Image from Metropolitan Museum of Art, credit: Buck Zaidel Collection. Check out the description: “In a popular carte de visite collected by soldiers at the end of the war, she [Frances Clayton] poses here as Jack Williams and suggestively holds the handle of a cavalry sword between her crossed legs.” (Hey, if you’re going to play the role, play it to the hilt. - Janet R. Stafford)
Pardon the delay in getting this blog up. I usually write on Thursday, but I had several personal things to do, including going to a party for my grandson’s 11th birthday.
Anyway, today, I wanted to take time to do some research on Frances Clayton, whose photo I had put up as the image for my Wednesday blog. Since I plastered her face on my blog, I thought it only polite that I tell you her story. As it turns out, it’s a pretty interesting story, one that is filled with perhaps more questions than answers.
Frances Clalin was born in the 1830s in Illinois. She married a man named Elmer Clayton, making her full name is Frances Clalin Clayton. Note: Clalin was not the name she took when she enlisted. (My mistake!) Rather the name she used as a soldier was Jack Williams (Civil War Women Blog).
Frances and her husband worked a farm in Minnesota until hostilities broke out between North and South. When her husband enlisted in the fall of 1862, Frances disguised herself as a man and enlisted beside her husband. Oddly enough, Frances and Elmer did not join a Minnesota regiment. No one seems to know why, but they enlisted with a Missouri regiment instead. Which Missouri regiment it was is unknown, but we do know that Frances served in both artillery and cavalry units (Civil War Women Blog).
Most sources agree Frances’ husband was killed 31 December 1862 in Tennessee at the Battle of Stones River (Civil War Women Blog). Reportedly, she leapt over Elmer’s body and, brandishing her bayonet, flew at the rebels (Brown).
A fierce fighter, Clayton was wounded in the wrist once and twice in the hip. The final hip injury brought her to a field hospital, where she was “outed” as a woman and discharged in 1863 (Brown).
What happened to Frances Clayton afterwards is a bit of a mystery There are stories that she had planned to go back home to St. Paul, but on the trip from Nashville to Louisville, the train was robbed by a group of Confederate guerrillas and her papers and all her money were stolen (Brown).
Hoping to secure the “bounty” (money promised by the government for her husband’s service and her own), Clayton wandered around Missouri, Minnesota, Michigan, and Illinois (Brown). Finally, in Quincy, Illinois, she got enough financial help from friends and former soldiers to apply to the government to claim the bounty. She started off for Washington, D.C. (Civil War Women Blog), but her story ends there. We don’t know if she got the money. We don’t know if she made it to Washington, or where she went afterward.
Author Chris Brown discovered an 1885 Census mention of a Frances Clayton living near Austin, Minnesota (Mower County): “She was 42 in 1885, which would mean she was born in 1843 and about 20 if she was the same Frances Clayton who fought in Tennessee. That census report says Clayton was a New York native, while other sources say she was born in Illinois in the 1830s.”
Sadly, we don’t really know what happened to her. But, had Clayton been an actor and had the movie industry been around, her adoption the male soldier role would have garnered an Academy Award. She leapt into it head first.
Brown writes that in November of 1863, a Michigan newspaper wrote of Clayton, “she learned to drink, smoke, chew and swear with the best, or worst, of the soldiers…. She is a very tall, masculine looking woman, bronzed by exposure to the weather.”
Brown relates some other intriguing information, as well. “The paper said her manly walking stride and ‘erect and soldierly carriage’ attracted attention. The reporter said that when some soldiers began following her ‘rather too familiarly,’ Clayton drew a revolver to scatter the crowd.” He adds that Frances also enjoyed cigars and gambling. Even after returning to civilian life, one reporter noted that “Her camp life experience of nearly two years seems to have pretty effectually destroyed her womanly instincts…. She wears a sort of mongrel attire — half male and half female.” (Brown)
That’s not such a bad thing. I mean, maybe, just maybe, having “seen the elephant” Clayton decided to be who she was, live how she wanted, and dress how she pleased.
I don’t know how Frances Clayton died, or even when she died, but I admire her gumption. In fact, I’ve got to admire all the women, masked and unmasked, who fought beside their male counterparts. Thank you, ladies, for your service.
Until Monday, friends.
Curt Brown, “St. Paul wife dressed as man to march off to Civil War with her husband, Star Tribune, 27 March 2016.
“Female Soldiers in the Civil War,” Civil War Women Blog.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder