Just finished reading - They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook
In an introductory historical methods class as an undergraduate student we were asked to read An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864. This brief but fascinating book provided the story of Wakeman, a tomboy-type young woman from rural New York, who disguised herself as a man and enlisted to fight in the Civil War. No, it is not a novel it is a true tale. Her letters to her family give a story of duty to her country, life in the army, and her determination to soldier as well as the men surrounding her. Unfortunately, like so many male soldiers, she gave the ultimate sacrifice, her life, to her cause and country when she died of disease in Louisiana.
Lauren Cook, the author of An Uncommon Soldier is one of the co-authors of They Fought Like Demons. Cook is an independent scholar from North Carolina. Her partner in this work, DeAnne Blanton, is a senior military archivist at the National Archives and specializes in 19th century army records.
They Fought Like Demons not only tells the story of New Yorker Union soldier Wakeman, and Kentuckian Confederate Mary Ann Clark (see my May 29 posting), but also well over 200 other women who disguised themselves as men to enter the service of their country.
The authors contend that women were able to remain secretly in the armies for a number of reasons. First, entry examinations were not very thorough in that time. A check of sight, hearing, and teeth (to tear cartridges) was often as far as physicians often went to claim a soldier fit for duty. Ill-fitting clothes were the rule rather than the exception in the Civil War, and thus hid women soldier's unmasculine figures. In addition, women had the ability to separate themselves from comrades when nature called. Instead of visiting the community sinks, female soldiers (and male ones too) often sought out a more private setting for their bodily functions. Bathing was hit and miss in Civil War armies, so detection by this method also was not always easy, and with so many young men in the armies, it was often difficult to tell the difference between beardless boys and disguised women unable to grow facial hair.
Women soldiers were most often detected when they had physical features that gave them away. Small hands and feet, along with a soft womanly face or neck lines sometimes made comrades suspicious. Also, feminine movements such as jumping or throwing also sometimes belied their disguises. But, the most common determiner was when women were wounded or sick and had to be examined by a physician. Another give away was when they became pregnant and remained in service but were unable to perform their duties or hide their condition.
Why did some women go to all the trouble to enlist? The authors relate that women's reasons for becoming soldiers varied widely. Most women that went into the service did so for the same reason men did; a true desire to help their side and for patriotic reasons. Some wanted to remain with their male lovers when they enlisted. Others saw the opportunity for adventure and freedom and a better paying job than they could get as a woman. Some that remained in the service undetected and came home after the war, chose to keep up the disguise to maintain the level of citizenship that they were afforded to them in they army as men but denied to them as in civilian life as women, such as voting and property rights.
In their conclusion the authors explain why studies of women soldiers in the Civil War are important: "Clearly, the service of women did not alter the outcome of battles and campaigns, and the service of women did not alter the course of the war. Their individual contributions and exploits are fascinating but are not the primary reasons for their historical significance. Women soldiers of the Civil War merit recognition because they were there and because they were not supposed to be. They deserve remembrance because their actions made them uncommon and revolutionary, possessed of a valor at odds with Victorian and, in some respects, even modern views of women's proper role. Quite simply, the women in the ranks of the Union and Confederate armies refused to stay in their socially mandated place, even though it meant resorting to subterfuge to achieve their goal of being soldiers. They faced down not only the guns of the adversary but the sexual prejudices of their society."
They Fought Like Demons is an easy and quick read that needs to be in every Civil War enthusiast's library. Without it, the story of the Civil War soldier is not complete.