Sunday, January 2, 2011

Sarah Rosetta Wakeman

With the speed and strength of any man in battle, hundreds of women answered the call to bear arms for the Union or the Confederacy. Dozens of them were able to evade detection, fight in battle, die as heroes or survive the war to live rich lives. One such woman to fight as a man was Sarah Rosetta Wakeman.

Rosetta, was born in Afton, New York on January 16, 1843 to Harvey Anable and Emily Wakeman, the first of nine children in the family. She worked hard on her father's dairy farm to help support her family, and later worked as a domestic. Her father was deeply in debt, and he also served as town constable.

In the summer of 1862, Rosetta left home and took on a new identity as Pvt. Lyons Wakeman. She worked as a barge operator and coal handler on the outskirts of Binghamton and every chance she got, she wrote home to let her family know that their 'son' was doing well. On her first trip up the river, Rosetta met several soldiers from the 153rd New York Regiment of Volunteers, who told her they had received a $152 signing bonus and were earning $13 a month in pay. Army recruiters assumed she was a male and asked her to join. Her word, oath and signature was enough to enlist.

She claimed to be 21 years old and was accepted into the regiment on August 30, 1862. The description on her enlistment papers said that she was five feet tall, fair-skinned, with blue eyes. The regiment was sent to Washington DC, in October 1862, where they remained for nine months, defending the nation's capital against rebel advances. Rosetta wrote home saying, "I can drill as good as any man in my regiment."

In her letters, Rosetta expressed her strong religious faith, the pride she felt at being a good soldier, and her strong desire to be financially independent, a dream that was shared by many 19th century women. She was outspoken, independent and hoped to buy a farm of her own after the war.

In February 1864, her unit was sent to Louisiana to take part in Major General Nathaniel Banks' Red River Campaign. There, Rosetta experienced battle up close for the first time in April 1864.

By April, Banks' Red River Campaign had advanced about 150 miles up Red River. Major General Richard Taylor, commander of the Confederate forces in the area, decided it was time to try and stem this Union drive. On April 8, he fought to a victory at the Battle of Mansfield or Sabine Crossroads. The bulk of the Federal army came back together at Pleasant Hill. Banks then decided to withdraw to Grand Ecore, while leaving a strong rearguard at Pleasant Hill. This force probably numbered around 11,000 men. To oppose it, Taylor now had close to 13,000 men, having been reinforced by two divisions late on April 8.

Early on April 9, 1864, Taylor's forces marched toward Pleasant Hill in the hopes of finishing the destruction of Banks' army. Taylor felt that the Yankees would be timid after Mansfield and that an audacious, well-coordinated attack would be successful. The Confederates closed up and rested for a few hours.

At 5:00 pm, Taylor launched a vigorous attack, which met with some initial success. He planned to send a force to assail the Union front while he rolled up the left flank and moved his cavalry around the right flank to cut off the escape route.

The attack on the Union left flank, under the command of Brigadier General Thomas Churchill, succeeded in sending those enemy troops fleeing for safety. Churchill ordered his men ahead, intending to attack the Union center from the rear. Union troops, however, discerned the danger and hit Churchill's right flank, forcing a retreat. By the end of the day, only one Confederate division remained intact.

Of the deceased soldiers Rosetta wrote, "sometimes in heaps and in rows … with distorted features, among mangled and dead horses, trampled in mud, and thrown in all conceivable sorts of places. You can distinctly hear, over the whole field, the hum and hissing of decomposition."

Pleasant Hill was the last major battle of the Louisiana phase of the Red River Campaign. Although Banks won, he retreated toward Grand Ecore, wishing to get his army out of west Louisiana before any greater calamity occurred. Rosetta wrote her last letter home on April 14, 1864, five days after the battle:

“Our army made an advance up the river to Pleasant Hill about 40 miles. There we had a fight. The first day of the fight our army got whip[ped] and we had to retreat back about ten miles. The next day the fight was renewed and the firing took place about eight o'clock in the morning. There was a heavy Cannonading all day and a Sharp firing of infantry. I was not in the first day's fight, but the next day I had to face the enemy bullets with my regiment. I was under fire about four hours and laid on the field of battle all night. There was three wounded in my Co. and one killed. I feel thankful to God that he spared my life, and I pray to him that he will lead me safe through the field of battle and that I may return safe home.”

Near the end of the Red River Campaign, drinking water became scarce and Rosetta and her fellow soldiers drank from streams that were poisoned by the rotting flesh of dead animals. The connection between contamination and infection wasn't understood at that time. The Union soldiers were stricken by chronic diarrhea and died by the thousands.

Rosetta fell sick and was admitted to the regimental hospital at Alexandria, Louisiana on May 3, 1864. When her condition worsened, she was transferred again to a Federal hospital in New Orleans on May 22. The trip south was fraught with problems. By the time she reached her destination she was in the acute phase of dysentery. Her illness persisted, slowly draining the life from her. She died on June 19, 1864. If the nurses or doctors there discovered her true gender, they didn’t report it. She was buried as a soldier at the Chalmette National Cemetery in New Orleans. Her headstone reads, "Pvt. Lyons Wakeman."

Many years later, Rosetta's letters were discovered by a relative in the attic of the farmhouse where Rosetta grew up, in upstate New York. They were published in 1994 by editor Lauren Cook Burgess as An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864. It wasn't until then that the military discovered she was a woman. 

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