Women Reenacting Military Roles
21st Century Ideals and 19th Century Fact
G. M. Atwater and W. A. King

 

A Quote from an on-line Civil War message board:
"Perhaps this be a perfect opportunity for the next immersion event, for the coordinators to restrict women in ranks unless they can document a specific person to that specific scenario ... AND CANNOT BE DETECTED!!!"

This is a recurrent theme in such discussions, which has always puzzled me...  If a woman in the original ranks of a given unit can be documented, then barring one or two historical exceptions, this woman was not successful at hiding her gender.  This original female soldier had to have been "discovered", to have documentation available about her.  How can someone portray this role yet meet the modern-day criteria of remaining undetected?  Her historical counterpart didn't do it. In fact, there can be no possible documentation for the one hundred percent successful gender disguised woman soldier until after the war.

Think about it. Close your eyes and take yourself back in time.  Imagine looking at a 19th Century lady walking down the streets of any major city at the time.  What is she wearing?  A hat? Yes.  A Dress? Yes.  Hoops? Maybe.  What would she look like in trousers?  Can you imagine it?  If you are using a 19th century mind set, then your answer should have been "women don't wear trousers, so I don't know what they would look like in them" or "If she is wearing trousers, then there is a skirt hiding them." (Some working women did wear trousers under their skirts.) The point is that men did not know what women looked like in trousers alone.

 Sarah Morgan illustrates the 19th century mind set when she wrote in her diary:

"Why was I not a man? What is the use of all these worthless women, in war times?  If they attack, I shall don the breeches, and join the assailants. and fight, though I think they would be hopeless fools to attempt to capture a town they could not hold for ten minutes under the gun boats. How do breeches and coats feel, I wonder?  I am actually afraid of them.  I kept a suit of Jimmy's hanging in the armoir [sic] for six weeks waiting for the Yankees to come, thinking fright would give me the courage to try it. (what a seeming paradox!) but I never succeeded.  Lilly [sobriquet for Sarah's sister, Elizabeth Ann] one day insisted on my trying it, and I advanced so far as to lay it on the bed, and then carried my bird out - I was ashamed to let even by canary see me - but when I took a second look, my courage deserted me, and there ended my first and last attempt at disguise.  I have heard so many girls boast of having worn men's clothes; I wonder where they get the courage." (The Civil War Diary of Sarah Morgan Edited by Charles East  1991 University of Ga., Athens Ga. pp. 116-117)

How does this concern reenacting the 19th Century in a 21st Century world? 

Simply this: a 19th Century mind set does not know what women in trousers look like: not for men or for other women. What other 21st Century ideas do we bring to our 19th century life? I offer the following regarding women who field as soldiers:

Myth: Women who were discovered were drummed out of the army. 

Fact: There are accounts of some them being arrested as spies and jailed, but I don't know of a single record of there actually being a public drumming out of the woman.  There is documentation that supports the fact that some "discovered" women were allowed to remain in the ranks.

Keith Blaylock, 26th NC, Co. F swore to the recruiter, James Moore, that he would not enroll without his wife.  Thus Malinda Blaylock was sworn as her husband's brother, Sam - all with the full knowledge of the recruiting officer. [Gragg, Rod. Civil War Quiz and Fact Book (New York, 1985) p.175; Wiley, Bell I. The Life of Johnny Reb (1943 Baton Rouge renewed 1970) p. 334; Massey, Mary E.  Bonnet Brigades American Women & the Civil War, p. 81; Fox, William F.  Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, 1861-1865 (Albany, 1889) p. 60]

Three Months in the Southern States by Arthur J. Freemantle (London 1863 reprinted 1984) mentions a woman who he saw on a train: "They told me that her sex was notorious to all the regiment, but no notice had been taken of it so long as she conducted herself properly.  They also said that she was not the only representative of the female sex in ranks" p. 174

Col. Geary, while on a journey to Atlanta from Augusta, "discovered a Confederate Captain in one of the ladies. Her husband was a major in the Confederate army and she had taken an active part herself in the war, and fairly earned her epaulettes (Ross, Fitzgerald. Cities and Camps of the Confederate States ed. by Richard B. Harwell. University of IL. Press, Urbana 1958) p. 116

A communication from Major-General Irvin McDowell to Major-General John Pope dated August 26, 1862: "General King reports he has received a flag of truce from General Anderson to return a woman dressed in man's clothes captured by them this morning.  I report the circumstance, as it is the first information I have of the presence of this division in our immediate front."  In his missive, Major-General McDowell did not seem surprised about the woman in man's clothes.  There is no further reference to her in his letter. (Sparks, David S., Inside Lincoln's Army: The Diary of Provost Marshall General Marsena Rudolph Patrick  New York   1964) p. 130; US. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (1889) Series I--Volume 16, part 2 p. 349

