The Women Who Fought in the American Civil War

by JoHarrington

When we imagine the heat and blood of Gettysburg, it's the men that we see standing or falling in the blasts. But there were women there too, in the ranks, with their muskets.

Early campaigns had so distinguished the soldier that he now bore the title of sergeant. His courage and strategic mind, so vital on the battlefield, were never in doubt.

Therefore it was all a bit of a shock when, four months after leading his men into the carnage of Stones River, 'he' gave birth.

It was a massive blow for the Army of the Cumberland, who had no option but to honorably discharge one of its best sergeants. In 19th century America, no woman was allowed to fight in the military. It just wasn't seemly.

They Fought like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War

Albert Cashier: From the Irish Famine to the American Front Line

Like so many Gaels fleeing genocide in Ireland, the teenage Albert ended up fighting in the American Civil War.

It was a story being repeated all over America during the 1860s. 

Irish immigrants, fleeing the aftermath of the potato famine, arrived at Ellis Island and were instantly directed into the US army. At least the men were.  The women had to take the children and forge a home for her family as best she could in the slums of Manhattan. 

Albert Cashier didn't quite have that rude awakening.  He had arrived in America with his mother during Black '47 itself.  He'd had time to grow up in the USA, until his mother died when he was just seventeen years old.

It had been a difficult childhood.  He was illegitimate and that did not sit well with Victorian sensibilities. In addition, his mother had not left them in the heart of the New York Irish communities. She'd taken them to Illinois, where prejudice could be discerned against the flood of Gaels.

Nevertheless, Albert was a hard-worker and he gained employment on a farm. Fleet-foot and agile, he made friends easily and set about realizing the American Dream. But two years later, that dream turned to nightmare.

Along with every other boy of his generation, Albert had a rifle placed in his hand and he was signed up to the 95th Illinois Infantry. To side-step anti-Irish feeling, he told the recruiter that he'd been born in New York City.  It wasn't quite the only lie that he told that day.

Image:  Albert Cashier's Civil War Sign Up Document
Image: Albert Cashier's Civil War Si...

The next nine months were filled with a lot of marching, punctuated by no less than ten battles. Nineteen year old Albert survived them all.

There was nothing on his record to distinguish him from the rest of the unit, until then. His agility saw him singled out for a reconnaissance foray into Confederate held territory. He went, but he was captured.

But not for long! Albert managed to retain a weapon.  In a moment of distraction by his guard, Albert shot him and fled.  The grey uniformed soldiers flooded after him, but his famous turn of speed served him well. Albert was able to return to his unit with even more information than he was sent to secure!

For three years and two weeks, Albert Cashier fought hard and long.  Comrades were killed and the horrors of the American Civil War played out. 

He was one of the lucky ones, who made it home again.  It was not without injury, nor had he missed out on the dreaded (and often fatal) surgeon's table.  He'd received a bullet in his hand; and undergone treatment for an intestinal infection.

Back in Belvedore, Illinois, he was greeted as a hero with cheers in the streets and settled down to nurse his memories and his wounds.  He never married.  He was seen as a bit of a recluse. He found work as a gardener, and later as a mechanic in a garage, but he kept himself to himself.

War can do that to a person.

It wasn't until 1911, fifty years after the Civil War, that an accident nearly exposed his big lie.  A car, driven recklessly into the garage, mowed Albert down before it.  He screamed out his protest at being conveyed to the doctor.  Those witnessing it assumed that it was a post-traumatic reaction to being in the civil war hospital tents.

The doctor found out the truth.  Albert Cashier was a woman.  She'd been born Jenny Hodges in Belfast, but there was little hope for a 17 year old Irish girl on her own in the USA.  She'd put on clothes belonging to her step-father and made her way in the world as a boy. 

Astounded that their honored Civil War veteran and hero was actually female, the doctor didn't quite know what to do.  Jenny begged his secrecy and, to his credit, he agreed. 

Yet this turned out to merely be borrowed time.  Now sixty-seven years old and frail with it, Jenny couldn't cope well with her broken leg and other injuries.  Deteriorating fast, she was consigned to a care home for war veterans, where a second doctor gave her an entrance examination.

He was not prepared to cover up for her.  He was utterly outraged!  It went against all of his moral standards to know that a woman, even one who had fought so bravely, was masquerading as a man.  She had even voted in elections!

His views were shared by all the care home staff and she was committed instead to a lunatic asylum. Jenny was forced to wear dresses for the first time since her teens; and she was treated with the porcelain disdain of all her sex. Yet she did not go down without a fight, demanding an investigation to prove her sanity. 

Former comrades, including her commanding officer, stepped forward as witnesses. They testified to her bravery and heroics during the war.  Even so, it was to no avail. The very fact of having lived out fifty years of her life as a man was enough to have Jenny Hodges labelled insane.

She died just two years later, feeling that her final legacy was disgrace.

But there was a coda from her unit. Even with the truth exposed and her mental state officially tarnished, they saw her as one of their own.  She was afforded full military honors at her funeral and buried beneath a soldier's headstone, as Albert Cashier, 95th Illinois Infantry.  War hero.

Sisters in Arms: Women Soldiers of the American Civil War

Books about Female Soldiers in the American Civil War

Read these histories to learn more about women like Jenny Hodges, who fought as men in battlefields like Gettysburg.

How Many Women Fought in the American Civil War as Soldiers?

Unfortunately, we will never know. To be discovered was to be discharged, so most took their secrets to their graves.

Jenny Hodges/Albert Cashier was by no means the only American Victorian lady to enter the fray.

Around 250 female soldiers have been positively identified.  Another 150 are in the 'probable' category, known largely because a known woman soldier saw the tell-tale tricks, but never exposed her comrade.

However, guesstimates have scaled the heights of up to 2,000 women, on both sides of the American Civil War, cutting their hair, donning male clothes and taking up arms.  It seems a ridiculously high number, until you compare it to the male conscripts.  Over 3.1 million men were out there.  Against that, 2,000 female soldiers suddenly seems like a drop in the ocean.

At Gettysburg alone, it's known that there were at least five female soldiers disguised as men.  Two were on the Union side and three were Confederate Southern Belles. Two of them died in Pickett's Charge. There were probably many more, whose secret passed unknown.

The Battle of Gettysburg was a pivotal point during the American Civil War. It's been the location of countless ghostly tales ever since.
Based on the book 'The Killer Angels' by Michael Shaara, 'Gettysburg' was filmed on location at the actual battleground. It is the longest ever American film.
Tony and Ridley Scott are the directors of this gritty docu-drama, which focuses on lesser known stories from the Battle of Gettysburg. Originally shown on The History Channel.

Frances Clalin Clayton, 4th Missouri Artillery

Wounded in battle and discharged, she has become the poster girl of the American Civil War Lady Soldiers.

The person pictured in just about every article and book on the subject (including this one) is Frances Clalin Clayton. She served as Jack Williams; and she is the only woman who was photographed both in and out of uniform.

Frances Clalin was born in Ohio, USA, but moved with her family to Illinois.  It was there where she met and married Elmer L.Clayton. 

The couple had three children and ran a farm in Minnesota.  Then war broke out.

It was obvious that Elmer, like every man in the country, would be drafted into the army.  But Frances was not prepared to let her husband go into that alone.  She cut her hair short and practiced acting like a man. This included learning how to smoke, gamble and cuss, as well as walking in a 'manly' fashion.

With their children lodged with relatives, Frances and Elmer crossed the border into Missouri, so that they could enlist amongst strangers.

Fighting side by side, for the 4th Missouri Artillery, the couple endured seventeen hard battles before one of them was injured.  Frances was shot in the hip at the Battle of Fort Donelson, in Tennessee, on February 13, 1862.  She managed to conceal her gender, even in the hospital tent, and survived the surgery enough to rejoin her husband back on the front line.

During the course of the war, they were also temporarily taken prisoner by the Confederacy, but were exchanged out for other prisoners of war.

