Meet Bill Crenshaw, Female Soldier
(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.
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder