Posted by Becky Hepinstall on March 26, 2015 in Website

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.

Clalin
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.

Since they were of child-bearing age, they would have had to deal with a monthly cycle. Their ability to gain relative privacy within the woods may have aided them. Also, amenorrhea (loss of menstrual cycle) most likely would have eventually set in due to the harsh conditions, physical demands, scarcity of food and the emotional stress of maintaining their ruse plus participating in the horrors of war.

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!

wakeman
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?

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.

30 Comments

  1. Becky Pyle

    My 2nd great-grandmother, Mary Ellen Thornburg (Randolph Co., IN) was supposed to have enlisted in the Union Army. But she got small pox and was discovered. She went on to marry Edward DeForest. I haven’t been able to prove it yet.

  2. First they tackled their physical appearance by binding their breasts, donned long pants and chose loose fitting garments and cut their hair like a man. then they adopted male mannerisms like chewing tobacco, spitting, swearing, playing cards. They had to be very, very careful to only use latrines privately and usually did not attempt bathing as it was too difficult to have a private time to bathe. I wish I could claim one of these brave women in my family tree. Kudos to them and also to all the nurses who took care of our brave soldiers.

  3. The women hid their sex, but practicing lowering their voices, learning to cuss, chew tobacco, cutting their hair, wearing larger uniforms, binding their breasts, and walking like a man. The other traits they practiced and adapted as the need presented itself. Playing cards, chewing tobacco, spitting, etc. even if you had not done it before was not hard to learn. They were truly brave, women and dedicated to their belief–whether it was for the North or South.

  4. angela Mercier

    Wearing pants, binding breasts, ill-fitting uniforms, adopting “manly” habits of swearing, spitting, using tobacco and playing cards. They also avoided the latrines and chose to bathe privately if given the opportunity to bathe.

  5. Mary Allen

    They cut their hair, put on oversized men’s wear and took up some of the more disgusting habits, of spitting, tobacco chewing and swearing. These women were true patriots. I wonder if women today would do these things if we still lived under the same guidelines?

  6. Theresa

    These women did everything they could to pass as men and be able to participate in the deeply felt cause, whichever side they were on. Nothing would stop these brave women and I respect and admire them for their efforts.

  7. Deborah Davenport Horn

    I was clueless that there were such brave women to pull this off ! Taking on the mannerisms of men such as not bathing for long periods , swearing , cursing , wearing ill fitted clothing , changing your voice and ALWAYS looking over your shoulder in fear of being found out !Especially being raised to be genteel women and being taught peaceful mannerisms thrust into a world of war … Only a woman of courage and loyalty could have stayed the course for any length of time .

  8. Amy Mack

    Here’s my question. How did these heroines hide their monthly cycle?! I can’t imagine dealing with that in the wilderness in war time.

  9. Barbara Spear

    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.

  10. Christine

    I never knew about these courageous and determined women before reading Sisters of Shiloh by Becky and Kathy Hepinstall. Reading these accounts of real life women soldiers adds even more depth to this interesting history/herstory of our country. Kudos to the author. If you are intrigued by the stories of these amazing women I highly recommend you read Sisters of Shiloh!

  11. judy a

    Cut hair, bound breasts, walked manly, lowered voices, smoked, played cards, oversized uniforms, spit, cussed, didn’t bathe much, drank. If I can’t win the book, I’ll purchase it simply because of the fascinating matter…

  12. Janet McLemore

    They would bind their breasts and wear loose clothing .Taking up manly habits like cussing, chewing and playing cards.

  13. Patti Lohman

    Interesting!! The women would cut their hair short, bind their breasts, and take up manly habits such as chewing tobacco and swearing.

  14. Andy Grant

    Try looking up Phoebe Hessel (nee Smith, 1713-1821), the English counterpart to the Civil War female soldiers – she the joined 5th regiment of Foot to be with her husband and was wounded alongside him at the Battle of Fontenoy. She served 17 years and was subsequently celebrated in the town of Brighton, where she is buried.

  15. Penny S. Bundy

    Spitting, swearing, playing cards and chewing tobacco, as well as breast binding, shorter hair and oversize clothes to hide a “figure”.

  16. Jan

    If they aren’t already in the database, these women’s names need to be added to the Women In Military Service For America Memorial register. The Memorial, located in Arlington, VA, near Arlington National Cemetery, honors all women who have served in the United States military past and present. I also know that several women fought as men in the Revolutionary War as well. Deborah Samson was one of them. You can find more information about the Women’s Memorial at: http://www.womensmemorial.org

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