Women in the West: How Ladies Helped Shape the Civil War
In his 1960's album, Tennessee Ernie Ford Sings Civil War Songs of the North, Ford poured his heart out in a patriotic Northern ballad about "The Why and The Wherefore" of Civil War soldiers' reasons for enlisting. The rousing song asks who, exactly, follows soldiers into the war, to which the Federal soldiers reply: "Ten thousand brave lads, and if they should stay here...the girls would cry shame, and they'd volunteer. They speak their minds quite freely, now really."
Essentially, "The Why and The Wherefore" pokes fun at the preposterous idea of women taking up arms in the Civil War. During the Victorian Era, women were barred not only from entering the military, but also from taking an active role in politics and even voting. Sadly, females in the nineteenth century were treated as inferior, second-class citizens, as is evident by the Declaration of Independence proclaiming that "all men are created equal," which insinuates that women are not created equal. Even a quick perusal of most 1800's censuses lists the majority of women's occupations as that of housekeepers, which involved staying home and rearing children.
The American Civil War, however, completely altered the traditional gender roles that claimed men should work outside the home while women kept house. During the Civil War--with men away fighting in the bloody, four-year conflict--women were called upon to not only tend mercantiles and teach schools, but also to work actively to advance the war effort for their army's cause. Females in urban areas were sometimes tasked with working in arsenals. Ladies also served as washerwomen in Civil War camps, and occasionally, even as daring spies. Other ways that women were active during the Civil War--which this post will explore--was by working as nurses and donning a soldier's garb and joining the military.
Northern nurse Georgeanna Woosley wrote in her diary: “No one knows who did not watch the thing from the beginning, how much opposition, how much ill-will, how much unfeeling want of thought, these women nurses endured. Hardly a surgeon whom I can think of received or treated them with even common courtesy. Government had decided that women should be employed, and the Army surgeons—unable, therefore to close the hospitals against them—determined to make their lives so unbearable that they should be forced in self-defense to leave.” Regardless of the mistreatment that female nurses faced--based solely on their gender--many women still braved these conditions to make an impact on the soldiers in their charge. Female nurses were subject to ghastly sights, just like their male nurse counterparts, yet women in both the Western and Eastern Theaters worked to change gender bias and still aided their side's cause. Western Theater nurses, such as Annie Bell who was assigned as matron of Nashville's Cumberland Hospital, helped heal the mental and physical pain of soldiers by binding up wounds and administering medicine, as well as offering prayers for soldiers and agreeing to write letters home for combatants.
Another way women actively participated in the Civil War effort was by exchanging their petticoats and bustles for pants and brogans. It is estimated that between 400 and 750 women disguised their genders and enlisted as male soldiers during the Civil War. A female's reason for enlisting was just as varied as her male counterparts, but included following her sweetheart, traveling throughout the United and newly-formed Confederate States, or out of a sense of duty to her beloved country.
Perhaps one of the most famed female Civil War soldiers is Sarah Emma Edmonds, who acted as a nurse, spy, and courier, as well as conducting the regular duties of a Civil War soldier, like fighting during battles. Edmonds (alias Frank Thompson) and her regiment--the 2nd Michigan Infantry--were assigned to the Army of the Cumberland and, subsequently, transferred to the border state of Kentucky. Sarah contracted malaria but was denied a furlough, which allowed soldiers a brief time of rest away from the army. As a woman, Edmonds was afraid to visit the hospital for medical care, lest her true gender be discovered. As such, she fled from the army to receive medical care. However, she was branded a deserter and never returned to service. Edmonds continued supporting Union troops on the home front by working with the United States Christian Commission as a nurse until the war ended. Edmonds was also an author, as she wrote and published a book titled Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, with a first edition being released in 1864. Because of Edmond's continued dedication to Civil War soldiers, she donated the money she received from the sale of her book to soldiers’ aid groups. Edmonds procured a pension and, in 1897, became the only female member of the Grand Army of the Republic. Sarah Emma Edmonds died at her home in La Porte, Texas, on September 5, 1898. Just four years later, in 1901, she was re-interred with military honors at Washington Cemetery in Houston.
Female combatant Jennie Hodgers assumed the name Albert Cashier and enlisted in the 95th Illinois Infantry. Because the 95th was a regiment in the Army of the Tennessee, Hodger's unit fought in over a score of battles, including Vicksburg, Kennesaw Mountain, and many more. Hodgers was considered a good soldier, having fought for her full enlistment period of 3 years until the regiment's muster-out in April 1865. Perhaps because women of the Victorian Era faced much gender bias, and, subsequently, were afforded fewer opportunities, Jennie Hodgers maintained her male disguise as Albert Cashier well after the war ended. As a "man," she was able to hold jobs as a farmhand, church janitor, cemetery worker, etc. Additionally, Hodgers voted in elections (an opportunity women did not attain until 1920) and even obtained a veteran's pension. In fact, Hodgers maintained her Albert Cashier disguise until 1910, when--having been struck by an automobile--she was forced to seek medical attention. While hospital attendants forced Hodgers to once again don a dress, her former army comrades were supportive of Hodgers. Upon her death in 1915, Jennie Hodgers was buried in her military uniform and laid to rest with a tombstone that inscribed her alias, Albert Cashier, and detailed her military service.
Another female Civil War soldier was Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, who enlisted in the 153rd New York Infantry under the alias of Lyons Wakeman. Wakeman enlisted because she came from a poor family that was in debt. As she had no potential suitors and could make more money as a soldier than she could at a domestic job, Wakeman viewed it as her natural duty to enlist in August 1862. Her regiment was detailed on guard duty at Capitol Hill, Washington, and Alexandria, Virginia. In spring 1864, however, Wakeman's unit was ordered to Louisiana, where they faced treacherous conditions (a swampy bayou, along with insufficient provisions). Regardless, Wakeman still lived longer than some of her comrades, and even saw battle at Pleasant Hill, Louisiana, on April 9, 1864. Wakeman wrote in a letter, "I don’t know how long before I shall have to go into the field of battle. For my part I don’t care. I don’t feel afraid to go." On June 19, 1864, however, Wakeman succumbed to chronic diarrhea and was laid to rest as Private Lyons Wakeman in Chalmette National Cemetery. Interestingly, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman's true gender was unknown until letters to her home were found in the 1970s.
Loreta Janeta Velazquez's husband enlisted in the Confederate Army after Texas seceded from the Union in 1861. Velazquez, still a teenager, pleaded with her husband to enlist in the war. After he left for the war front, however, Velazquez ordered a Confederate uniform and assumed her alias, Harry T. Buford. Velazquez, who often acted as an "independent soldier" promoted herself to the rank of lieutenant, and in Arkansas she raised a Confederate regiment. Velazquez later took her regiment to her husband in Florida, but her husband was killed just days later by a weaponry accident. Velazquez claims, through her memoirs, to have fought at the first Battle of Bull Run, but she later dressed as a female again and fled to Washington DC to gain intel for the Confederacy. For the remainder of the war, Velazquez often changed her disguise, sometimes working as a spy and other times performing duties of a soldier. Velazquez published her memoirs, The Woman in Battle: A Narrative of the Exploits, Adventures, and Travels of Madame Loreta Janeta Velazquez, Otherwise Known as Lieutenant Harry T. Buford, Confederate States Army, in order to gain income from her book sales. Upon its publication, however, many individuals believed Velazquez's claims were entirely false. Due to the memoir's nature--in which some facts are provable and others are not--it is impossible for historians to say with certainty whether Velazquez's claims are true.
In a time when women were denied basic American rights--like voting--females who served as nurses and soldiers during the Civil War helped break common gender roles. Additionally, they showed Americans that females are capable of achieving equality and holding the same roles in society as their male counterparts. While just a small fraction of female nurses and soldiers who served in the Civil War were featured within this article, the women of the 1860s should be remembered as the heroes that they, just like male soldiers, are.
“Albert Cashier aka Jennie Hodgers.” American Battlefield Trust, n.d., https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/albert-cashier
“Female Soldiers in the Civil War.” American Battlefield Trust, n.d., https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/female-soldiers-civil-war
“Georgeanna Woolsey: A Day in the Life of a Northern Nurse.” American Battlefield Trust, n.d., https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/female-soldiers-civil-war
“Loreta Janeta Velazquez.” American Battlefield Trust, n.d., https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/loreta-janeta-velazquez
“Madame Loreta Janeta Velazquez: Heroine or Hoaxer.” HistoryNet, n.d., https://www.historynet.com/madame-loreta-janeta-velazquez-heroine-or-hoaxer.htm
“Sarah Emma Edmonds.” American Battlefield Trust, n.d., https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/sarah-emma-edmonds
“Women in the Civil War.” American Battlefield Trust, n.d., https://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/women-in-the-civil-war
“Women Nurses in the Civil War.” U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, n.d., https://ahec.armywarcollege.edu/exhibits/CivilWarImagery/Civil_War_Nurses.cfm
About the Author: Kass Cobb is a genealogist, history enthusiast, and college sophomore who plans to double-major in history and military history. Kass first became obsessed with history in eighth grade through a unit on the American Civil War. She began researching her family's heritage and discovered that she is a direct descendant of ten Civil War veterans. Since then, Kass has desired to share the stories of United States veterans. One of the ways she does this is by obtaining grave markers for veterans. When Kass isn't busy planning historical events for her community, placing signs at cemeteries, or researching her family's past, you'll find her antique collecting, reading, singing, and enjoying nature with her many pets.