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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Loreta Velazquez, a.k.a. Lt. Harry T. Buford, was one of several women who fought simply for the unadulterated thrill of it: "I plunged into adventure for the love of the thing," she said after writing a postwar memoir called The Woman in Battle. Many women felt the keen tug of patriotism. Union soldier Sarah Edmonds, an immigrant from Canada, expressed thanks that she was "permitted in this hour of my adopted country’s need to express a tithe of the gratitude which I feel toward the people of the Northern States."

"What surprised me most was the realization that women soldiers enlisted largely for the very same reasons as the men did," says Blanton, 38. "Some were rebelling against the strict roles that society confined them in, but then there were women who went because the pay was good, or because everybody else in the family was signing up, or because they wanted to defend their country. Some just signed up to run away from home, just like so many boys did."

To get to the front lines, each woman had to pass herself off as a man. Many were detected immediately and given the boot. But physical exams of the time tended to be cursory, and both armies were often so desperate for recruits that virtually anyone could pass. Occasions for discovery were limited; troops routinely slept in uniform, baths were a novelty and latrines were so foul that many soldiers sought refuge in nearby woods. A high-pitched voice or a lack of facial hair could be attributed to youth. Several women attempted to blend in by learning to cuss like sailors, taking up gambling, or even dating local young ladies.

Some female combatants were given away by ladylike mannerisms and others were undone by boastings while inebriated. But as with Clark, most were unveiled only when doctors stripped away their clothes to examine a war wound.

A native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Cook had virtually no interest in the Civil War until 1987, when she toured the battle site at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. She was so moved by the experience that she joined a fife and drum corps and began participating in battle reenactments. Then, in 1989, during a re-creation of a military hospital at the Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland, she dressed as a male soldier "because I felt that was historically accurate." But when she visited the ladies’ room, she caused a stir—not only among the women inside but with a ranger, who brusquely informed her that park rules did not allow women to participate in reenactments. "Their attitude was that the women of that era must have been oddballs, eccentrics and crazy, and didn’t merit any kind of recognition or respect," says Cook. Her lawsuit against the Department of the Interior ultimately changed the rules.

The lawsuit also brought Cook to the attention of Blanton, a senior military archivist at the National Archives, whose own curiosity had been piqued in 1991 when she chanced upon a small file about women who fought in the Civil War. "I had read of [Cook’s] difficulties with great interest and thought, 'You go, girl.'"

A decade after teaming up to work on Demons, Cook and Blanton are still fitting pieces of the puzzle. They cite the case, as it unfolded in letters written by soldiers, of a New Jersey woman who participated in the Union army’s June 1862 siege of Richmond, Virginia, was wounded at the Battle of Antietam in September, and fought in the Union defeat at Fredericksburg in December. Just a few weeks later, on January 19, an astonished colonel in the Army of the Potomac wrote home: "A corporal was promoted to sergeant for gallant conduct at the battle of Fredericksburg—since which time the sergeant has become the mother of a child."

And there the story stops. "When she and her baby went home, was she celebrated or shunned?" Blanton asks. "I hope that a descendant will read our book and call up and say, 'Hey, that lady was my great-great-great-grandmother.'"


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