Covert Force

Hundreds of women fought in the civil war disguised as men

As part of her cover, Frances Clayton took up gambling, cigar-smoking and swearing. (Trustees of the Boston Public Library)
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August 30, 1862, proved to be yet another bloody day. Henry Clark was in the thick of things, fending off Federal troops in the Battle of Richmond, Kentucky, when the Confederate private caught an enemy shell in the thigh. Clark was swarmed by bluecoats and taken prisoner.

It was presumably when a Union medic treated Clark’s wound that the soldier’s tightly held secret was unmasked. Henry’s real name was Mary Ann. Indeed, she was a divorced mother of two.

When Federal troops realized that they had a woman on their hands, they moved quickly to release her—as long as she swore to return to the life of a proper lady. They even gave her a dress to wear. She agreed and was freed, then quickly cast off the frock and made her way back to the rebel army, where she was promptly promoted. Not long after, a young Confederate soldier—having joined a crowd gathered around Clark, then apparently serving openly as a female officer—wrote home: "Pa among all the curiosities I have seen since I left home one I must mention, a female Lieutenant."

A curiosity, yes, but to the surprise of many Civil War buffs even today, Clark was by no means unique. She was one of an estimated 400 women who took up arms in the war; they were not nurses, or laundresses or cooks, but actual female soldiers disguised as men, who marched, mastered their weapons, entered into battle and even gave their lives.

Various histories have alluded to women’s roles in combat during the War Between the States, but none have made so detailed and convincing a case as They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War, to be published this month by the Louisiana State University Press. Coauthors Lauren Cook and DeAnne Blanton spent more than ten years combing through letters, archives and news reports to document some 250 women warriors.

"No one has accumulated this much data," says Cook, 46, who first tilled this turf in her 1994 An Uncommon Soldier (Oxford University Press), a compilation of letters from a female Civil War soldier. The authors’ mission was not just to catalog the combatants. Their extensive research convinced them that the prevailing notions about women’s participation in the war—that they had to be deranged or depraved—were way off the mark.

"We felt those women had not been given their due, that they were thoroughly misunderstood by military historians and the general public," says Cook, a special assistant to the chancellor for communications at Fayetteville State University-UNC in North Carolina. In fact, Cook contends, "they were just as successful as their male comrades, and what enabled them to be so successful was that no one knew that they were women."

Edwin C. Bearss, former chief historian for the National Park Service, is particularly impressed by the scope of the authors’ work. "I’m sure some will take issue with their conclusions," he says, "but this is a very significant study. They were able to document a far greater number of women than I, and others, thought they would."

What would compel a woman to march into that terrible combat—and how could she conceal her identity in what must have been uncomfortably close quarters? Blanton and Cook offer a number of persuasive answers. In the case of Clark, for example, a bad marriage and the death of a brother-in-law at the hands of a pro-Union mob took such an emotional toll that she sought refuge in the military, according to a letter from her mother uncovered by the authors. But Martha Parks Lindley joined up just two days after her husband left for the 6th U.S. Cavalry. "I was frightened half to death," she told a newspaper. "But I was so anxious to be with my husband that I resolved to see the thing through if it killed me." It did not, and fellow troopers simply assumed that Lindley and the "young man" known as Jim Smith were just good friends. Then there was Charlotte Hope, who signed up in the 1st Virginia Cavalry to avenge the death of her fiancé, killed in a raid in 1861. Her goal: to slay 21 Yankees, one for each year of her beau’s life.

Some joined to escape the misery of prostitution or destitution—a common problem with so few jobs open to women. Finance clearly figured into the decision of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, to sign up for the Union army. "I got 100 and 52$ in money," she wrote proudly. "I can get all the money I want."


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