Monday, January 10, 2011


Even if the estimate of 400 soldier-women is accepted as an upper limit, it’s an astonishing figure. How were so many women able to accomplish this incredible deception, when it’s inconceivable that a woman could enter the military under the same circumstances today?

Confederate Uniforms
First, army recruitment physical examinations during the Civil War were only as good as the surgeon who performed them. A recruit was unlikely to face an exam more rigorous than holding out his hands to demonstrate that he had a working trigger finger, or perhaps opening his mouth to show that his teeth were strong enough to rip open a minie ball cartridge. Sarah Edmonds, alias Pvt. Franklin Thompson, described her army medical exam as “a firm handshake” with an inquiry about “Frank’s” occupation.

Furthermore, army life in the 1860s differed significantly from the modern military. The soldiers who formed the rank and file early in the Civil War were led by volunteer officers, most of whom had as much to learn about military life as those under their command. There was no boot camp with intensive physical training as there is today. And, although living and sleeping arrangements were as close or closer than today’s standard, the fact that the majority of soldiers lived outside throughout the war, with the latitude to wash and attend to sanitary matters out of sight of comrades, made it possible for females in the ranks to avoid the scrutiny that would give them away. Societal standards of modesty ensured that no one would question a shy soldier’s reluctance to bathe in a river with his messmates or to relieve himself in the open company sinks.

Union Uniforms
A second, and very large, advantage for 19th century women was that gender identification in the Victorian age was more closely linked to attire and other superficial appearances than to physical characteristics. Voluminous hoop skirts were the order of the day for women, who wore their long hair in elaborate arrangements. A woman in pants in 1861 was a sight more rare than a man wearing a dress is today. Thus, if it wore pants, most people of the period would naturally have assumed that the person was a man. In polite society, speculating further or inquiring upon what lay beneath another person’s attire would mark the questioner as less than a gentleman or lady.

Broad acceptance of a person based on superficial appearances led to many interesting comments that reveal the naiveté of Civil War soldiers regarding the women secreted among them. Capt. Ira B. Gardner of the 14th Maine enrolled a soldier in his company who served for two years before he realized she was a female. Wrote Gardner, “I did not learn of her sex until the close of the war. If I had been anything but a boy, I should probably have seen from her form that she was a female.” Robert Hodges, a Confederate soldier, related this story in a letter home: “One of the soldiers directed my attention to a youth apparently about seventeen years of age well dressed with a lieutenant’s badge on his collar. I remarked I saw nothing strange. He then told me the young man was not a man but a female.”  Members of the famous Pvt. Franklin Thompson’s brigade referred to “him” as “Our Woman” because of “his” feminine mannerisms and “ridiculously small boots.”

Godleys Fashions for August 1862
A common element of women soldiers’ stories is their ability to recognize other women in the ranks while the men around them were oblivious to their female comrades’ deception. This suggests strongly that, while women knew what to look for in order to recognize other women in male attire, the men around them were either unfamiliar with the sight of women in pants or had extreme difficulty accepting the possibility that a fellow soldier might not be male. Certainly, the ill-fitting uniforms of the Civil War armies helped to conceal feminine physical characteristics, but a reluctance to accept that a female was a soldier must have been operating, particularly in cases where women served for very long periods of time without discovery. Biases about the physical, emotional, and intellectual abilities of women, as well as beliefs about appropriate and acceptable feminine roles, precluded the concept of a female soldier and rendered many men in the armies incapable of recognizing the women among them.

Yet a third circumstance enabled women to blend into the ranks with their male comrades. A large number of young and beardless boys whose voices had yet to change served in both the Confederate and Federal armed forces, and the armies of the Civil War were youthful in the main. The presence of pre-adolescent boys in the ranks unintentionally aided the likewise beardless and high-voiced men to go undetected.

From An Uncommon Soldier: the Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864

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