It was all over at the Battle of Stones River (aka Murfreesboro) on December 31, 1862.  Elmer was gunned down at Frances's feet. Though she had joined up to protect him, there was nothing she could do for him here. She merely stepped over his body and carried on shooting.

Only after the dust had settled, and the dead and wounded were being cleared from the battlefield, did she approach her commanding officer.  She informed the startled gentleman that she was a woman.  She asked leave to take her husband's body and bury him.

Naturally, 'Jack Williams' was instantly discharged from the 4th Missouri Artillery.  Frances collected the dues owed to both herself and her husband, then returned home to Minnesota to her children.

Memoirs from Women Soldiers in the American Civil War

Not every female civil war combatant remained in secrecy. Some sold their stories afterwards and became causes celebres.

Why Did Some Women Fight in the Civil War?

It's a fair question to ask. While their male counterparts were forced to fight, these women were equally expected to stay at home. They did not have to be there.

Image: Loreta Janeta VelazquezThere is no single answer to what prompted women to join the Confederate and Union armies. 

Their reasoning was as varied as those afforded to the men, with the single exception of 'because they had to'.  No woman was party to the draft. The notion that they might wish to fight would have been met with horror and disbelief. They were, after all, the gentle sex.

Lieutenant Harry T. Burford (pictured left) did it for revenge. 

As Loreta Janeta Velazquez, she had received the news that her husband, a Confederate soldier, had been shot and killed in the civil war.  There was no way of knowing who had killed him, but that it was someone in a blue uniform. She would take her vengeance upon them.

First she perfected her disguise.  Too large breasted to easily conceal her figure, Loreta constructed for herself a brace.  It held shields together with wire and flattened her chest in a vice-like press. Next she fashioned facial hair (what what source remains unknown!), which was glued to her face.

Then she used her own wealth to ride into Arkansas and raise an army.  At their helm, she enlisted as a lieutenant for the Confederacy.  Wounded several times, she saw it through to the end; and no doubt killed enough Union soldiers to sate her craving for revenge.

Sarah Edmonds enlisted in the Union Army to dodge a marriage arranged for her by her father. Marian McKenzie, Harriet Merrill and V.A. White all did it to escape their pimps in whorehouses. Mary Ann Clarke entered under a cloud of depression, after her bigamist husband abandoned herself and their two children.

Others, like Frances Clalin Clayton, did it to remain with loved ones. Sarah Malinda Blalock's husband Keith was terrified of what he was walking into (and before you judge him for that, think long and hard about what those men went through).  She enlisted with him, so that he didn't have to endure it alone.

Martin and Elizabeth Niles had only just come out of their wedding, when he received his draft papers.  Desperately in love, Elizabeth simply declared that the war would be their honeymoon and signed up with him.

Frances Hook and her brother had been inseparable, since they were orphaned at three years old. He was all she had in the world and vice versa. So when he was called up, she went too.

Many more marched off to war for the same reason as their fathers, brothers, husbands and cousins.  They believed in the cause. They wanted victory for the Union or the Confederacy, and they were prepared to potentially get killed in securing it.

Yet there will also be the Albert Cashiers of that world.  Women who could either live restrained and constricted lives, all within the mores of Victorian America; or they could become men and achieve a kind of personal freedom in that society.  Even if it meant entering a battlefield.

The Forgotten Grave: Women Soldiers of the American Civil War

More than 600 women disguised themselves as men to fight in the American Civil War. This documentary tells their stories through the women's own letters, diaries, and testimonia...

View on Amazon

Full Metal Corset: Secret Soldiers of the Civil War

In April 1861, the newly inaugurated President Lincoln calls for 75,000 men to fight for the Federal cause. What he does not anticipate is the shared desire by hundreds of women...

View on Amazon

Trailer for The Forgotten Grave

Female Civil War Soldiers: The Danger and the Disgrace

None of these women were playing at what they did. They all risked life and limb, and many lost the gamble.

