Why Did Women Join the Army?
In THE ENLISTMENT, young Chloe Strong says to Frankie, “Girls can’t be soldiers.” And, yes, technically, they couldn’t be soldiers during the Civil War. Technically.
In my novella about Frankie Blaine’s adventure at Camp Fair Oaks, we meet some women who break those rules in varying ways.
The first is Bill Crenshaw, who is fully undercover as a soldier. We don’t know Bill’s “real” name. But we do know that she was part of a large farm family, whose father did not know how to manage the family’s income. Bill is modeled after a real-life female soldier by the name of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman. As mentioned two blog posts ago, Bill says she became a soldier for economic reasons.
But there’s another reason:
“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?” [Bill] sat back, looking thoughtful. “You know, I just might keep on being a man after the war’s over.”
Men were not constrained the way women were in the 1860s. They had greater freedom. One of the reasons a soldier’s pay was attractive to Bill was because it was much more than she could earn as a seamstress, cook, or laundress. But the freedom to do what she wanted as long as she actually could “do it,” was another attraction.
We don’t know exactly how many women fought on both sides during the Civil War. But we do know they were there. A few came to light, usually after being injured or killed. Some, like Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, are remembered from the letters they wrote home. But others passed under the radar.
Freedom is another reason Frankie tries to enlist. To be honest, her main goal is to fight by Patrick’s side. She’s such a romantic young thing. But, in speaking to Chloe, she also reveals some other feelings.
“Oh, Chloe, there are so many things girls can’t do. Have you ever thought about that?”
Chloe nodded. “Sure. And there’re even more colored girls can’t do.”
Frankie frowned. “That’s so unfair. Just because your skin is dark doesn’t mean you’re not clever. And just because we’re both girls doesn’t mean we’re not strong and that we can’t fight.”
“We fight every day just to get our voices heard.”
“That’s right! It’s like trying to join the conversation at dinner time. I have to work hard just to get a word in edgewise.” The redheaded young woman leaned toward her young friend. “You know, when I was your age, I used to play with a group of three boys – and I could best every one of them! Whatever they did, I did, too, and I did it better! I even got into fist fights, but I won those, too.” She rested back against the bed’s headboard. “They say women are the weaker sex, but I respectfully disagree.”
“Me, too,” Chloe opined. “My mommy is the strongest woman in the world and she knows it. That’s why she took the name ‘Strong,’ instead of the plantation master’s name.”
“And they say only men should fight,” Frankie muttered. “Ha! I bet I could shoot a gun if I had to.”
Frankie obviously chafes at the restrictions placed on women and wishes she had the same opportunities as men.
Finally, we meet another group of women in THE ENLISTMENT: the laundresses. To be fair, army encampments also included nurses and cooks, but let’s stick to who is in the novella.
Both white and black women could be found at the job, as well as free women and contraband women, and – surprise! – men. Women became Army laundresses for about the same reasons men joined the Army: income, excitement, patriotism, being part of history. But they also became laundresses because their husband or another male family member was in the service. (Mescher, 2013)
This is the case for Becky (a white woman whose husband is a soldier) and Rosa (young black woman whose brother is working as an Army blacksmith). Frankie feels comfortable with them since they also are worried about their loved ones. The other laundress in the story, Lily, is single and looking for adventure – and she has a bit of a reputation.
I encourage you to read THE ENLISTMENT. Aside from a story line featuring Maggie’s headstrong and heart strong daughter, Frankie (who has become a fan favorite), it also paints a small portrait of life in a military encampment in 1862.
Female Soldiers in the Civil War. (n.d.). Retrieved June 06, 2017, from Civil War.org: https://www.civilwar.org/learn/articles/femalesoldierscivilwar
Leverette, M. M. (2016, 09 07). Laundry During the Civil War - The Laundress. Retrieved June 03, 2017, from The Spruce: https://www.thespruce.com/laundry-during-the-civil-war-laundress-2146296
Mescher, V. (2013). Virginia's Veranda. Retrieved April 2017, from Ragged Soldier: http://www.raggedsoldier.com/final_laundry_vv.pdf
Wakeman, S. R. (1995). An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864. (L. C. Burgess, Ed.) New York: Oxford University Press.
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder