Best-kept secret of the Civil War

I don’t profess to know everything about the Civil War by any stretch of the imagination, but I think I have a pretty good grasp of the basics.

cover of They Fought Like DemonsHowever, “They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War” by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook blew me away. Until I read the book, I had no idea that hundreds of women disguised as men fought on both sides of the war.

Like their male counterparts, they were motivated by patriotism and a thirst for adventure. They were also drawn by the prospect of being paid more than they could earn in the kinds of jobs women were limited to — sewing, prostitution and domestic servitude. In fact, some of the women had been impersonating men before the war for economic reasons.

Women joined the Army to be near a husband, sweetheart, brother or father, or even multiple family members. And many continued to serve after their male relatives were killed.

Their true identities were often not discovered until they were seriously wounded, died, were captured by the enemy or gave birth. Some revealed their gender after the war, and some were never discovered.

If they were discovered and kicked out of one command, they simply joined another. People didn’t carry personal identification back then, and as the war dragged on, both armies needed new recruits. So if someone showed up wanting to fight, officers asked few questions. In addition, physical exams were often cursory at best, and some women talked doctors into covering for them.

Many women worked their way up through the ranks or became trusted aides to high-ranking officers. All of them were volunteers who were desperate to serve and went to great lengths to do so.

By all accounts, the women fought hard and well and endured the same privations as their male counterparts without complaint. Some even suffered through the appalling conditions of being prisoners of war without revealing their gender, which would typically have earned them immediate release.

Blanton and Cook wrote:

Not one woman soldier is known to have been court-martialed for failing to perform her duty, for committing a military crime, or for disgracing her uniform. Only three women soldiers are known to have deserted their regiments, and two of these later re-enlisted.

Here are just some of the fascinating details the authors unearthed:

  • When Union Col. Henry C. Gilbert led a raid on Beersheba Springs, Tennessee, on April 13, 1864, five of his 35 troopers were women.
  • Five women are known to have fought at Gettysburg; two Confederate women were casualties of the infamous Pickett’s Charge.
  • Wounded women soldiers were discovered after the battles of Shiloh, Richmond, Murfreesboro, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Lookout Mountain and the Wilderness — among others.
  • Women soldiers were killed in action at the first and second battles of Manassas, at Shiloh and Antietam, on the Petersburg front and at Appomattox Station. After the war, some women told of burying fellow women soldiers whose dying request was that their identities not be revealed.
  • Maria Lewis went even further: She was a black woman who impersonated a white man. She served for 18 months with the 8th New York Cavalry, where she earned a coveted spot on an honor guard that presented 17 captured Confederate flags to the War Department.

I was so engrossed in the stories of these women that I was disappointed when the war began to wind down. Blanton and Cook have presented a compelling look into a phenomenon that was well-known at the time but mostly forgotten now. More on that next time!

One comment

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