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Profile: Private Sarah “Lyons” Wakeman

Posted by Paul Rawlins on March 18, 2014 in Cool Finds, Military Records

“I am as independent as a hog on the ice. If it is God’s will for me to fall in the field of battle, it is my will to go and never return home.”

That quote comes from a letter Private Lyons Wakeman of the 153rd New York Infantry wrote to family back home in Afton, New York. The family didn’t know Private Wakeman as “Lyons,” however.  They knew her as Sarah Rosetta.

Here’s the Wakeman family at home in the 1860 census.

Wakeman family 1860 census

 

In 1862, Sarah made a career move, assuming a man’s name and dress to get work on a canal boat. But with the state paying a bounty for enlistment, there was more money to be made as Union soldier. So on 30 August 1862, Sarah signed up under the name Lyons Wakeman.

Lyon boatman

 

Private Wakeman is described as being five feet tall with blue eyes and light brown hair. Sarah lied about her age, saying she was 21. A Dr. Snow, the examining surgeon, certified that he had “carefully examined the above named Volunteer, agreeable to the General Regulations of the Army, and that, in my opinion, he is free from all bodily defects and mental infirmity which would, in any way, disqualify him from performing the duties of a solider.” He obviously didn’t examine that carefully. Or maybe he believed in gender equality himself and enjoyed the irony of signing the document.

Lyon enlistment

 

In any case, Lyons enlisted for three years and saw duties that ranged from standing guard in Washington, D.C., to battle during the Red River Campaign.

Lyons didn’t survive the war. Private Wakeman died in New Orleans, Louisiana, of dysentery, or “chronic diarrhea” as the record puts it.

Lyons death

 

In one register of deaths of U.S. volunteers, Private Wakeman appears as the last entry on the page.

Lyon registers deaths volunteers

 

Sarah took her secret to the grave, and Private Wakeman is buried in Chalmette National Cemetery in Louisiana.

Lyons Chalmette Nat Cem LA headstone

 

Private Wakeman’s letters came to light in the 20th century and have been collected in the book An Uncommon Soldier, by Lauren Cook Burgess. And Lyons isn’t the only woman to be found in Civil War records. Whether they went to be with a husband, for money, for adventure, or out of patriotism, the fact is, they went. They faced the same dangers and deprivations, and some, like Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, would pay the same high price.

 

3 comments

Comments
1 joan4164March 18, 2014 at 9:00 pm

Thanks for the interesting article. However, I’m confused. How did someone make the connection between Sarah Rosetta Wakeman and Lyons Wakeman?
To me, her middle initial in the 1850 Census looks like an “S”. And you wrote that “The family didn’t know Private Wakeman as “Lyons,” however. They knew her as Sarah Rosetta.” Could you briefly discuss the missing evidence?

Hope the rest of your research turns up other fascinating stories.

Joan4164

2 CarolMarch 25, 2014 at 10:02 pm

I agree, how was she linked with he? You’d think that when sick with dysentery it’d be discovered that he was a she…or upon being readied for burial? It’d be even more interesting for DNA to be analyzed…

3 DianeApril 5, 2014 at 6:50 am

The following info is from Wikipedia and should answer that question of the connection:
Her regiment was assigned guard duty in Alexandria, Virginia, later to Washington, DC, to protect the nation’s capital. The first letter Wakeman sent home contained information about why she left home and what she was doing. Wakeman often sent money home in the hope of making amends. Sarah Rosetta Wakeman used her birth name when signing her correspondence; if her letters had been intercepted, this act could have ended her military career. Wakeman’s identity was not revealed during her burial as her headstone reads “Lyons Wakeman.”

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