Monday, January 31, 2011


Both the Union and Confederate armies forbade the enlistment of women. Women soldiers of the Civil War therefore assumed masculine names, disguised themselves as men and hid the fact that they were female. Because they passed as men, it's impossible to know with any certainty how many women soldiers served in the Civil War. About 250 women are thought to have served in the Confederate army disguised as men, with about 400 women serving in a similar manner in the Union Army. They fought for the North and South in virtually every major battle of the bloody Civil War.

Some soldiers were revealed as women after getting captured. In his memoirs, General Philip Sheridan reported an extraordinary incident one day when two female soldiers were accidentally discovered in his command. A cavalry soldier, along with a teamster from Tennesses, got drunk on apple cider while on a foraging expedition in Kentucky. They fell in a river and were discovered to be female when they were saved and resuscitated. Sheridan personally interviewed them the next day and recorded the incident with some bemusement ... referring to them as "she dragoons." He wrote:

"The East Tennessee woman [the teamster] was found in camp, somewhat the worst for the experiences of the day before, but awaiting her fate contentedly smoking a cob-pipe. [The Cavalry soldier] proved to be a rather prepossessing young woman. How the two got acquainted I never learned, and though they had joined the army independently of each other, yet an intimacy had sprung up between them long before the mishaps of the foraging expedition."

More often than dramatic disclosures of this kind, the discovery of women in male disguise was due to happenstance. A young woman was found in Captain Gerard's company of the 66th Indiana infantry after fooling the soldiers for some time. One day, by chance, her uncle visited the camp, accidentally met and recognized her. She was discharged immediately.

During the 1861 Kanawha Valley Campaign in West Virginia, a young soldier was discovered to be a woman after serving three months in the 1st Kentucky infantry when she aroused suspicion by the way she pulled on her stockings. A newspaper correspondent covering the campaign reported: "She performed camp duties with great fortitude, and never fell out of the ranks during the severest marches. She was small in stature, and kept her coat buttoned to her chin."

Among the numerous cases of soldiers whose careers were ended by pregnancy is one reported by Civil War nurse, Harriet Whetten. On August 21, 1862 she recorded in her diary that she had discovered a woman among the hospitalized Union soldiers in her care who was pregnant and had to be sent home. Several of the soldiers whose careers were ended by motherhood were veteran sergeants and even officers. When a female sergeant in the 74th Ohio infantry gave birth after 20 months in the service, General Rosecrans (April 17, 1863) termed it "a flagrant outrage ... in violation of all military law and of the army regulations."

On the flip side, officers often knew that one of their soldiers was a woman, but let them continue in service. Charles H. Williams served three months in Company I of an early Iowa regiment and was discovered when the regiment mustered out. A newspaper report described her as having small and rather delicate hands, large and lustrous eyes and jet black hair. "She was born in Davenport where her mother now resides," the newspaper stated. "Captain Cox learned her sex but allowed her to remain."

Another officer detected a female soldier from Cincinnati, Ohio in his ranks and was persuaded to let her remain. "She looks as brave as any soldier in the division," he reported, "I say bully for her, and if I could get 100 of such I would send a company."


  1. An extraordinary tale, thanks for sharing this part of history that was unknown to me!