“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.
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.
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.
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.
In one register of deaths of U.S. volunteers, Private Wakeman appears as the last entry on the page.
Sarah took her secret to the grave, and Private Wakeman is buried in Chalmette National Cemetery in Louisiana.
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.