Women Soldiers of the Civil War

Women Soldiers of the Civil War


Read about three of the most famous women who, disguised as men, served as soldiers in the Civil War.

Stories about Women Soldiers of the Civil War

Women, Dressed as Men, Serve in Battle

During the American Civil War, a number of women (estimated at between 450-700) disguised themselves as men and fought as soldiers on both sides. Other women served as spies, laundresses, nurses, cooks etc, but this page is about three of those who disguised themselves and enlisted as men.

Today we think it would be difficult to avoid discovery but a number of situations at that time contributed to the ability to keep the secret. For one thing, people were much more modest and it would have drawn no attention to have gone off for some "privacy". Loose-fitting uniforms and the total unexpectancy of finding a woman in male attire also helped the women (some of whom were actually still teens). Many women lived hard lives of farming and raising stock, so were used to working like men and were just as skilled with rifles and riding. Occasionally, when women were discovered, the men in the unit protected their identity. Sometimes their identities were not known until after they were killed.

We will likely never know the reasons why many of the women enlisted, but some went with their husbands, brothers or lovers (ex. Mary Owens Jenkins, Pvt. Charley, Satronia Smith Hunt, Florina Budwin, Malinda Blalock and Elizabeth Niles), some were escaping hard lives (Sarah E. Edmonds), and some just wanted adventure by being patriotic (Mary and her cousin Molly Bell). Although the women were apparently well-known after their service (with the exception of those who died and Albert Cashier), it is difficult to document their service through official records. We often don't know the name under which they enlisted, or their real names, or the regiment they served in. After they returned to civilian life, they resumed their female personas, usually married and had children, and moved with the rest of the population. Sarah Rosetta Wakeman wrote many letters describing her military life, and these letters were kept by her family. Some, in later years, wrote books or gave lectures about their experiences.

Many web sites are devoted to the subject of women who served in any capacity for either the Union or Confederate sides (and sometimes for both!). Perhaps the best blog on this subject is http://civilwarwomen.blogspot.com/2006/07. Other good sources are articles written by DeAnne Blanton for Prologue Magazine, and Women in the Civil War, written by Larry G. Eggleston.

The three women who are the subject of this brief Story Page are Sarah Emma Edmonds, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman and Jennie Hodgers. All three have different stories.

Sarah Emma Edmonds (aka Franklin Thompson)

Born in Canada about 1841, and mistreated by her father, Sarah fled to the United States and was living in Flint, MI, as a male Bible salesman when the Civil War broke out. [The 1860 census of Kalamazoo, MI, shows a Franklin Thompson, age 13 and born in Michigan, living with the family of a physician. This may not be Emma, but it is the only person of that name in Michigan at the time.] After 3 failed attempts, she was able to enlist as Private Franklin Thompson in the Second Michigan Infantry (which later became known as Company F), and was assigned to be a male nurse. After training in Washington, DC, her unit was sent to Virginia, where she volunteered to act as a spy. Disguised as a black man, an Irish peddler woman, a black laundress, and a young male Southerner, she was able to gather information for the Union. In between spying excursions, she worked as a nurse in the military hospital and it was during one of these times that she became ill with malaria. To avoid detection, she left camp, donned feminine clothing again, and checked into a private hospital to recuperate. One day she read in an army bulletin that Frank Thompson had deserted. This ended her military career but not her war efforts. She spent the rest of the war as the female nurse Sarah Edmonds in Washington.

After the war, she returned to Canada where she married a childhood friend, Linus Seelye. They moved back to the United States and raised 3 sons. Bothered by being labeled a deserter, Emma petitioned the War Department to review her case. In 1884, "Frank Thompson" was granted an honorable discharge and Emma was given a bonus and a pension of $12 per month. You can see her pension application card by clicking the images to the right.

Sarah Rosetta Wakeman (aka Lyons Wakeman)

This Sarah was born in New York state in 1843. She appears in the 1850 and 1860 censuses of Chenango county with her parents, Harvey and Emily, and her brothers and sisters. Her letters reveal that she didn't have much expectation of marriage, that her family needed help financially, and that she didn't get along well some of the family members. Dressed as a man, she left home and went to Binghamton, NY, where she worked for a couple of weeks before getting a job as a boatman on a coal barge. It was while she was working in this capacity that she was encouraged to join the 153rd Regiment of the New York State Volunteers. On 30 August 1862, she enlisted as Pvt Lyons Wakeman, changing her age as well as her name. The Muster-In Roll of G Co. 153rd NYS Voluteers shows her age as 21 (www.rootsweb.com/~nycivilw/regiments/153gvols.html). In October her unit left for Washington, DC, where they performed police and guard duties. In February 1864, they marched to Louisiana where she saw combat, but also became very ill with chronic diarrhea. Even though she was hospitalized, it seems that no one discovered her true identity. She died in New Orleans on 22 May 1864. Because she died, there is no pension application for her, but a Footnote member has contributed a photo of Sarah's purse and contents. You can see this image on the right.

Jennie Hodgers or Hodgens (aka Albert D J Cashier)

Jennie Hodgers was born in Ireland in 1834 and stowed away on a ship that arrived in the USA about 1853. In 1861 she was living in Belvidere, IL and enlisted as Albert D J Cashier on 3 August 1862 in Company G 95th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. She served, as Albert, in a number of battles, including Vicksburg, Atlanta, Nashville and Mobile. At one point she was captured by the Confederates but managed to escape. She was mustered out at Springfield, IL, in August 1865.

Unlike the two Sarahs, Jennie did not go back to her female role in society but remained Albert all her life. She/he returned to Belvidere for a couple of years, then moved to Pontiac for 2 1/2 years, then settled in Saunemin, a town south of Chicago. The 1870, 1900 and 1910 censuses show him living there, first with a Cheesbro family, then next door to the Lish family, then by himself. He worked as a laborer, church janitor and lamplighter and did odd jobs. Several people discovered his true identity but kept it a secret. In 1890, Albert applied for an invalid pension but, because he refused to submit to a physical exam to clarify the claim, he was denied. In 1909, he was granted the normal pension of $12 per month. You can see the pension application, held in Civil War Pensions on Footnote, by clicking on the images to the right. In 1910 he was hit by a car and his leg was broken. In 1911, he was admitted to the Soldier and Sailors Home in Quincy, IL, and moved to the Watertown State Hospital for the Insane in 1913. It was there that his identity was discovered and made known. Albert died 10 Oct 1915 and is buried, in his uniform, under that name.

If you would like to find out more about other women who served as men in the Civil War, check out Frances Clayton or Clalin, Loreta Velazquez (aka Harry T Buford), Satronia Smith Hunt, Mary Owens Jenkins, Sarah Malinda Blalock, Mary Seaberry (aka Charles Freeman who was discharged for "sextual incompatiblitly"), Sarah Collins, Mary Galloway, Frances Hook, Madame Collier, Florina Budwin, Elizabeth Niles, or Pauline Cushman, among others.

Even years after the Civil War ended, the role of women in the military was a topic of interest. See the article in the Halifax Gazette, 10 Mar 1955, in the attached images.

See all 3 stories…

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