Fight like a man

Women soldiers in the Civil War, part 1 of 2

Frances Clayton, at left, wears a long dress typical of the 1860s. At right, she is seen in a Union soldier's uniform as Jack Williams.

Sept. 17, 1862, was the bloodiest day in American military history as 22,717 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded or reported missing at the Battle of Antietam (also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg) in northern Maryland.

While walking the battlefield the next day, Union Private Franklin Thompson (a nurse) came upon a dying soldier. While attending the young man, Thompson asked if there was anything he could do for him. In a weak voice the soldier replied, “Yes, yes, there is something to be done, and quickly, for I am dying. … I can trust you, and will tell you a secret. I am not what I seem, but am female. … I wish you to bury me with your own hands that none may know after my death that I am other than my appearance indicates.”

Thompson and two other soldiers buried their fallen comrade in a shallow grave. The dead soldier did not know that Private Franklin Thompson was, in reality, Sarah Emma Edmonds, a Canadian woman by birth, who was also passing as a man.

While the veracity of this incident has been questioned, it is an indisputable fact that Franklin Thompson was a Union soldier, and that he was a she. Edmonds/Thompson is one of the most famous and thoroughly researched cases of women passing as male soldiers during the Civil War.

Estimates of the number of females who enlisted in the Union and Confederate armies range from 250 to 750, with the figure of approximately 400 “documented” cases cited most frequently by Civil War scholars. Historian Richard Hall argues that for every woman who served in combat, the evidence suggests that as many as four others “were killed in combat without their gender being discovered, or who survived the war with their male disguises intact.”

Why would women engage in such an elaborate hoax and expose themselves to the life-threatening risks of war? In large measure, females were motivated to enlist for the same reasons men joined the army: patriotism, the search for adventure, a desire to travel and to escape the poverty and drudgery of back-breaking farm labor. Female soldiers tended to be young, unmarried, childless, often recently arrived immigrants and poor.

Regarding patriotism as a motivating factor, Frances Hook, who enlisted under the alias Frank Miller, wrote to her brother stating that “I volunteered in the army because I wished to have a part in the defense of the country’s flag. I think I love my country as well as you do.”

Some women enlisted to enhance their abysmal standard of living. Richard Hall argues that, if a young woman was paid the “starvation wage” of $4 a month laboring in a munitions factory or as a seamstress (the “needle trade”), the “$13 a month, which was the Union Army pay for a private, sounded pretty good.” In some states a “bounty” (enlistment bonus) could be as high as $300, more than six years’ wages for someone earning $4 a month.

Other women wanted the freedom to live as a man in a male-dominated society that, with few exceptions, controlled every aspect of their existence. Lizzie Cook told the Missouri Democrat newspaper that “her strong impulse to shoulder a musket” came from a desire to escape the “monotony of a woman’s life.” A young woman wrote the following to her family shortly after joining the army as a man: “I am enjoying myself better this summer than I ever did before in this world. I have good clothing and enough to eat and nothing to do, only to handle my gun, and that I can do as well as the rest of them.”

Still other women could not tolerate separation from sweethearts, husbands and brothers and enlisted to be with their loved ones. As Civil War companies (approximately 100 soldiers) were typically formed at the local level, serving with a friend or relative was all but guaranteed. Tall and thin with what has been described as a “masculine physique,” Frances Clayton enlisted in the Union Army with her husband Elmer. Taking the name Jack Williams, Frances enhanced her deception skills by walking, talking and chewing like a man.

Some women enlisted strictly for revenge. Charlotte Hope joined the 1st Virginia Cavalry as Charlie Hopper to avenge the death of her slain-in-combat fiance, vowing to kill 21 Yankees, one for every year of her beloved’s short life. She died in a cavalry raid, and there is no record of the number of Union soldiers (if any) she killed.

Female soldiers fought and died in every major Civil War conflict, including the battles of First Manassas, Shiloh, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and the Wilderness. After the Battle of First Manassas (also known as the First Battle of Bull Run) in 1861, a Confederate soldier from Georgia stated, “There were a great many fanatic women in the Yankee army.” In a Texas battle in 1864, a number of Confederate female soldiers were killed assaulting Union lines.

“They fought like demons,” an Illinois soldier wrote to his father, “and we cut them down like dogs.”

Analyzing documented cases of female soldiers in the Civil War, historian Anya Jabour states these women had a casualty rate (killed, wounded or taken prisoner) of 44 percent while male soldiers had a rate of 30 percent. Whether this higher female casualty rate was a result of women being braver, more reckless and/or less proficient in combat than their male colleagues is unknown.

Because female soldiers did not fit the mid-19th-century view of women as frail, subordinate, passive creatures, women warriors were routinely characterized as mentally unbalanced, freaks, prostitutes and homosexuals. Historians DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook argue that women who served in the army braved this derogatory depiction in part because they were responding to a liberating voice of their time.

That is, cross-dressing female heroines — especially soldiers and sailors — were standard reading fare in the popular culture of the era. Celebrated in novels, ballads and poetry aimed at the literate lower classes, the “woman warrior was a virtuous and heroic ideal.” Historian Dianne Dugaw states that ballads of masquerading heroines were success stories, the women unabashed models off “bravery, beauty and pluck” who proved themselves “deserving in romance, able in war and rewarded in both.”

George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale and is retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego. A list of sources will accompany part 2 of this essay tomorrow.

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