbands or disguised as men. During the attack on Fort Washington in 1776, standing alongside her husband John, Margaret Corbin handled ammunition for a cannon. When he was fatally wounded, she took his place at the cannon until she also was wounded. Congress authorized a pension for her in 1779.

Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley gained the nickname “Molly Pitcher” in 1778 by carrying water to men on the battlefield in Monmouth, N.J. She even replaced her husband, William Hays, when he collapsed at his cannon.

Women also served as spies during the Revolutionary War. The war was fought on farms and in the backyards of American families across the width and breadth of the colonies and along the frontier. Women took an active role in alerting American troops to enemy movement. Women carried messages, transported contraband, and generally functioned as spies for the cause.

Ann Simpson Davis was handpicked by Gen. George Washington to carry messages to his generals while the army was in eastern Pennsylvania. Ann, an accomplished horsewoman, slipped through areas occupied by the British Army unnoticed. She carried secret orders in sacks of grain and sometimes in her clothing to various mills around Philadelphia and Bucks Country. She received a letter of commendation for her services from Gen. Washington.
American Civil War

Most women that had an active role in the war served in traditional roles. They took care of farms and families while encouraging and supporting the war effort. Women served Soldiers more directly as nurses, cooks, laundresses and clerks. They also became members of the United States Sanitary Commission, the Christian Commission, and many other support-type groups in numbers unprecedented up to that point in the nation’s history.

As regiments faced the reality of war, some women rallied Soldiers to fight, bearing the regimental colors on the march, or even participated in battle. “Daughters of the Regiment,” as they were commonly referred to, were part of some Civil War units. This title probably originated to designate an honorary “guardian angel,” or nurse. One of the best known of these “latter-day Joan of Arcs,” or “half-Soldier heroines” was Annie Etheridge of the 3rd Michigan Infantry Regiment. Through several bloody engagements, she maintained a reputation for bravery, stamina, modesty, patriotism, and kindness.

“At the battle of Fredericksburg,” one Maine recruit wrote in his journal, "[Annie] was binding the wounds of a man when a shell exploded nearby, tearing him terribly, and removing a large portion of the skirt of her dress." “You may have read of her,” wrote another Soldier, in the wake of the battle of Chancellorsville later that Spring. “She is always to be seen riding her pony at the head of our Brigade on the march or in the fight. Gen. Berry used to say she had been under as heavy fire as himself.”

Clara Barton witnessed immense suffering on the battlefield as a nurse. She took care of the wounded, dead and dying from Antietam to Andersonville. After the war she lectured and worked on humanitarian causes and became the first president of the American Association of the Red Cross.

Until she was captured by Confederates in Chattanooga, Tenn., Dr. Mary E. Walker served as assistant surgeon with Gen. Burnside’s Union forces in 1862 and with an Ohio regiment in East Tennessee the following year. Imprisoned in Richmond, Va., as a spy, she was eventually released and returned to serve as a hospital surgeon at a women’s prisoner-of-war hospital in Louisville, Ky. After the war, President Andrew Johnson awarded her the Medal of Honor. Dr. Walker is the only female to have been awarded this highest honor.

Sally Tompkins ran a Confederate military hospital in Richmond, Va., during the war. Not only did her hospital take the most severe cases during the Civil War, but the staff achieved the best patient outcomes. She was the only woman to receive an officer’s commission (a captaincy) in the Confederate Army during the war. She returned her salary to the Confederate government, but kept the commission as it allowed her to issue orders and to draw supplies for the hospital from the Confederate commissary. Tompkins ran the hospital, made medical decisions, purchased supplies, nursed, cooked meals for the patients and kept records. Her hospital had the lowest death rate of any Confederate hospital – with only 73 deaths out of 1,333 admissions. Ahead of her time in many ways, historians believe that the low death rate was due to her emphasis on cleanliness and a proper diet.

As in the Revolutionary War, women sometimes disguised themselves and enlisted to fight. It was relatively easy for them to pass through the recruiter’s station, since few questions were asked – as long as one looked the part. Women bound their breasts when necessary, padded the waists of their trousers, and cut their hair short.

A former slave, Cathay Williams, served in a somewhat similar capacity. Swept up by the Union XIII Corps in Jefferson City, Mo., on the way to Vicksburg, Miss., she became a cook and laundress. She ended up in the household of Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan in 1864. After the Civil War, Williams made her way back to the Midwest, where as “William Cathay” she disguised herself as a man and enlisted in Company A, 38th U.S. Infantry. There she served for two years until she became ill and was discovered by a post physician. She was discharged at Fort Bayard, N.M., on Oct. 14, 1868.

As in previous wars, women served as military spies and espionage agents during the course of the Civil War. Harriet Tubman is well known for her work on the Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War. Fewer people know, however, that Tubman organized and led a group of scouts (freed black slaves) under the direction of Gen. Rufus Saxton in the Beaufort, S.C., area in 1863. The scouts, many of whom were river pilots and who knew the area intimately, made repeated trips up the rivers and into the swamps and marshes to obtain information about Confederate troop strength and defenses. They also surveyed plantations and towns, looking for slaves they could enlist in the Union Army. Using information obtained by Tubman and her scouts, Col. James Montgomery, who commanded the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers (a black unit), conducted a series of river raids to acquire supplies and to destroy enemy torpedoes, railroads, bridges commissaries, cotton, and plantation homes.

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