Let’s test your knowledge of personalities in the Civil War. Ever heard of Frances Clayton? No? How about Henry Clark? Drawing a blank? I’ll bet Jim Smith doesn’t ring any bells either. I’ll give you one more chance – Lt. Harry T. Buford. Don’t know? That’s okay – all of these soldiers were women!
This morning my mother handed me an article she thought I might find interesting. It was from the Smithsonian Magazine from a few years back entitled, “Covert Force: Hundreds of women fought in the Civil War disguised as men.” Having an avid passion for all things Civil War, I was anxious to read what Robert F. Howe had to say in this article, which was a review of the book, They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War, by Lauren Cook and DeAnn Blanton.
In my research on the Civil War I remembered finding a number of stories about women serving as men on both sides of the conflict. We all know about women who served as nurses, cooks, laundresses and various other domestic type duties, but very little has been mentioned over the years about women who actually fought alongside of men disguised in men’s clothing. In addition, some took up smoking, swearing, gambling, and whatever was necessary in order to be “one of the guys.” They learned the use of the weapons of war and were involved in virtually all the battles of the Civil War.
You may be wondering why a woman would want to take up war fighting. It is a nasty business, to be sure. But here are some of the reasons: revenge for a family member killed by the enemy; a chance to get away from home; everyone else in the family had gone off to fight; the pay was better than what they had at home; rebellion against the stereo-typical role of women; to get away from a bad marriage; or they were motivated by a patriotic fervor. Some simply wanted to be near their husbands – such is the case of Jim Smith mentioned in the opening paragraph. In truth, Jim was Martha Parks Lindley. As the story goes she joined two days after her husband left to fight with the 6th U.S. Cavalry. “I was frightened half to death,” she told a newspaper. “But I was so anxious to be with my husband that I resolved to see the thing through if it killed me.” The rest of the troopers knew her as Jim.
How could women pass themselves off without being detected? It wasn’t easy. Many were found out, and depending on the commanding officer and the current need for soldiers, some were even allowed to stay and fight. Most were sent home. It was common place for soldiers to wear their uniforms even while sleeping. Bathing was a luxury few had the opportunity to indulge in. As for thorough medical exams – this was minimal at best. Women were frequently discovered to be of the fairer sex because of the need to dress wounds they received in battle. Imagine the doctor’s surprise!
Charlotte Hope is one lady I would just as soon have avoided. This woman was on a mission! Her fiancé was killed in a raid in 1861. Lusting for revenge, sweet Charlotte joined the 1st Virginia Cavalry with one simple goal: Kill 21 Yankees – one for each year of her dead fiancé’s life.
Remember I mentioned earlier a Lt. Harry T. Buford? The name was actually Loreta Velazquez. In her postwar memoirs, The Woman in Battle, she answered the question as to why she chose to fight alongside the men. “I plunged into adventure for the love of the thing,” she confessed.
Sarah Rosetta Wakeman was known as Pvt. Lyons Wakeman. For her it was all about the green. When she signed up as a private in the Union Army she received $152.00. “I can get all the money I want,” she exclaimed.
Mrs. Bridget “Irish Biddy” Divers was married to a man who served as a private in the 1st Michigan Cavalry. Not satisfied with staying at home, she stood picket duty day and night, and even would ride in raids against the Rebs. During one battle she took charge and rallied the demoralized troops, winning the engagement and the hearts of the soldiers.
Many women worked as spies, most notably in the use of their feminine mystique. For some reason Union officers were more beguiled by the Southern Belles than were their Confederate counterparts. Belle Boyd was just such a woman. In a number of instances, officers in blue not only gave critical information that was used against Federal Forces; they were so totally beset by love that they resigned their commissions in order to marry the Southern spy. Ain’t love grand?
In the American military of today, women are serving in most every position imaginable, and they are performing admirably. Unlike their Civil War ancestors, at least they no longer need to pretend to be what they are not.
Viva la difference!