Some soldiers, like Catherine Davidson of the 28th Ohio Infantry, suffered amputations. In her case, she lost her arm from below the midpoint between elbow and shoulder.  An unnamed Confederate woman lost her leg at Allatoona.

Even more unlucky was the subject of a note in a Union soldier's journal: 'the remains of a woman in Confederate uniform were found between the lines near the Appomattox River.'  She had been completely blown into pieces on the day before the formal surrender by General Lee.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of women soldiers were killed on the battlefields of the American Civil War. They are the most forgotten of all, as most took the fact of their gender into the graves. We only know that they were there, because they went missing after being spotted before.

For those who were discovered and sent home, it wasn't a cheery 'oh well!' for them. They did not receive a hero's welcome in their cities, towns and villages.  Their actions were viewed as, at best, unnatural and, at worst, downright insidious.

We've already seen how Jennie Hodges ended her days in a lunatic asylum, despite being a war veteran and living a blameless life for fifty years.  Most only side-stepped public condemnation by framing the whole escapade as a romantic tale. 

Frances Clayton was one who did this. She was a woman so devoted to her husband, that she had to belittle herself in male dress to serve his every need. The newspapers turned her into a self-sacrificing wife, which Victorian society could just about accept.

Others didn't fare so well.  Loreta Janeta Velazquez and Sarah Edmonds were both initially disbelieved.  It was only as their tales emerged, as memoirs, and were corroborated by evidence that opinion shifted.  Loreta used the ploy of wanting to be the 'new Joan of Arc' and the papers swallowed it.  They could be viewed as silly, foolish, childish creatures instead.  

Insanity was the automatic accusation, alongside accusations of being whores.  A few, more worldly observers dismissed them outright as lesbians or transgender harridans.   Though this latter interpretation wasn't usually contemporary.  It's been applied more in retrospect.

As for the historians, the major focus has always been on their male comrades.  Overwhelmed in sheer numbers, this is perhaps fair enough.  But it's been at the expense of even noting that the women were there, and that they served and died too.

Even today, it seems that we're slightly uncomfortable about women fighting in the American Civil War.  Though their modern day descendants are now welcomed into the US army.

Histories of Women on the Front Line of the American Civil War

It wasn't just foot soldiers, but spies too, who influenced the course of the war. Some of them were women, who paid a high price if they were caught.

More Women on the Front Line of Wars

It began with a search for the husband who'd deserted her. It ended up on the battlefields of Europe and India. No-one guessed she was a woman.
Back home in England, the Suffragettes were demanding votes for women. Flora Sandes was already in uniform fighting, as a British woman on the front line of World War One.
Updated: 07/05/2013, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 01/20/2014

Thank you very much, Sheri!

Sheri_Oz on 01/19/2014

Fascinating history lesson. WOW! Pinning it.

JoHarrington on 05/14/2013

Thank you!

And in those circumstances, the female angle should be even more important! Ok, these things shouldn't be allowed to skew the reality - there were far, far more men fighting in the American Civil War. The females made up a miniscule number in comparison. But they should have been mentioned.

cmoneyspinner on 05/14/2013

I attended an all-girl academy for my high school years. 100% of the class was female. :) Sorry. I have to get used to the Wizzley site. I sometimes forget to click the Thumbs Up button. Clicked it!

JoHarrington on 05/13/2013

Thank you very much. I realise that school history classes can't cover everything, but this is a sad omission, when presumably half the class were female.

cmoneyspinner on 05/13/2013

I've studied American history. It's a required part of the U.S. school curriculum. But I never learned about these women. Sharing.

JoHarrington on 05/05/2013

I'm glad that you liked it. They were amazing women, weren't they?

PeggyHazelwood on 05/05/2013

What a great resource for Civil War historians.

JoHarrington on 11/12/2012

I'm doing my bit to make it so! And yes! I'd pay to see that movie. I wonder if it would pass the Bechdel Test?

WiseFool on 11/12/2012

Another really great wizz, Jo! Packed with very interesting stuff as always. I think the subject of women in the civil war would make an excellent movie (or novel) - why is this not more widely known?

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