Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Frances Clailin

Battle of Fort Donelson
Frances Clalin was born in Illinois in the 1830s and married Ohio-born Elmer L. Clayton with whom she had three children.

Clalin' story as a woman who disguised herself as man to fight in the war was the subject of several newspaper reports, many containing conflicting information. Most agreed that Clalin, disguised as a man and using the name Jack Williams, enlisted with the Union army with her husband during the fall of 1861. Despite living in Minnesota, Frances and Elmer enlisted in the Missouri Artillery Regiment. 

She is known to have fought in the Battle of Fort Donelson in Tennessee, February 13, 1862, where the Union won after three days of fighting. During this battle Clalin was wounded, but was not discovered. She and Elmer served side-by-side until he died during the Battle of Stones River (or Murfreesboro) on December 31, 1862. He was only a few feet in front of Fances at the time, but some sources say that she didn’t stop fighting - she stepped over his body and charged when the commands came.

It’s unknown which units specifically the Clailins fought in, but Frances is said to have served in both cavalry and artillery cakes. She was engaged in 17 battles besides Fort Donelson and reports say she was wounded a total of three times and taken prisoner once.

“Frances Clayton took up all the manly vices. To better conceal her sex, she learned to drink, smoke, chew and swear. She was especially fond of cigars. She even gambled, and a fellow soldier declared that he had played poker with her on a number of occasions.” —DeAnne Blanton & Lauren M. Cook, They Fought Like Demons

She was tall and masculine, had tan skin, stood erect and walked with a soldierly stride. She was said to be a good horseman and swordsman ... a respected person who commanded attention in the way she acted. One report said that she did her duties at all times and was considered to be a "fighting man".

There are two stories about how Clalin was discovered to be a woman. One is that after the battle at Stones River in 1863, Clalin let her true identity become known and was discharged a few days later in Louisville. The other is that she was wounded in the hip at Stones River and was discharged after being discovered.

After being discharged Clalin tried to get back to Minnesota to collect the bounty owed her and Elmer, as well as to get some of his belongings. It’s also speculated that she wanted to reenlist, but was unable to. Her train was attacked by a Confederate guerrilla party and she was robbed of her papers and money. She then went from Missouri to Minnesota, to Grand Rapids, Michigan and on to Quincy, Illinois. In Quincy a fund was created to aid her quest for payment by former soldiers and friends. Frances was last reported to be headed for Washington, DC.

Clalin became popular with the newspapers of the time. Her story, which was often jumbled up, was published in about six different papers. In some articles it was stated that Clalin had been wounded and discovered at Stones River where her husband died, but others said she was wounded at Fort Donelson and was able to keep her identity a secret until her husband died, after which she went to her superiors with her secret.

According to Clalin, she was actually wounded at Donelson and was able to keep her identity unknown. She corrected these misunderstandings in her last interview, but she never stated what specific regiment she had served in. This was probably never asked of Clalin, because the reporters were more interested in the story of a devoted wife, rather than the actual details of Jack Williams’ soldier life.

Go to FindAGrave for Frances' memorial.


  1. I love this website It helped me so much with my report on her.

  2. Thank you Nicole! What is your interest with Frances? Is she your ancestor?

  3. This website helped me with my report on her. Thanks!

  4. very helpful. thank you.