Civil War Women as Men Discussion (Feb. 1996)

Civil War Women as Men Discussion

Query From Belle Sprague  
      21 Feb 1996

EDITOR'S NOTE: This query brings up the subject of cross-dressing during the American Civil War. I vaguely remember reading that 400 women served in the Union & Confederate armies dressed as men...has anyone else run across this statistic and what is the source? KL


I represent a group of junior high school teachers who are seeking information about a woman (whom we THINK we've heard of, but whose name we don't remember!) who served on the Union side in the Civil War disguised as a male doctor. She apparently did a lot of brave things, and was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor. The award was rescinded, however, when she was wounded and her gender was discovered. President Carter (or perhaps Clinton?) reinstated the honor posthumously.

Is this story apocryphal, or can someone shed any further light on it? We certainly would appreciate anything you can tell us.

Nothing like answering your own question, but....I just received information from ...a book by James the book's introduction he states " An estimated four hundred(the real number was probably larger) young women disguised themselves as men and easily finessed the superficial physical exams to enlist in Union and Confederate regiments[during the American Civil War]. Their motives ranged from patriotism and love of adventure to a desire to stay with husbands or lovers who enlisted(p.xi).

The book's editor, Lauen Burgess, is a reenactor who filed and won a sexual discrimination suit against the U.S. Park Service after being "discovered" to be a woman and being banned from reenactment events. Burgess has documented more than 135 women soldiers who served in the Union and Confederate armies "and the file continues to grow." The book is a fascinating collection of letters written by one of these women, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, a.k.a. Lyons Wakeman of the 153rd New York Volunteer Infantry. Perhaps Lauren Burgess can answer the original query on this list. The book's forward identifies Burgess as Associate vice-chancellor for university relations at Fayetteville State Univ.(I think that is new Winston-Salem in North Carolina?) Kriste Lindenmeyer

FOR COMPLETE BIBLIOGRAPHY ON THIS TOPIC, Check H-Women Web Page and click on Bibliographies.

>From Gayle V. Fischer <> 22 Feb 1996

Concerning Belle Sprague's inquiry: You are probably referring here to Mary Edwards walker, M.D., who sought a commission as a military surgeon with the (Union) Army medical department. Although she never received the commission, she did indeed work as a physician on and off the field of battle. She also was an advocate of women's dress reform and her own outfit of choice was a modified suit.

>From Robin Miller <> 22 Feb 1996

I believe the most well-known "passing woman" in the US Civil War was Sarah Emma Edmonds, who used the name "Franklin Thompson." She was a nurse, not a physician, and I wouldn't know about any medals. Debra Sampson served in the (US) Revolutionary War, under the name of "Robert Shurtliff." There have been a number of books written about her.

Dr. James Barry was a woman who lived as a man and served an entire career as a British Army doctor ca. 1825-1865. There are at least three books about her.

>From Maria Elena Raymond <> 22 Feb 1996

I believe the doctor in the inquiry from Belle Dr. Mary Walker. Walker was known (of course) as an "eccentric", for becoming a doctor, not taking her husband's name and for wearing bloomers or pants her entire life. She attended Syracuse Medical College in NY state and graduated in 1855. When the war broke out, she was 29, divorced, and went to Washington to seek a commission as a doctor in the Union Army, or at least as a contract surgeon. The Army wasn't interested and she ended up as a volunteer in a temporary hospital housed in the US Patent office. So she crossed into Confederate territory to the camp of General Burnside. She convinced the general to transport injured soldiers north to Washington for better hospital care. The story goes that women volunteers were at the train station to provide food and drink to the soldiers, but refused to serve Walker, whom they saw as a strange woman dressed in army pants, etc. Lincoln was no help in her appeal for a commission, so she returned to the battlefields and filled in for an assistant surgeon in an Ohio regiment...the assistant surgeon having been killed. The medical director of the Army of the Cumberland had a fit when he heard about her presence and demanded a review of her skills by an examining board. They apparently said her medical knowledge "was not much greater than most housewives." But she continued serving in that regiment and also served civilians in the area when she had time..which didn't please the Union soldiers. There has been speculation by regimental historians that she was a spy and was given the Cong. Medal of Honor because of her spy activities. There has been no evidence to prove that allegation. Eventually she was taken prisoner and spent 4 months in Richmond Prison, exchanged later for a Confederate major.

After her prison release she was awarded a contract as an acting assistant surgeon in the US Army and was placed in charge of a female prison. She never received the commission she wanted. After the war, Pres. Andrew Jackson awarded her the CMOH for "meritorious service." Walker became a lecturer on her war experiences, and a lobbyist for suffrage and the right of women to wear comfortable clothing. By the 1880s Walker's attire had acquired a more mannish's coat, pants, shirt, tie, stiff color and top hat.