During the battle of Peach Tree Creek (July 20, '64) an orderly was captured and taken before General Hood, but refused to talk. A female major rode up and saluted the general. She was described as wearing a cap with feathers and gold lace, flowing pants, a long velvet coat that reached just below her hips, fastened with a crimson sash and partly open at the bosom. (Hall, Richard. Patriots in Disguise Marlowe & Company New York 1994) p. 162

In a letter to his father, Robert Ardry wrote of a battle near Dallas Ga. In it he describes I saw 3 or 4 dead rebel women soldiers in the heap of bodies (Museum of the Confederacy exhibition accompaniment ed. by Edward Campbell and Kym Rice   A Woman's War: Southern Women, Civil War and the Confederate Legacy (Museum of the Confederacy and University Press of Virginia 1996) p. 93

There are also at least 6 documented incidences of women soldiers becoming pregnant while in uniform. Some of them hid  their pregnancies so well that nothing was suspected until they went into labor while on duty!

The Sandusky Ohio Commercial Register reported on December 12, 1864, that a baby boy had been born to a female officer in the Confederate Army imprisoned at Johnson's Island.  The same article further reported that there were many reports of Women in the Union Army as soldiers, but this was the first time the editor had gotten a report of a Confederate female soldier.  [Hall, Richard.  Patriots in Disguise: Women Warriors of the Civil War.   (Marlowe & Company, New York  1993) pg. 160; Middleton, Lee. Hearts of Fire: Soldier Women of the Civil War (Franklin NC. 1993)  Pg. 20;   Leonard, Elizabeth All the Daring of the Soldier (W. W. Norton & Co. New York 1999) pp.218-219

On April 19, 1863, John V. Hadley wrote to his girlfriend that the "lady soldier" previously referred to in the Army of the Potomac was sent home after delivering a baby.  This "lady soldier" seemed to have enlisted in a New Jersey regiment with her lover. She donned the male attire, passed examination, and joined the company with him.  She was with the company for nearly a year, fought in four battles, and no one suspected the truth up to the moment of birth. [Hall, Richard.  Patriots in Disguise: Women Warriors of the Civil War.   Marlowe & Company, New York  1993) pp. 159-160

James Greenalch wrote to his wife on August 20, 1863 that "a regiment that is camp't [sic] near us, the 74 Ohio, than an orderly Sergeant in that regiment has got a child, that the sergeant turns out to be a woman with men's cloths [sic] on an has ben [sic] in the regement [sic] twenty months".  [Hall, Richard. Patriots in Disguise: Women Warriors of the Civil War (New York:  Marlowe & Company 1993)p. 160, 203

During 1865, the 10th New York Heavy Artillery and the 2nd Pennsylvania Veteran Heavy Artillery were camped close to each other. In the 10th New York Heavy Artillery, a sergeant was delivered of a "bouncing boy".  The sergeant had become "sick" on the picket line, was carried to the hospital, and there gave birth on the morning of March 6, 1865. "For the first three or four days the event created great question among the two regiments as to its parental relations". [[Hall, Richard, Patriots in Disguise: Women Warriors of the Civil War. (Marlowe & Company, New York  1993) p. 160

In a letter home, a soldier from a Massachusetts regiment wrote of "an orderly in one of our regiments and he and the corporal had a baby, for the corporal turned out to be a women! She has been in 3 or 4 fights." [Burgess, Lauren, An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Private Lyons Wakeman 153rd Regiment, new York State Volunteers (The Minerva Center, Pasadena MD. 1994) p. xii

Col. Elijah H.C. Cavins was prompted to write home about a Corporal who "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.  What use have we for women, if soldiers in the army can give birth to children?  It is said that the sergeant and his Capt. Occupied the same tent, the being intimate friends." [Burgess, Lauren, An Uncommon Soldier (The Minerva Center, Pasadena MD. 1994) p. 5

The previous examples would never have happened if SOMEONE in their company wasn't aware of their true gender and didn't bother to report it.

Modern thought: You can pick out female soldier reenactors by their feminine appearance. 

19th Century fact: Take a really good look at some of the original photos. Give some of those boys long hair and they could easily pass for girls. In Thomas Lowry's book, The Story the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell: Sex in the Civil War, (Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA. 1994) there is an interesting story about a Ball held the night before Brandy Station.  There were not enough women available to dance, so some of the younger soldiers dressed as ladies for the dance.  A soldier wrote home a few days later that "some of the real women went, but the boy girls were so much better looking that they left&ldots;no one could have told wich [sic] of the party had fell on a hatchet." A another soldier agreed and in a letter to his wife wrote "We had some little Drummer boys dressed up and I'll bet you could not tell them from girls if you did not know them - some of them looked almost good enough to lay with"  (pp. 112-113) A major at this same ball was fooled enough by one young "lady" that he cornered "her" in a drawing room, where "she" lifted up "her" dress and asked the major if he liked what he saw. (p. 113)

Can you pick out the women from among these soldiers?
Would you attempt to pull any one of these soldiers out of a reenactment today?
If you answer yes - then you are wrong!!

You are using the benefit of 21st century mind set, when you are supposed to be reenacting
 a 19th century period.

                                A                                                                                                  B                

             

 

   C      

      

 

                                          D                                            

                

 E                                        F

      

   

Answers: B,C, E, and F These original women soldiers served with their male counterparts and were accepted as soldiers.

A. (Male) Pvt. Benjamin Hall at age 19 enlisted in the Duplin Rifles, North Carolina. 
[Photo courtesy of  Cape Fear Museum, Wilmington NC. 1984.28.1; Hall Collection]

B. is actually Jennie [IRENE] Hodgers who enlisted in the 95th IL., August 3, 1862, under the name of Albert Cashier.  She continued her life after the war disguised as a man, and was not discovered until 1913 after a car accident landed her in a hospital. [Photo from Illinois State Historical Library]

C. is actually Francis Hook who enlisted with her brother in the 65th IL Home Guards, assuming the name of "Frank Miller."  She served three months, and was mustered out without her sex being discovered.  She then enlisted in the 90th Illinois, and was taken prisoner in a battle near Chattanooga. [Photo courtesy of Wayne Jorgenson]

D. (Male) Sgt. John  Turner Hambrick , Caswell County NC. 1st Regiment NC Foot Volunteers.
 [Photo courtesy of  North Carolina Division of Archives and History, Raleigh NC.]

E. is actually Sarah Emma Edmonds Seelye, who served with the 2nd Michigan as a (disguised male) nurse and spy.  She Enlisted May of 1861 and went AWOL April 1863 for fear of being discovered while having malarial attacks.  In 1867 she married Linus Seelye and they raised three children. In 1886 after petitioning the US government at the urging of her former comrades, she received a pension for her military service.
[Photo courtesy of State Archives of Michigan]

F. is Actually Frances Clalin who served in Missouri Artillery and Cavalry companies.
[Photo from Boston Public Library]

Modern thought:You can pick out female soldiers by their feminine actions.

19th Century fact: Although the word homosexuality was not coined until 1895, the effeminate characteristics exhibited by some men were noted in the 1860's.   Walt Whitman had several male -male encounters. One in particular, a deserter from the 2nd New York Light Artillery was "somewhat feminine and has never been in a fight or had a drink of whiskey."   (Lowry, The Story the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell: Sex in the Civil War, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA. 1994) (p. 110) Another was described as being "fresh and affectionate" p. 111).  Not all men with effeminate characteristics are homosexual - other things can come into play whether is being raised solely by one parent, or perhaps with nothing but sisters.  The point is that there were effeminate men in the ranks then as now.

Modern thought: Women don't have facial hair.
19th Century fact: Indeed, neither did many soldiers at the time.

Modern thought: Men don't have a bust. (C'mon! Some men do have large chests - admit it!)
19th Century fact: If a female soldier is portraying the role correctly, she won't have much of one either - no more than some men's.

What seems to be in demand from some re-enactors is an impossible standard.  To require women military re-enactors to portray documented females in uniform is not the same as requiring them not to be detectable--that is, unless you WANT women in uniform to portray historical female soldiers, who were obviously unable to hide who they really were...

"Hey, ain't that a female in your company?"

"Yeah, the original 13th Mississippi Mudsills had one who was found out, named Private Smith, so Suzie, there, is portraying her."

In the end, women military re-enactors are left with a choice.  Either portray a documented female soldier who had to have been discovered; or disguise themselves to the utmost of their ability and hope that any men that might notice things a little "out of the ordinary" will consider the true19th century mind set, and leave them alone.

 

  Back to Malinda Blaylock (Blalock)

 

Back to Main Page

Back to Sampling the Site Page

 

WNC Famous People Page