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.