In 1916 the feds created a panel to slim the ranks of CMOH winners. The new criteria for receiving the medal was to be for valor above and beyond the call of duty against the enemy for those serving in the military. The new criteria was retroactive. Over 1000 medals were stricken from the record. Because Walker had been a civilian during her entire service, and because the board could not find one act of bravery against the enemy, she also lost her medal. At the age of 85 she appeared before the board and told them she would not relinquish the medal...and she didn't. Until the day she died she word the original medal and a replacement that had been sent to her years earlier when the design changed.

Walker died in 1919, one year before suffrage was granted to women. In 1977, acting on a request from one of her descendants, the Army officially reinstated Mary Walker's Medal of Honor posthumously.

Another irony: it was one hundred thirty-five years to the day after Dr. Mary Walker was released from prison that Shannon Faulkner was told by the US 4th Circuit that her attempt to become the first female cadet at the Citadel would be delayed.

[Note: Some of this info came from a 1994 article in the Sacramento Bee]

>From Linda Grant De Pauw President, The Minerva Center 22 Feb 1996

The story as you have it[in the original posting] is a little garbled, but you are clearly referring to Dr. Mary Walker. In 1865, she received the Congressional Medal of Honor, an award that was revoked in 1917 when Congress decided retroactively to make noncombatants ineligible. But she refused to give it up and wore it the rest of her life. In 1977, decades after her death, Congress retroactively restored it to her. She is the only woman to receive that decoration. She is quite famous...and is the only woman whose name appears on the Pentagon wall honoring those holding the Congressional medal of Honor.

Walker wore the male uniform, but she was not in disguise. From late in 1863 until April 1864, Walker worked as a contract surgeon for the 52nd Ohio, treating civilians in heavily Confederate territory in Chattanooga for a salary of $80 a month. On one occasion she took a wrong turn and ended up behind enemy lines where she was captured and sent to Richmond as a suspected spy. She was there for four months, until the Federal government arranged for her exchange in August 1864. Her arrest brought this reaction from Confederate Captain B.J.Semmes: "This morning we were all amused and disgusted too at the sight of a thing that nothing but the debased and the depraved Yankee nation could produce--a female doctor--She was taken prisoner yesterday and brought in by the pickets this morning. She was dressed in full uniform of a Federal Surgeon, boots, hat & all, and wore a cloak...She was about 28 years old fair, but not good looking and of course had tongue enough for a regiment of men. I was in hopes the General would have her dressed in a homespun frock and bonnet and sent back to the Yankee lines, or put in a lunatic asylum..."

For a woman who did serve under a male name see...The Civil War Letters of Sarah Wakeman...This MINERVA publication has just been released in a paperback edition by Oxford U. Press. Many middle school teachers have already been using it; it contains an introduction discussing the entire phenomenon of female soldiers in the Civil War.

>From Maria Elena Raymond <> 22 Feb 1996

...the following women were among women who participated in the CW, as soldiers dressed as men: Louisa Wellman of Iowa, who wore her brother's clothes and joined one of the Iowa regiments. It's not clear what first name she used, but as she helped nurse minor wounds within the regiment she was known as "Dr. Ned." She took part in the storming of Fort Donelson, receiving a minor wound on the wrist. She was more severely wounded at the battle of Pittsburgh Landing and her sex was then discovered. She was allowed to remain with the regiment, doing duty in the ambulance dept..i.e. medic on the front lines. She was with Grant at Vicksburg.

Sarah Stiver and Maria Seely, were teen orphans trying to make a small farm in Missouri work. They donned male attire, went to St.Louis and joined, in early 1863, a company that was ordered to join a regiment headed to the army of the Potomac. They participated in the battle of Chancellorsville. Sarah Stover was enlisted as Edward Malison and was captured and taken to Richmond. Miss Seely promptly deserted, finagled her way to Washington and then south to Richmond. She found her friend, eventually helped her make her escape (the captured soldier's ID not having been discovered) to Washington. They only had a few months left in their term of service but they again dressed as men and rejoined their regiment, encamped near Washington. Having explained their reappearance as returning captured prisoners they continued to serve uneventfully until discharged.

Actress Pauline Cushman was said to have been a spy, but other sources place her in Rome during the time she was supposed to be behind Southern lines. Belle Boyd is another who comes to mind. I believe she was a spy for the Confederates...but I may not be remembering that correctly.

Jennie Hodges took the name of Albert Cashier and joined the Union Army's 95th Illinois Regiment in 1862 at age 18. She was captured by the Confederates in one battle and supposedly knocked her guard down with his own rifle and managed to get back to her regiment. She fought at Vicksburg and some 40 other battles, escaping injury. As Cashier, her name is among the 36,000 Union soldiers listed on the Vicksburg Battle Monument. After the war, she continued dressing as a man, working in small Illinois towns as a handyman and then retired to the state's Old Soldiers' Home near Saunemin. Her secret wasn't discovered until 1911 when hit by a car driven by a state senator, sustaining a broken hip.(Info about Jennie Hodges came from the Minerva Center.)

I am interested in knowing about other women who participated in the CW, but am particularly interested if the information printed in 1867 has been disproved. I hope a CW expert will address that question for me. Thanks very much.

>From Christopher Densmore <>

22 Feb 1996

I think that the person you are thinking of is Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, 1832-1919, who did serve as a surgeon during the Civil War. Walker did not disguise her sex, but did wear, while serving in the army, a uniform with trousers not unlike those of other surgeons--though with a slightly different cut. In later life she continued to wear trousers and a frock coat. She was, I understand, awarded the Medal of Honor but the award was later rescinded when the army decided that it had awarded too many medals during the CW without adequate cause. I believe her award has been reinstated. Dr/ Walker's historical reputation varies greatly depending on which account of her activities one reads--she does appear to have been quite individualistic.

>From Jane Beckman from Minerva Center 22 Feb 1996

Walker's work is indisputable. Her holding of the medal of honor is considerably less clear. The awarding of the CMOH in the Civil War era was subject to whim and whimsy, and entire units were given the medal simply as a bribe to make them reenlist, in the later days of the war. Whether there was any actual basis for the medal held by Walker, over and above her position as a surgeon( and several doctors were given the medal purely on that basis) is open to debate. Those interested might wish to further research the history of the Medal of Honor, as I do not claim expertise on the topic. As in the period, there were many symbolic reasons for reinstating the medal for Walker (or other persons in valuable support positions.)

Of much more importance in this era was the awarding of the Kearney Cross, for bravery under fire. Several women were awarded this medal(and it appears on their photos, also), including the indomitable Anna Ethridge.

>From Karen Needles 25 Feb 1996

How can I get the book on Rosetta Wakeman's experiences?

>From Linda Grant De Pauw 25 Feb 1996

The hard cover edition is available from The MINERVA Center for $25 plus $3 shipping. You can mail in an order or call in with a credit card. The paperback rights to the book were sold to Oxford Univ. Press, and the paperbound edition is now available in bookstore(at least, so I am told!).

>From Sonsie Conroy 26 Feb 1996

I understand you're looking for information about Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman to ever have been awarded the CMOH for her services as a surgeon during the Civil War.

I have been researching Mary preparatory to writing a young adult biography of her, and the following information might be of interest: Mary Walker was born in 1832 in Oswego, New York. She received her degree from Syracuse Medical College in 1855, and opened a practice in Columbus, Ohio and later in Rowe, New York. She married a fellow medical student, but they separated shortly afterward. She never remarried and had no children.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Mary wanted to join the Union Army but was refused, so she applied for a position as a contract surgeon--a position that gave her a nominal military rank but did not involve an actual enlistment or officer status. While her application was being processed(and turned down several times), she worked in Washington, D.C., setting up relief services for war widows and orphans and also supervised a convalescent hospital for wounded soldiers.

She eventually was hired as a contract surgeon, in 1864. She was assigned to several companies, most notably the 52nd Ohio Infantry. She also supervised the evacuation of the wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg. In addition to serving as a surgeon, Mary assisted civilians in the areas which she served, mainly destitute Confederate families. She was captured as a spy on one of these missions of mercy, and imprisoned in Castle Thunder, a Confederate POW jail. She was eventually traded back to the Union side for a Confederate major.

After the war Mary worked in various positions with the US Patent office and the Post Office. She was granted the CMOH for her meritorious service by President Andrew Johnson, after campaigning heavily for that honor. It was withdrawn in 1917 after a general purging of what was considered ineligible recipients, but was restored in 1977.

Mary Walker was very interested in dress reform, and wore bloomers or trousers all her life. She was an intelligent, if eccentric, writer and lecturer, who wrote two books and spoke extensively in Europe and the US about feminism, dress reform, and women's suffrage. She died in 1919, just before she was able to exercise her right to vote for the first time.

>From Angela Thompson <> 25 Feb 1996

Fayetteville State University is in Fayetteville, North Carolina, which is south of Raleigh. Winston-Salem is in the central-western part of the state. Good luck with your inquiry.

>From Lauren Burgess <> 25 Feb 1996

Forgive my belated response to Kriste Lindenmeyer's inquiry about the source of the estimate of 400 women who served in Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War....I concur that the number was probably far larger than 400. Of the nearly 150 women soldiers about whom I have collected information and documentation, the majority are those who were unsuccessful in maintaining their disguise--in other words, they were revealed to be women at some point and therefore caused the official and newspaper comment that makes them known to us today. Those who were successful we may never know about--were it not for Rosetta Wakeman's wartime letters kept in a family attic, her secret would still be sacrosanct.

I will appreciate hearing from those who have come across references to other women Civil War soldiers. I am working on a second book dealing with the experiences of the 150 or so women soldiers found to date.