Women Soldiers in the Civil War
Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, the female Union soldier upon whom the fictional Bill Crenshaw is based. Image from American Battlefield Trust: Civil War Biography: Sarah Rosetta Wakeman.
I wrote about this subject last March, but on Wednesday I’ll be discussing a particular secondary character who is a female soldier and thought a refresher was due.
The material below was pulled directly from my annotated bibliography in The Enlistment: A Frankie Blaine Story, with a few changes made.
There are a number of books and articles available that deal with women passing as men among the ranks of Civil War soldiers. My main sources for this story about female soldiers were the articles found in the Civil War Trust website (www.civilwar.org) and Lauren Cook Burgess’ curation of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman’s letters. These gave me insight into the life of female soldiers, who they were, and why they fought. The Civil War Trust’s web page, “Female Soldiers in the Civil War” notes that while women’s participation in the military was secretive and thus makes hard numbers impossible to obtain, “conservative estimates of female soldiers in the Civil War put the number [of women soldiers] somewhere between 400 and 750.” Interestingly, women joined up for many of the same reasons as men: patriotism, greater income, the desire for adventure, and more. Women also enlisted if a loved one, such as a husband, was in the service.
We may wonder why females in the ranks were not more readily discovered. Several reasons exist. These may seem incredible to us, but made sense in the 1860s. 1) Victorian modesty dictated that things such as bathing and attending to nature’s call often were done in private, thus many soldiers were modest about these things. 2) Soldiers tended to sleep in their clothing. 3) Physical examinations were cursory. As long as the prospective soldier did not present with obvious signs of illness, he was deemed healthy and there was no need for him to remove his clothing. 4) Uniforms were heavy and bulky and hid a woman’s shape. 5) The general lack of military experience among men meant that female soldiers experienced the same learning curve as the men and did not stand out among the ranks. 6) Gender in the nineteenth century was associated with the clothing one wore. Succinctly put, if a woman donned men’s clothing, she was perceived to be a man, at least by other men. But, according to Lauren Cook Burgess in her Introduction to An Uncommon Soldier, other women seemed to recognize their same-sex comrades. She postulates this may be because women could see beyond the façade of dress. Thus, in The Enlistment, other women are able to recognize Frankie despite her boy-attire.
My female soldier character, Bill Crenshaw, has roots in Union soldier Sarah Rosetta Wakeman. Like Wakeman, Bill left a household with numerous mouths to feed and an indebted father. Women were paid low wages and had limited job opportunities. Like Wakeman, Bill discovers that she can earn more money as a soldier, which would help provide her family with additional income. So, she disguises herself as a man and enlists.
On Wednesday, we’ll take a closer look at the secondary character of Bill from The Enlistment.
"Female Soldiers in the Civil War." Civil War.org. n.d.
https://www.civilwar.org/learn/articles/femalesoldierscivilwar (accessed June 06, 2017).
Wakeman, Sarah Rosetta. An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864. Edited by Lauren Cook Burgess. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
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