Posted by Becky Hepinstall on March 10, 2015 in Website
Sarah Edmonds, as Frank Thompson (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Sarah Edmonds, as Frank Thompson (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It’s an old daguerreotype, faded now with time and passed down through many generations. A sweet-faced young woman looks back at you, her mouth upturned gently and eyes seeming to look into yours. It’s the face of your great-great-grandmother, who lived through the Civil War. Perhaps you’ve wondered how she coped when her husband, brother, father, suitor or fiancé left for the the war? What was life like for her when the soldiers marched away?

But have you ever considered that maybe she didn’t stay behind. What if you have another Civil War soldier in your family – and it was a woman? There are more than 400 documented cases of women who served, not to mention countless others whose deeds were never recorded or were lost.

These female warriors were no shrinking violets, wilting magnolias, hot-house lilies or any other euphemism for genteel ladies of the era. These women were fierce.

Twelve years ago, my sister, Kathy, and I set out to learn more about the real women who fought, and weave some of the threads of their true stories into a fictional account about two sisters who disguise themselves as men and join the Stonewall Brigade. (Our novel, Sisters of Shiloh, was recently released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.) These female soldiers fascinated us. What would cause a woman, particularly of that era, to essentially turn away from her womanly instincts and choose to participate in such a bloody, brutal conflict?

The existence of these female soldiers was occasionally acknowledged by both armies, during and after the war. But it was often assumed that they were either mentally imbalanced or must have been prostitutes or “loose women.” The truth was far from it. The men that fought on both sides of this war did so for a variety of reasons, and the same was true of the women. Some followed a loved one, some dreamed of adventure, some sought vengeance, some needed the pay, and some felt it was their patriotic duty.

In our novel, Sisters of Shiloh, one of our main characters, Libby, finds her husband dead on the Antietam battlefield and vows to avenge his death. She decides that the lives of 21 Union soldiers must be taken to represent each year of his too-short life. This may seem far-fetched for a refined lady of the time, but this detail was taken directly from the case of Charlotte Hope, whose fiancé had been killed in a Union raid in 1861. She joined the 1st Virginia Cavalry and vowed to shoot 21 Union soldiers – one for each year of his life.

Many of the women who served dressed as men are merely anonymous footnotes to history; they are either mentioned in passing in a letter home, or the discovery of their bodies on the battlefield is alluded to in a battlefield report. Luckily, there are still scores of women who bravely fought and whose names were recorded. Many who survived the war and went on to marry and have families. Their descendants live among us.

Catherine E. Davidson fought with the 28th Ohio Infantry in the battle of Antietam. She was shot in the right arm during that grisly fight and was carried to an ambulance wagon by Andrew Gregg Curtain, the Governor of Pennsylvania. She believed herself to be mortally wounded, and gave Curtain her ring, with her initials carved inside, to thank him for assisting her. Her arm was amputated between her shoulder and elbow and her secret was revealed, so she was dismissed from the Army. A short time later, she visited the Governor in the parlor of the Continental Hotel in Philadelphia, and rushed to him to thank him for helping her on the battlefield. Of course he was surprised, as he had not been aware that the soldier he had helped was a woman. She showed him her initials in the ring she had given him, which he was still wearing. When he tried to return it to her, she refused, telling him that, “The finger that used to wear that ring will never wear it any more. The hand is dead, but the soldier still lives.”

Mary Galloway was also at the battle of Antietam. She had fallen in love with a young Union officer named Henry Barnard that autumn and couldn’t bear to see him march away. She donned a uniform, cut her hair short and followed the army, trying to find Henry’s regiment. She had not yet found him when the battle began and she was struck in the neck by a bullet. She lay wounded on the battlefield for more than a day, refusing to let the male medical attendants examine her. Clara Barton, who would become famous as a nurse during the war, attended her. Mary divulged her secret to Clara, along with her despair over not knowing Henry’s fate. Clara convinced Mary to reveal herself to the surgeon and get medical attention for her wound. Later, while tending to other wounded soldiers in the hospital, Clara Barton came across a young soldier suffering the ravages of a fever brought on by a gangrenous arm – he was calling for his beloved Mary. Clara Barton was able to find Mary Galloway and bring her to Henry’s bedside, where she comforted him through the amputation of his arm. Mary and Henry both left the army, were married, and had a daughter that they named Clara.

Sarah Emma Edmonds Seelye is one of the most well-known female soldiers from the Civil War (see her photo above). She was eager to fight for the Union and enlisted as a private under the alias of Franklin Thompson with the 2nd Michigan Infantry in 1861. She fought in many battles, including First and Second Manassas, Antietam and Fredericksburg, but contracted malaria in the spring of 1863. She feared that seeking treatment would betray her secret, so she slipped away from the army, which led to Franklin Thompson being charged with desertion. In July of 1884, after several of her former army comrades submitted affidavits on her behalf, an Act of Congress cleared her of the desertion charges and she was awarded a soldier’s pension. She was the only woman ever included in the Grand Army of the Republic. She married after the war and had three children.

Sarah Emmons Pension

Frances Clayton served in a Missouri artillery unit with her husband, Elmer. They fought side by side at the battle of Stones River in 1862, when her husband was killed directly in front of her. She did not dissolve into hysterics and throw herself upon him. Instead, she stepped over his body and continued the advance, firing her gun as she went. She did not reveal herself even then and continued to serve in the army until she was wounded in 1863 and discharged from the army.

Martha Parks Lindley could not bear to be separated from her husband, William. Leaving their two children in the care of her sister, she followed him into service under the name of Jim Smith. She served undetected in the army for three years before mustering out of service and returning to her children. Her husband survived the war and reunited with his family, and they had two more children.

My favorite account is of a woman who fought at Fredericksburg – a ferocious, grisly battle fought in freezing, snowy conditions. She engaged the enemy so bravely that she received a field promotion – and she was eight months pregnant! We know this because her Colonel, Elijah H. Cavins, wrote home to his wife one month later:

A corporal was promoted to sergeant for gallant conduct at the battle of Fredericksburgh [sic], since which time the sergeant has become the mother of a child.

And to top it all off, this woman had also been wounded in the shoulder at Antietam while in her second trimester – and still managed to keep the secret that she was actually a woman. Unfortunately, although her actions are famous, nowhere is her name recorded, nor do we know what happened to her or her baby. We do not know her motives for fighting, but to continue her fight even through pregnancy, she must have believed in her cause with the most extreme ardency.

These women listed here represent a small sample of the many brave women who risked their lives to serve their cause. Could one of them be your ancestor?

Becky Hepinstall

Becky Hepinstall is the co-author of Sisters of Shiloh, written together with her sister Kathy. Becky holds a degree in History from the University of Texas at Austin and currently lives in Virginia Beach, VA.

13 Comments

  1. Becky Pyle

    Family legend has it that my great-great grandmother, Mary Ellen Thornburg, joined the Union Army (probably in Randolph Co., IN) but was discovered and sent home when she contracted small pox. I’ve been trying to verify this story.

  2. Lorne Richardson

    There is a nice memorial to Emma Seelye in front of what was her family homestead on the Saunders Road, near Harvey, New Brunswick,Canada.She was buried in Washington Cemetary in Houston, Texas with full military Honours.She was the first women to get a U.S. military pension.She was recently featured in Karen Abbott’s book Liar,Traitor,SoldierSpy

  3. Thank you for the information. I purchased the book “Sisters of Shiloh” and found it a very interesting read. My wife was also impressed. tks. don

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