Female Soldiers in the Civil War
Image: Sarah Rosetta Wakeman. American Battlefield Trust. Civil War Biography: Sarah Rosetta Wakeman.
There are many books and articles available that deal with women passing as men among the ranks of Civil War soldiers. One of them shows up in my novella, The Enlistment. My main sources were the articles found in the Civil War Trust website 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, pay, the desire for adventure, and more. They 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. Incredible as it seems today, several reasons have been suggested. 1) Victorian modesty dictated that things such as bathing and attending to nature’s call often were done in private, thus many soldiers would be modest. 2) Soldiers tended to sleep in their clothing. 3) Physical examinations were cursory, so if 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. 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. Despite their masquerade, thought, writes Lauren Cook Burgess in her Introduction to An Uncommon Soldier, other women did seem to be able to recognize their same-sex comrades. She postulates that this may be because women could see beyond the façade of dress. Thus, in The Enlistment, Bill Crenshaw recognizes Frankie, even though Maggie’s daughter is dressed as a boy.
My character Bill Crenshaw has her roots in Union soldier Sarah Rosetta Wakeman. Like Wakeman, Bill left a household comprised of numerous mouths to feed and an indebted father. Women were paid low wages and had limited job opportunities, so when Bill, like Wakeman, saw that he could earn more money as a soldier and realized it would help her provide additional income for her families, she enlisted.
Frankie’s reasons, of course, are very different from Bill’s and Wakeman’s. She is upset over Patrick’s enlistment, questions why only men may fight, and decides to do something about it. Her adventures at Camp Fair Oaks provide answers for her.
Many women fought side by side with men during the Civil War. While some were discovered, usually after being injured, many more were never outed. But, regardless of whether they were identified or not, they fought with valor, just like their male counterparts.
"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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