Exposed, or not: Women soldiers in the Civil War, part 2 of 2

Sarah Rosetta Wakeman of Bainbridge (Chenango County) was buried as Lyons Wakeman, the name she used when she disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the 153rd New York Volunteer Infantry, which included soldiers from Essex and Clinton counties, including three companies from Plattsburgh.

From a contemporary perspective, it’s hard to believe women attempting to pass as men were not discovered at the enlistment physical and sent home. But with ever-increasing casualties, by the spring of 1862 (the second year of warfare) the glory and excitement of becoming a soldier and fighting for one’s cause and country had significantly diminished, and military officials were scrambling to enlist every warm body they could find.

Of the approximately 3 million soldiers who fought in the war (about 2.1 million Union and 900,000 Confederate), historians estimate that between 250,000 and 500,000 soldiers were under 16 years of age with some as young as 11. Although both armies required soldiers to be 18 years of age, this regulation was relaxed if not completely ignored as the war progressed.

Historian DeAnne Blanton states that no verification of one’s identity was required to enlist. If an individual presented himself (or herself) as James Smith, “he” was James Smith. In addition, enlistment physicals were cursory at best, often nonexistent. According to Blanton, physicians would “just have recruits walk by. And if they weren’t lame or blind and if their trigger fingers worked, they were in.”

A lack of strength and physical fitness would betray few female soldiers, as women from farming backgrounds were likely just as strong as some men and stronger than most adolescent male soldiers. Historian Anya Jabour states that women’s familiarity with “men’s work” as hired hands and stable boys helped them evade detection and more easily fit into their new surroundings.

A woman without facial hair, at a time when men routinely sported mustaches and beards, would hardly stand out in an army wherein so many soldiers were too young to shave. Female soldiers bound their breasts, cut their hair, wore layered or loose-fitting clothes and rubbed dirt on their faces. Male soldiers often refused to use odorous, open-trench camp latrines and trekked to the woods when nature called. Women soldiers did the same. Evidence suggests that many female soldiers kept to themselves and were often described as aloof. Others took the opposite strategy and swore, drank and gambled in a manner similar to their male comrades-in-arms.

Sarah Rosetta Wakeman of Bainbridge (Chenango County) was buried as Lyons Wakeman, the name she used when she disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the 153rd New York Volunteer Infantry, which included soldiers from Essex and Clinton counties, including three companies from Plattsburgh.

Passing as a male was not always successful, and female soldiers were “unmasked” in a number of ways. A woman’s identity would almost certainly be discovered if she received medical attention for a chest or abdominal wound. As two of three soldiers who died in both armies did so of “camp diseases” (dysentery, typhoid, tuberculosis, measles and malaria, among others), an examining physician would likely — but not always — discover that a sick soldier was a woman.

In the summer of 1862, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman of Bainbridge, New York (Chenango County) enlisted in the 153rd New York Volunteer Infantry (three companies of this regiment were from Plattsburgh) under the name Lyons Wakeman. After weeks of grueling marches through hundreds of miles of Louisiana bayou country and fighting at the Battle of Pleasant Hill in April,1864, Wakeman fell ill with chronic diarrhea and was sent to a regimental hospital in New Orleans. Private Wakeman died a few weeks later, her masculine identity intact and preserved for over 100 years.

Outed women were typically sent home with their discharge papers stating “sexual incompatibility.” A few female soldiers were imprisoned for their “crime” of deception. Other women were unmasked after being captured, or during a North/South prisoner exchange.

After the Battle of Antietam, a soldier described a heroic comrade — who was promoted to the rank of sergeant for bravery — as a “young and good-looking corporal … a real soldierly, thoroughly military fellow.” A month later, the new sergeant gave birth to a baby boy.

Some women confessed to their masquerade during or after the war via letters, diaries and/or memoirs. When the war ended, many female soldiers simply resumed their lives as women. One of the most famous and thoroughly researched women soldiers, Sarah Emma Edmonds (who served as Franklin Thompson), married Linus Seely in 1867. The couple had three children and adopted two others.

In contemporary parlance, an unknown number of these women were transgender and lived as men their entire adult lives. One of the most interesting and heartfelt transgender stories is that of Jennie Hodgers, who enlisted in an Illinois regiment under the name Albert Cashier and fought as an “infantryman” in 40 battles. After the war, Hodgers kept her male identity and did odd jobs for Illinois state Sen. Ira Lish. One day in 1910, Lish accidentally struck Cashier with his car. When a doctor discovered that Cashier was a woman, Sen. Lish convinced the physician to keep this knowledge a secret as Cashier was receiving a military pension.

When Cashier’s injured leg did not heal, “he” was sent to a Soldiers and Sailors Home to recover. Hospital officials also kept “his” secret. However, in 1913, Cashier slipped into dementia and was transferred to a state hospital for the insane and forced to wear a dress, which only worsened “his” deteriorating mental condition. Eventually, the press reported the old soldier was a woman in disguise. Many of Hodgers’ former military comrades rallied to “his” defense and vigorously protested the way “he” was treated. When Hodgers died in 1915, she was buried in her army uniform and given a tombstone noting her male identity. In 1970, a second tombstone was added to the grave site and inscribed with the name Jennie Hodgers.

In early May of this year, my wife and I visited the National Military Parks at Antietam and Gettysburg. Meandering through rows of graves, one can’t help but ponder these lives cut short: who these individuals were, what they might have accomplished and the grieving families they left behind. I wondered how many graves with inscriptions of John, William and Edward contained the remains of female soldiers.

Historian DeAnne Blanton reminds us these women “faced not only the guns of the adversary but also the sexual prejudices of their society.” This Memorial Day, let us honor all the men AND women who gave their lives in the service of their country, and reflect on the Civil War women who had to pass as men to do so.

George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale and is retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego.

Fight like a man: Women soldiers in the Civil War, part 1 of 2


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