(Another historical female soldier: Frances Clayton, who enlisted to fight under the name "Frances Clalin." Image from Library of Congress; Information from American Battlefield Trust, "Female Soldiers in the Civil War.)
When I was doing the research for The Enlistment, I found myself immersed in questions. What did Camp Fair Oaks look like? How long was the NJ 15th Volunteers Regiment in camp until they departed for the war? How did word get out about the big enlistment? And to whom? What was it like to be a laundress? Were they all “loose women” or was that just a myth? Could Frankie pass as a boy? What if I wrote a female soldier into the story?
Eventually, I had Frankie disguise herself as a boy, try to enlist in the regiment, and then fail because she looks too young. When she tries to get in as a drummer, she is told they have all the drummer boys they need. Despondent, she wanders through the camp until she happens upon a group of laundresses for Company B, Patrick’s company. Rosa, the young black girl working with the other two laundresses, immediately sees that Frankie is not a boy. When Frankie protests, saying that she really is a boy, Rosa pertly replies, “No, you ain’t. You’re way too pretty to be a boy. And you got little titties. Skinny boys don’t have titties.”
So much for Frankie passing as a male.
The laundresses adopt Frankie and soon she encounters a soldier by the name of Bill Crenshaw, who also happens to be a woman.
Here is Bill’s initial appearance in The Enlistment.
I have to admit that writing Bill Crenshaw presented me with some linguistic problems. What pronoun should I use when referring to Bill? While, it is becoming more common to use “they” for transgender people, the word simply felt too jarring for a story set in the nineteenth-century.
So, for a while I referred to Bill as “he.” This came from personal experience. My sister is a lesbian who resides in Provincetown. She taught me that I should refer to a drag queens as “she” when in drag and “he” when in men’s clothing. Great! I thought I had the issue all worked out until my first beta reader commented that using “he” as Bill’s pronoun might be confusing for the reader, and suggested I try using “she” instead. That felt a little strange, but I made the changes and, although a bit awkward, it seemed to work
But why would a farm girl like “Bill” join the army? In a conversation with Frankie, Bill explains:
“There was nothing for me at my father’s farm. And we needed the money – I got seven sisters and three brothers plus our ma. My pa got into debt buying some cows, see. He’s always been terrible with money. So one day, when I went to town I saw the flyer saying they was looking for soldiers. They paid real good money to sign up and good pay after. Now I’m able to help my family and make some money of my own.”
Bill says she passes as a soldier by bathing and relieving herself privately. She also garnered some respect when she beat up another soldier who had made fun of her small feet. Long story short, she enjoys being perceived as male. “I can do whatever I choose when I dress like this, just so long as I can actually do it. That’s the only limit for men. Can you imagine the freedom of that?” She also likes dressing as a man. “No petticoats and skirts. Nothing to trip you up.”
In fact, Bill enjoys the freedom of being male so much that she just might dress as a man after the war. If that were the casem, then she could work in a mill, move west, or even go back to farming. In other words, she believes the sky is the limit, as long as she takes on a man's identity.
Bill’s final appearance in The Enlistment is on board the train with the other soldiers on the way to the war. The train has stopped in Lambertville, where the town has provided a lunch for the new recruits. As Frankie searches for Patrick among the men in the cars, she spots Bill. But, amid all the excitement at the station, Frankie realizes that Bill is going to war just like the other soldiers, and the two have a brief, but poignant exchange.
“Oh, Bill,” she cried, “do be careful!”
“I’ll try my best.”
“Best of luck.”
Bill pursed her lips as if trying to stifle the strong emotion Frankie knew she must be feeling.
“And God bless you, Bill.”
The young woman nodded solemnly. “Thank you, Frankie. God bless you, too.”
What happens to Bill? Was she "outed" as female at some point? I don’t know. But I do know this: women were discovered among the ranks several ways. The men in their tent or company might somehow know but accept the soldier as “one of the boys,” all the while leaving the higher-ups in the dark. However, a female soldier also could be “outed” while being treated in a field hospital for wounds received in battle or an illness caught in camp. And, of course, Bill might be killed in battle, or live and return home.
I like the character. Bill is honest, strong, and kind. Is Bill transgender in our current understanding of the word? Maybe. But there is this: living in an era in which male and female roles were narrowly defined, Bill has the courage to self-define what it means to be a human being. Like some other nineteenth-century women, Bill was reaching beyond “woman’s sphere” and trying to grasp equality.
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.
Don't judge me. It's hard to find a free image of a 19th century pad and paper. This is as close as I could get.
We first meet Edward Caldwell in Seeing the Elephant. He is a 22-year-old man of color, educated in a common school, and a voracious reader. He also is a man of faith and thus has the faith to show up at the Register to apply for a job as a reporter. After working for a local newspaper (fictional) and as a regional correspondent for The Christian Recorder (historical newspaper), he is ready to take on more responsibility. Edward knows it is quite a leap of faith to work for a white newspaper, but he is confident of his abilities. Eli’s interview with Edward is below. Notice how the two men hit it off and what Eli likes about the young man (including the fact that Edward, like Eli, wears spectacles).
