“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.” ~ Sarah Emma Edmonds
When commercials for the United States military branches flash onto our televisions, it is not uncommon to see female recruits and officers amongst their male counterparts. As of 2012, women make up a little over 14% of the U.S. military. However, it was not until 2013 that the ban on women serving in combat roles was lifted. It is no surprise to learn, though, that women have been serving in combat for as long as there have been wars on U.S. soil.
In my newly published novel, The Soldier’s Secret, I explore the roles of women fighting during the American Civil War. My main character, Emma Mansfield, chooses to dress as a man and go off to fight alongside other men (and women) in the Army of the Potomac, a branch of the Union army. There were many reasons women chose to break social norms and descend onto the dangerous battlefields of the time. In Emma’s case, she desires to seek out information about her missing brothers. For many women, the reasons were much simpler.
There are many documented cases of women participating both on and off the battlefield. The Confederate Army estimated that approximately 250 women served in their ranks, but modern historians suppose it was anywhere between 400 to 750 women total serving on both sides of the conflict. Women were needed as nurses, primarily as the modernization of weaponry inevitably lead to graver injuries. Both sides used women as spies, their gender allowing them to slip behind enemy lines and deliver crucial messages. One of these women was Pauline Cushman. A former stage actress from New Orleans, Miss Cushman would travel around the states performing in the theatre. Dubbed a Confederate sympathizer, Cushman found herself out of work until a new opportunity presented itself in the form of Union spy. From that point, she posed as a “camp follower,” a woman of ill-repute who followed the regiments around providing comfort to the men. As if we need much imagination to know what that required! With her new role, Cushman was able to glean information and report it back to the Union commanding officers. A dangerous profession, Cushman faced hanging on several occasions. At the end of the war, she was awarded the rank of Brevet-Major by General Garfield as well as gaining commendation from President Lincoln.
But this is meant to be about women dressing as men and fighting, right? There are many notable examples of women serving in the ranks of the military during the Civil War. Countless others have probably gone unnoticed or undocumented. Sarah Emma Edmonds, also known as Franklin Flint Thompson, enlisted as a male field nurse with the 2nd Michigan Infantry. She participated in several major battles, including Antietam, both battles of Manassas, and the Vicksburg Campaign. It is rumored she also served as a Union spy, but there is no conclusive record of this. When Edmonds developed malaria, it put an end to her military career. She went on to write about her experiences in a memoir entitled, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. Edmonds’ reasons for fighting were to escape an abusive father and forced marriage, legitimate reasons to seek out a better life. She did go on to marry and have children. In addition, she was awarded an honorable discharge and government pension for her service, the only woman to gain such recognition from her service.
While Edmonds fought to escape abuse, many women entered the military ranks for excitement, adventure, money, or to follow loved ones (much like Emma). Jennie Hodgers, known for a majority of her life as Albert Cashier, enlisted in the 95th Illinois Infantry in 1862. Her regiment fought in over 40 engagements. What I find particularly fascinating about Jennie Hodgers is she continued to dress and act as a man long after the end of the war, even participating in elections at a time where women were not allowed to vote. It was not until November 1910 that her secret was uncovered. Having been hit by a car, Hodgers suffered a broken leg and was taken to a hospital. Although the doctors agreed not to reveal her gender, mental health issues forced Hodgers into an institution where they forced her to wear a dress. Although surprised, her former compatriots protested this outrageous treatment and when she passed away, was buried in full uniform with honors. The story is heartbreaking as well because Hodgers probably felt she was born in the wrong body. To be forced to live as a woman for the remainder of her life was most likely devastating.
How did women not get discovered unless they were injured? While many recruiters were meant to give thorough physical examinations, they often only looked for visible deformities or impediments to service. Once enlisted, men rarely changed out of their uniforms for sleeping and bathed in their underwear. The loose fitting uniforms and long hair of the time made it easy for women to slip into the ranks unnoticed. Many learned to talk and walk like men. Latrines in camp were cesspools so a female soldier would not go amiss if she chose to attend to her needs in the woods or bathe in private. When it came to fighting skills, many voluntary recruits had never fired a gun before so the women learned right alongside the men.
Today, we can look back on these incredible women with awe and respect. Along with their predecessors, they paved the way for women’s rights across the United States, bravely defying all the cultural norms of the time.
Be sure to check out my new book, “The Soldier’s Secret,” available now on all Amazon Marketplaces (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00TONSRTU). Kind thanks to the following sources:
Wood, Jennie. A History of Women in the U.S. Military. Retrieved February 22, 2015 from http://www.infoplease.com/us/military/women-history.html.
Blanton, DeAnne. Women Soldiers of the Civil War. Retrieved February 22, 2015 from http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1993/spring/women-in-the-civil-war-1.html.
Civil War Trust. www.civilwar.org.