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Friday, July 31, 2009

Women In Combat

When I think of women and the Civil War I picture the women staying at home to run the home, nurse the sick, prepare bandages, raise money for hospitals, spy for their side-you get the picture. The ladies did their bit at home. Well, they did, but there’s more. Did you know that women actually served on the battlefield beside the men? Oh, yes, we have documented cases where that’s exactly what happened.

Of course both the Union and Confederate armies forbade the enlistment of women so the women would have to enlist under assumed male names. We don’t know exactly how many women enlisted, but we anticipate that it was probably more than the approximately four hundred cases we know about.

If you did get caught you were sent home immediately, but we know of at least three women who fought for almost the entire war. Their names are Sarah Emma Edmonds Seelye known as Franklin Thompson, Loreta Janeta Velazquez the Cuban born widow of a Confederate soldier, and Albert J. Cashier. Cashier is sort of different. She spent her entire life posing as a man. Of course this gave her a lot of freedom that other women lacked.

Edmonds was a Canadian by birth. She enlisted in the Second Michigan Infantry in Detroit on May 25, 1861. She was a nurse and a mail and dispatch carried. Her regiment participated in the Peninsula campaign and the battles of First Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Antietam. What happened to Sarah? She deserted because she caught malaria and was afraid when they put her in the hospital they’d find out she was a woman.

In 1867 she married L. H. Seelye, a Canadian mechanic. They had three children together. Sarah died in 1898 after receiving a government pension for 37 years. The fact that she received the pension is significant. Most of the time if a woman got found out the government wouldn’t give her a pension. Sarah’s former comrades in arms had to verify her service before she got a penny.

Albert D. J. Cashier was a nineteen year old Irish immigrant who enlisted in the Ninety Fifth Illinois Infantry. She served until August 17, 1865 when her regiment was mustered out of the Federal army. She participated in approximately forty battles and skirmishes.

After the war, she worked as a laborer. Eventually she drew a pension and finally went to live in the Quincy, Illinois, Soldiers' Home. In 1913 a surgeon at the home discovered that Albert D. J. Cashier was a woman. You can imagine what fun the newspapers of the day had to say about that. Remember, Cashier had lived her entire adult life as a man and totally gotten away with it.

Loreta Janeta Velazquez served the Confederate side. After the death of her husband she left New Orleans where she lived in search of adventure, desiring to become “a second Joan of Arc.” She raised and equipped an infantry unit at her own expense and adopted the name of Harry Buford. Often, she wore a fake beard and had a special wire cage designed to conceal her female shape. She was elected lieutenant of her new unit, and her career as the commander of the Grays began at First Manassas (First Bull Run). Eventually she ended up serving with the army in Kentucky and Tennessee, during which service she was twice wounded and cited for gallantry.

After the war she published her memoirs and said, "Notwithstanding the fact that I was a woman, I was as good a soldier as any man around me, and as willing as any to fight valiantly and to the bitter end before yielding."

Why do you think women wanted to fight? Well, in some cases it was pure patriotism. They loved their country and weren’t content to take a secondary role. Also, the Civil War era was a time where women’s freedom and opportunities were severely restricted. This was a chance to throw convention aside and have the adventure of a lifetime.

Once women decided to join the army you’d think it would be hard to conceal their sex, but maybe it was easier than you think. Medical exams were superficial. All a soldier had to do was be able to see, march, and carry a gun. Also, during long periods of marching and fighting, soldiers seldom took a full bath. They wore the same uniforms and underclothes for weeks and slept fully clothed. In addition, I’d think getting shot at would have a tendency to dull any curiosity about your fellow soldiers. And if all else failed the ladies could always sit apart, pretending to be loners.

The outcome of the Civil War would have been the same whether the women fought or not, but these ladies were trailblazers. They were willing to disregard what society said was proper to follow their hearts. Today, we think it’s okay for women to be in the military, but do we think it’s okay for them to go into combat situations? Seems like this issue still isn’t settled.

The unlabeled picture at the top of the post is Velazquez.

These are the resources I used for this article if you’d like to read in more detail.


Jennifer Ross said...

Thanks for highlighting the Sara Edmonds story in full. On our blog tour I meant to link to her story, but the link didn't show up. And it seems to me, frail and less intelligent since I am a woman, that the women in combat question was settled over 140 years ago. Men have a hard time keeping up, huh?

Kaylea Cross said...

Hi Elaine! I'm a fellow TWRP author and a Civil War nut. Loved your post, especially since I'm Canadian. Lord only knows how I got hooked on the Civil War, but it doesn't really matter, does it? I read an article a long time ago about finding a woman dead on the battlefield after Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. They found her and her husband lying dead a few yards apart near the high water mark, both wearing matching wedding bands. If I remember where I saw the article, I'll let you know.
Happy writing!

Sandy Wickersham-McWhorter said...

Such good information! Never really knew any women served the whole war, had heard some tried to do it. We women aren't so namby-pamby after all, are we! Wonder what they did during THAT time of the month? Sandy

Elaine Cantrell said...

Hi, ladies, thanks for stopping by. I was intrigued by women in the army when I read Little Women as a girl. Remember the second March daughter Jo? She wanted at one time to run away and fight. Anyway, when I started my Civil War series I was going to do women spies, but I remembered about women in the army and did that instead. It's amazing how many women actually fought! Kaylea, thanks for your Gettysburg story. I haven't heard that one. Sandy, I found a source where a woman is writing about that topic. It isn't posted yet, but if she finishes it I'll try to give you a heads up. Jennifer, Sara Edmonds looked good as a man or a woman I thought.

Susan Macatee said...

This is such a fascinating subject, Elaine! I've done a lot of research on this myself and have two upcoming romances featuring heroines who are Civil War soldiers.

Confederate Rose will be a September release from The Wild Rose Press, the other story is novella length and will be among those featured in the upcoming Christmas anthology, An American Rose Christmas.

Cate Masters said...

Great info, Elaine! Wish the history books would reflect the real story. The logistics of hiding your gender among men just boggles my mind.

Debra St. John said...

The role of women in the Civil War is fascinating.THey were so more involved in actual combat than anyone really realized. Thanks for your post.

Diane M. Wylie said...

Great blog, Elaine. I too found it amazing that women actually found in the Civil War. My novel, SECRETS AND SACRIFICES, which was released 3 years ago, features a heroine who does just what you describe--she runs off and enlists in the Confederate army. It must be a topic that readers like since the book is still selling well.

Thanks for talking about this subject, which is near and dear to my heart as well.


Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Elaine,.
Fascinating article.

Skhye said...

LOL. Great post. I always thought of women as camp followers... My husband's ancestor walked to the Civil War from Missouri. His wife and children followed him later. Then they walked back, kept going, and stopped in Colorado. The world was very different back then. ;)

Elaine Cantrell said...

Thanks to everyone for stopping by. If you enjoyed this post you should hear me lecture at school on the contributions of women to history. I'll be sure to look for your books. Like you, I love a good war story.

Kathye Quick said...

interesting post. I began my love of romance with civil war stories.

Never wrote one. Will have to get some of our Roses now!