Women soldiers in the Civil War had an easier time hiding their identities than you might think, according to DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook’s fascinating book, “They Fought Like Demons.”
Soldiers spent the majority of the war outdoors — in tents or on the march. They rarely had an opportunity to bathe or even change their clothes (in fact, they often slept fully dressed in boots and overcoats), the camp latrines were so atrocious that many men preferred to relieve themselves in the woods, and it would not have been overly difficult for a woman to hide herself in the bulky, shapeless uniforms of either army.
“In the 1860s, clothing was the most potent public indication of gender,” Blanton and Cook wrote, suggesting that simply by dressing like men and cutting their hair, women were taken at face value to be men. And soldiering was so closely identified with masculinity that it rarely occurred to men that there might be a woman in the ranks.
Here are some other ways that women managed to conceal their identities:
- To hide the lack of an Adam’s apple, many women soldiers kept their collars buttoned to their chins regardless of the weather.
- There were many adolescents in the army so higher-pitched voices and a lack of facial hair were not uncommon. Even so, women soldiers were routinely described as boyish regardless of how old they were, and some were perceived as modest and shy because they kept to themselves to avoid detection.
- Other women cultivated traditionally male vices with glee: drinking, smoking or chewing tobacco, cursing, gambling and fighting. Some even took advantage of the opportunity to vote as men — a right that American women wouldn’t win for nearly 60 years.
- Many women had male relatives in the Army who helped them maintain their disguise.
- Most women soldiers were working-class or grew up on farms:
Adapting to the hard life of a soldier was not so difficult for them because notions of idealized womanhood were hardly applicable to their lives. These women were accustomed to hard work and well acquainted with manual labor before their army careers began. Farming and frontier women were generally adept at using firearms and working with horses. The working-class women, especially those from urban areas, were also quite used to poor living conditions.
- Soldiers were primarily volunteers (and draftees later in the war), which meant they had to be trained and men didn’t have an advantage over women in that regard. Both armies were democratic and disorganized in the early years of the war, with the rank and file electing officers. Those officers never had an easy time controlling the independent-minded citizen soldiers. The general atmosphere of disorganization and insubordination made it easier for women to infiltrate the ranks.
- The predominant infantry weapon at the time was a rifled musket that weighed 10 to 15 pounds. The average load of weapons, ammunition and supplies came to about 30 pounds — or the weight of a small child.