Women Soldiers in the Civil War: How Did They Get Away With It?

Posted by Becky Hepinstall on March 26, 2015 in Ancestry.com Site

Elizabeth Finnern’s gravestone sits in a tranquil cemetery in Indiana. Just a simple stone, marking a quiet spot where a husband and wife rest for eternity. But there is something quite unique about this particular headstone – the last line: “Both members of Co. D. 81 Reg. O.V.I.” and underneath, the explanation: “She served in male attire untill (sic) her sex was detected when she was detailed as a nurse serving 3 years.”

Elizabeth Finnern, who rests with her husband, John, was one of the hundreds of courageous women who fought disguised as men during the Civil War.  But wouldn’t a woman like her have given herself away? Could a woman, no matter how sly and clever, really pass as a male soldier?

My sister, Kathy, and I were fascinated to learn about some of these women during the course of our research for our novel, Sisters of Shiloh, which is about two sisters who disguise themselves as men and enlist as soldiers in the Civil War. As we crafted our characters and placed them in scenes of camp life with other soldiers, we needed to find out how these women were able to pull off their deceit.


Frances Clalin Clayton

To our 21st century minds, the idea that a woman could pretend to be a man and live among them as a fellow soldier – sharing tents with them, eating with them, fighting together – and not be discovered seems ridiculous. Take a glance at the photo of Frances Clayton. You’re probably thinking to yourself “Sure, she’s not the most feminine lady, but I can tell that’s a woman.”

While it might be harder for us to be fooled today, during that era the customs of the times and the Victorian mindset in general helped these women in their deceptions. In broad terms, to a nineteenth century man, if you wore pants, you must also be a man. Now, that is not to say that there may have been times when a farm girl might wear her brother’s trousers to do manual labor or some other task in private, but even that would have been rare, and in public, women wore long skirts. Once a woman bound her breasts, cut her hair and donned the often oversized and ill-fitting uniforms of the day, the ruse was easier to pull off.

But most of these determined women knew that cutting their hair and donning men’s clothing would only take them so far. Many of them practiced their pretense – working to lower their voices, adjusting their walk, and taking up “manly” habits like swearing, spitting, tobacco-chewing and card playing.

They didn’t have to worry much about being in close quarters with the other men – soldiers often went for months without changing clothes, even sleeping in their boots and coats. They bathed just as infrequently, and people of this time were generally more private, so not bathing in a group would not have aroused suspicion. The camp latrines were filthy and spread disease, and were avoided by many, so answering the call of nature privately in the woods would not have seemed odd.

Getting into the army was not difficult either. Before 1872, the medical examinations required to join the army did not involve the removal of clothing, so this aided in their ability to fool the military doctors. Southern Army recruits were so desperately needed that as long as one appeared generally healthy, had enough teeth to tear a cartridge, enough strength to hoist a gun, and enough fingers to pull a trigger, they were welcomed with open arms.

There are many accounts from male soldiers who suspected something was “off” about one of these effeminate looking soldiers but just couldn’t figure out what it was. The fact that these women didn’t shave was glossed over as being due to the fact that they must be younger teenaged boys. Even though there were official age requirements in both armies, they were rarely enforced and children as young as ten were allowed to participate as drummer-boys. It is unconscionable for us to imagine allowing children or young teenagers on a battlefield today, but it was common in that era.

For every Jennie Hodgers, who served undetected as Pvt. Albert Cashier for a full three-year enlistment (and went on to live in the guise of a man for the remainder of her life), there were others who only got away with it for a short time. Sarah Collins of Wisconsin was found out because of the “unmanly” way she had been seen putting on her socks and shoes. Sarah Bradbury and Ella Reno, both serving under General Phillip Sheridan but whose true identities were known only to each other, managed to find some applejack brandy and, after imbibing way too much, fell into a river and nearly drowned. They were revealed to be women by the soldiers who pulled them from the water, and were hastily dismissed from the army. Mary Smith was relieved of duty after drawing suspicion because of the way she wrung out a dish cloth. Another woman was initially noticed because of her fair complexion and small hands. And Mary Catherine Murphy was called out because of her laugh.

Elizabeth Finnern, Mary Brown and Satronia Smith were detected while in the ranks, but were not immediately dismissed and were allowed to stay and serve as nurses. All had enlisted with their husbands. Once discovered, some women were allowed to stay and serve as medical aides, laundresses or clerks. Others refused to give up soldiering and enlisted in other regiments after being exposed and dismissed, as in the wonderful case of Lizzie Compton, who was so determined to fight that she joined the army seven different times!


From Chalmette, Louisiana, Chalmette National Cemetery, 1864-2003 on Ancestry

Many were only discovered after being wounded, as was the case with Mary Owens, Frances Day, Frances Hook, Mary Galloway and Catherine Davidson. Others suffered from the contagions that accompanied army life and were revealed while seeking medical care. Sarah Rosetta Wakeman served for almost two years in the New York infantry before contracting a debilitating intestinal ailment that led to her death in 1864. But despite being in a hospital for more than a month before her death, it does not appear that her sex was ever detected and her grave was marked with the name of her alias, Private Lyons Wakeman. (You can read more about Sarah in this Ancestry blog post.)

Our principle characters in Sisters of Shiloh, Libby and Josephine, did not really live, but their characters are woven from the details of these real women who traded in their skirts for dirty uniforms and swapped out their cooking spoons for bayonets. The fact that the actual female soldiers felt passionate enough about their causes that they were willing to go to war and fight is amazing all by itself. But the fact that they had to hide their true natures in order to do it makes their feats even more astonishing.

It was courageous blood that coursed through their veins. Do you share it?

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