Secret Lives: Women Soldiers of the Civil War

CW1Many moons ago, I wrote a blog post about Cathay Williams, an African-American woman who disguised herself as a man and fought in the Civil War, under the alias, William Cathay. I found – – and continue to find – – that story to be absolutely riveting, but to my amazement I recently discovered that this was not an anomaly. Women posing as men during the Civil War was far more common than I ever imagined.

There are about 400 documented cases of women who fought as men during the Civil War. Women covertly joined the ranks of both the North and the South. Today’s Campfire Chronicle is dedicated to all of those women. Since we can’t possibly cover 400 individual stories, I’ve settled on three of my favorites.

Sarah Malinda Pritchard/Samuel Blalock

CWBlalockWhen Sarah Malinda “Linda” Pritchard said, “…until death do us part,” to Keith Blalock, she meant it! Keith Blalock was a Union sympathizer, who joined the Confederate Army, in 1862, in an effort to avoid being conscripted. He joined a unit that would be sent to Virginia, with plans of defecting ASAP. When Blalock joined up, his bride was not ready to be parted. So, she gave herself an “Extreme Makeover, Civil War Edition.” Linda cut her hair, dressed in her husband’s clothes and enlisted as Confederate soldier, Samuel Blalock, the 20-yr-old brother of her husband. Yes, she became her own imaginary brother-in-law!

BlalockRather than being sent to Virginia, the couple ended up in Kinston, North Carolina. The “brothers” Blalock fought side by side, until the fateful night when Linda was shot in the shoulder. The jig was up! The surgeon discovered that Sammy Blalock, brother of Keith Blalock, was actually Linda Blalock, wife of Keith Blalock.

Keith was discharged after he rolled naked in poison ivy and convinced Army doctors that he had a recurring ailment, which might spread like wildfire rather than something that just needed some Calamine Lotion. He and Linda eventually joined the Union Army, as raiders throughout the Appalachian Mountains.

The couple, who incidentally, had been from families with a 150-year long feud between them, was not parted until 1903.

Sarah Rosetta Wakeman/Lyons Wakeman

CWWakemanSarah Rosetta Wakeman’s early life reminds me an old song from “Hee Haw” because if it weren’t for bad luck, she’d have had no luck at all. She was the oldest of nine children. Her father was a dirt-poor farmer who had managed to dig himself into a big hole of debt. And, at the ripe old age of 19-yrs-old, no one was asking for Sarah’s hand in marriage (nor any other part of her, for that matter!) She needed to help out financially, but there were no fabulous career opportunities available to her.

Sarah didn’t let her poor qualifications and spinsterhood status stand in her way. She dressed as a man and signed up to work on a coal barge, traveling up and down the Chenango Canal. That’s when she ran into some Union recruiters, who were looking for a few good men. That was ironic because if Sarah had had a good man herself, she wouldn’t have been there, in the first place! She enlisted to serve with the 153rd New York Infantry Regiment, in August of 1862, under the name of Lyons Wakeman. She felt like a new man! That enlistment earned her $13 a month! Cha-ching!

CWWakeman2“Lyons” Wakeman served guard duty in Alexandria, Virginia and on Capitol Hill. In February of 1864, the 153rd was sent to Louisiana. The group was forced to march hundred of miles, deep into the Louisiana bayou. The food was bad and their drinking water would have made for some lively microscope slides. Men were holding their stomachs and dropping like flies. But Wakeman persevered.

In a letter home, Sarah wrote, “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.” That’s good because she went into battle at Pleasant Hill, Louisiana on April 9,1864. She fought valiantly with the men of her regiment. They managed to beat back the advancing Confederates six times before being forced to retreat down the Red River. They fought again at Monett’s Bluff, on April 23rd.CWWakeman1

A week and half later, Wakeman reported to the regimental hospital, suffering from diarrhea. I knew that drinking water was no good! She was transferred to a hospital in New Orleans, but there was nothing to be done for her. Private Lyons Wakeman died on June 19, 1864. She was buried under that name at Chalmette National Cemetery, near New Orleans. While hers is a sad tale, she was very happy with her decision to serve. She wrote to her family that she was as, “independent as a hog on the ice.”  That was a claim few women of the 1860s could make.

Jennie Hodgers/Albert Cashier

CWHodges2The story of Jennie Hodgers is hauntingly different from the other stories of women who fought in the Civil War. For starters, Jennie Hodgers was, at the very least, dressing as a man long before the Civil War. This illiterate Irish immigrant joined the 95th Illinois Infantry in August of 1862, using the name, Albert Cashier. She passed the medical examination because that only required showing their hands and feet. She had those, so she was in!

Cashier was captured while on a reconnaissance mission, at Vicksburg. Fortunately, Albert could run like the wind. The private grabbed a guard’s gun and didn’t stop running until she met up with her regiment. Albert Cashier’s name was inscribed on the Illinois victory monument at Vicksburg.CWHodges1

Following the war, Jennie Hodgers continued to live as Albert Cashier. As Cashier, he supplemented his veteran’s pension by working as a handyman, janitor, street lamplighter, and farm hand. This story might never have been known if not for the tragic end of Cashier’s life.

CWHodges3When dementia set in, Albert Cashier was sent to live in the Watertown State Hospital for the insane. Hospital staff had no understanding of, or sympathy for, gender identity issues. Albert Cashier was forced to wear the long skirts of the time. Tripping on a hem, Cashier broke a hip and was bedridden. For all intents and purposes, Jennie Hodgers had died long ago. Albert Cashier died on October 11, 1915.

To All the Girls Who Fought Before

Women of the Civil WarFolks, I wish our time around the campfire could continue for hours longer. I really want to tell you about Frances Clailin, the mother of three, who served as Union cavalryman, Jack Williams. And then there was Mary Scaberry, who served as Charles Freeman. An Army doctor discovered Mary’s identity and she was discharged for “sextual incompatibility.” Of all the incompatibilities a person can have, a “sextual” one sounds like the worst! Or what about nurse, Sarah Edmonds, who served as male nurse, Franklin Flint Thompson?

Oh, my heart! I want to tell all the stories! Alas, it’s time to snuff out the fire. But, before we go, could we please sing a rousing chorus of, “When Joanna Comes Marching Home Again”?

Here’s an interesting video I think you’ll enjoy, about the women of the Civil War by historian DeAnn Blanton.

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia

4 Replies to “Secret Lives: Women Soldiers of the Civil War”

  1. I loved this article and have been trying to print it out. Our middle school reading curriculum includes the book “Behind Rebel Lines”The incredible Story of Emma Edmonds, Civil War Spy. I found it a terrific story and was glad to read your article on how many women fought in the war. I cant wait to share your information with my students.

    1. Hi Amie, thanks so much, delighted that you enjoyed the story. I think that it is a great idea to share this with your students! It will give them an entirely different view of what the war was like, and a good lesson in the social mores of the time.

  2. I loved your sense of humor as you told these stories of women soldiers in the civil war. It made the story more interesting. It is so timely also because right now there is great controversy over women in combat units in today’s Army and Marines. We just saw one female graduate from the tough army ranger school. These civil war women soldiers show it is possible that woman can fight in wars. thank you.

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