Edward’s first assignment is to cover an execution. Eli goes with him, since he knows it is a tough task. But Edward proves himself by stoically watching and taking notes. Afterward, Eli offers him the opportunity to take a break and return to the house for the noon meal. However, Edward refuses, saying that he has “little stomach for dinner” and immediately goes off to write the article. To paraphrase James Bond, the young man is shaken but not stirred. A good sign.
Later, when Eli discovers that something fishy is afoot at the Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane (where Frankie works as an attendant), the portly newspaperman decides to go undercover. And off he goes, simultaneously doing research for an article about the hospital, getting help for his persistent nightmares (a symptom of PTSD), and keeping his ears open for "fishy" news.
Eli, of course, tends to jump into things with both feet. And Tryphena Moore, the Register’s publisher and his boss, immediately sees the flaw in Eli’s plan: He almost always gets himself in trouble. In short, he needs a watcher. Edward convinces Miss Moore that he has what it takes and goes undercover, getting hired at the hospital as a gardener named Ed Wells.
I can’t tell you how things turn out in Seeing the Elephant, but Edward proves he has both brains and courage. Notably, he gains the trust of fellow gardener, Joe and together the two men uncover enough information to (as Edward puts it) “blow the top off this hell house.”
Finally, in my work-in-progress, The Good Community, an old friend of Frankie’s returns to Maggie’s sphere and almost immediately wins Edward’s heart. Good news! Our intrepid young reporter is getting his own love story. Truthfully, I hadn’t planned on that happening, but when the two characters met, I saw the sparks between them. Sometimes that happens on paper, just as it does in real life.
And that makes me happy. Things aren’t over for this secondary character and I look forward to developing Edward's character a bit more.
Until Monday, readers! I'm not sure who I'll highlight next, but I plan on maybe two or three more blogs. As I said, there are a lot of secondary characters running around the Saint Maggie series. I can't cover them all, but I want to give you a taste of the lively, quirky folks running around in my books.
Images are early publishers of black newspapers: John B. Russwurm (1799-1851), Samuel E. Cornish (1795-1858), and Frederick Douglass (1818-1895).
One of my secondary characters in Seeing the Elephant is a young man by the name of Edward Caldwell, whom Eli hires as a reporter. Eli does this even though Edward is black and, living as Eli does in the 1860s, he knows the young man will face challenges as he goes out to interview people who are white. But Eli also has him on staff precisely because Edward is black. Edward is able to interact freely with people of color and will get close to what Eli calls “the whole story.”
But before I discuss Edward, I thought it would be helpful to offer some brief information on the history of black newspapers in the 1800s.
A website dedicated to the story of The Reflector, a black newspaper located in Charlottesville, VA, also provides a history of black papers in general. It mentions that the birth of these newspapers occurred in the antebellum era “as a medium of expression of abolitionist sentiment.” Freedom’s Journal, started by Samuel Cornish and John B. Russwurm in 1827 is an example. Sadly, it stopped circulation in 1830 due to small readership. People generally are more familiar with the North Star and its well-known founder Frederick Douglass, and yet Douglass’ paper also was forced to shut down for lack of readers (“History of African American Newspapers”).
Later on, newspapers run by and catering to the African-American people were created with two goals in mind: 1) to make a profit; and 2) to uplift the black community and “give African-Americans the news through the lens of their own eyes.” These papers were located in most large cities. Chicago had its Defender, Detroit the Tribune, Pittsburgh the Courier, and New York the Amsterdam News. (“History of African American Newspapers”).
Today, a newspaper by the name of The Christian Recorder serves “the African Methodist Episcopal Church in local communities and around the world in 39 countries on five continents with a robust print and online presence.” It is the oldest existing black periodical in the United States, born in 1848 at the General Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and christened The Christian Herald. Its name was changed to The Christian Recorder in 1852 and although it had several other names throughout the 1800s and 1900s, it reverted to the Christian Recorder in 1984. (“A Brief History of The Christian Recorder.”)
The newspaper’s first editor was the Rev. M. M. Clark, who also was one of the first college graduates in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Clark determined that “the Recorder’s focus would be religion, morality, science and literature and it was to treat all geographical areas of the A.M.E. Church equally.”
Although The Christian Recorder was understandably concerned with religious news, it also covered stories such as “education, voting rights, equality, and other secular issues that affected the lives of black Americans.” It was unafraid to tackle racism, classism, and slavery. The paper strongly opposed slavery and “repeatedly addressed the biblical and moral issues of slavery while encouraging black consciousness.” Additionally, black women wrote articles for and about black women and family issues (“A Brief History”).
After the Civil War, the newspaper advised readers on how to protect their families from harassment and harm by white antagonists and how to reunite families separated by slavery. It also advocated universal education, access to higher education, and education of the clergy (“A Brief History”).
Why am I writing so much about The Christian Recorder? Because it just so happens to be one of the papers the fictional Edward Caldwell worked for before going to the Blaineton Register. Eli, who knew his papers and read widely, was impressed and snapped the young man up. And rightly so.
Edward’s story is coming on Friday.
“History of African-American Newspapers,” The Reflector: An African-American Newspaper Depicting African-American Life in Charlottesville, VA During the Jim Crow Era.
“A Brief History of The Christian Recorder,” The Christian Recorder.com.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder