By Karen Abbott (Regular Contributor)
In the fall of 1862, at an Union army encampment along the Rappahannock River, a corporal in a New Jersey regiment, serving picket duty, began moaning and doubling over in pain. At first his comrades dismissed his complaints, but when he sank to his knees, unable to support himself, they carried him to a nearby farmhouse used as an army hospital. “There,” a fellow soldier reported, “the worthy corporal was safely delivered of a fine, fat little recruit for the regiment!” Another joked, “It is not a bad move of the government if they can make the corporals bear children and serve as a soldier they may keep the stock up.” The woman, whose name has been lost to history, had managed to conceal both her pregnancy and her sex during her year of service.
Isolated but Not Alone
She was not alone. Six soldiers are known to have performed their military duties while pregnant, with none of their comrades noticing their condition until they went into labor, and as many as 400 women, in both North and South, disguised themselves and fought as men. Some joined the army with a husband, brother, sweetheart, or father; one couple even enlisted together on their honeymoon. Some, like a 12-year-old girl who joined as a drummer boy, were fleeing an abusive home situation. For poor, working-class, and farm women, the bounties and pay ($13 per month for Union soldiers, $11 per month for Confederates) served as an incentive. A small number of women were living as men prior to the war and felt the same pressure as men to enlist. One Northern woman was a staunch abolitionist who fought because “slavery was an awful thing.” A Southern counterpart sought adventure, yearning to “shoulder my pistol and shoot some Yankees.”
Official protocol of both the U.S. and Confederate war departments dictated that all recruits strip and undergo a thorough physical examination, but doctors across the country flouted these rules. They had quotas to fill and needed bodies, quickly. It didn’t matter if a recruit was prone to convulsions or deaf in one ear or suffering from diphtheria.He merely required the strength to carry a gun, a trigger finger, and enough teeth with which to tear open powder cartridges. One recruit recalled the doctor pinching his collarbones and asking, “You have pretty good health, don’t you?” before passing him. Another was welcomed into the army after receiving “two or three little sort of ‘love taps’” on the chest.
Gender & Masquerade
Certain aspects of Victorian society and mid-19th century military life aided the women’s masquerade. Men were accustomed to seeing women in crinolines and bonnets and had no concept of what one would look like wearing trousers and a kepi hat. They went for long stretches of time without bathing or changing. To save time to prepare for roll call in the morning most of the officers remained partially clothed for bed; some even turned in wearing coats and boots. The stress and physical demands of a female soldier’s new role would almost certainly stop her menstrual cycle, and if she did bleed her soiled rags could be passed off as the used bindings of a minor injury—hers or someone else’s. Smooth faces and high-pitched voices could be attributed to youth. Male soldiers who knew or suspected there was a woman in the ranks were usually impressed by her patriotism and bravery, and chose to keep her secret.
Some women soldiers served out their entire enlistments without being detected, but the majority weren’t so fortunate. A careless few betrayed themselves through stereotypical feminine behavior. Two women serving with the 95th Illinois Infantry were outed when an officer threw apples to them. They were dressed in full military uniform, but instinctively made a grab for the hem of their nonexistent aprons in order to catch the fruit. Another woman was suspected when a commander witnessed her giving “a quick jerk of her head that only a woman could give.” A recruit in Rochester, New York forgot how to don pants, and tried to put hers on by pulling them over her head. Illness was the greatest threat. Numerous women suffering from common ailments—typhoid, measles, malaria, pneumonia, dysentery, and smallpox—declined treatment rather than risk a medical examination.
Some women, fearing discovery and its consequences—which ranged from dishonorable discharge to being put on nurse detail to arrest and imprisonment—preemptively left the army. Sarah Emma Edmonds, better known as Private Frank Thompson to her comrades in the 2nd Michigan, enlisted shortly after the Fall of Fort Sumter and served with distinction as a nurse, soldier, and spy. For two years she successfully concealed her sex and self-treated various ailments, including a broken foot and badly mangled arm, but in the spring of 1863, fighting a severe bout of malaria, she saw no choice but to desert. “Had I been what I represented myself to be, I would have gone to the hospital and had the surgeon make an examination of my injuries, and placed myself in his hands for medical treatment and saved years of suffering,” she later wrote. “But being a woman I felt compelled to suffer in silence and endure it the best I could… I would rather have been shot dead, than to have been known as a woman and sent away from the army under guard as a criminal.” She slipped away from camp in the middle of the night, and never called herself Frank Thompson again.
Karen Abbott is the New York Times bestselling author of Sin in the Second City and American Rose. Her next book, a true story of four female Civil War spies, will be published by HarperCollins in 2014.
Sources: Elizabeth D. Leonard, All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies. New York: Penguin Books, 1999; DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook, They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War. New York: Random House, 2002; Laura Leedy Gansler, The Mysterious Private Thompson: The Double Life of Sarah Emma Edmonds, Civil War Soldier. New York: Free Press, 2005.