Even though women weren’t legally allowed to fight in the Civil War, it is estimated that somewhere around 400 women disguised themselves as men and went to war, sometimes without anyone ever discovering their true identities.
From This Story
Bonnie Tsui is the author of She Went to the Field: Women Soldiers in the Civil War, which tells the stories of some of these women. I spoke with the San Francisco-based writer about her research into the seldom-acknowledged participation of women in the Civil War.
Why weren’t women allowed to fight in the Civil War?
At the time, women weren’t perceived as equals by any stretch of the imagination. It was the Victorian era and women were mostly confined to the domestic sphere. Both the Union and Confederate armies actually forbade the enlistment of women. I think it was during the Revolutionary War that they established women as nurses because they needed help on the front when soldiers were injured. But women weren’t allowed to serve in combat. Of course, women did disguise themselves and enlist as men. There is evidence that they also did so during the Revolutionary War.
How did they do it?
Honestly, the lore is that the physical exams were not rigorous at all. If you had enough teeth in your head and could hold a musket, you were fine. The funny thing is, in this scenario, a lot of women didn’t seem any less manly than, for example, the teenage boys who were enlisting. At the time, I believe the Union had an official cutoff age of 18 for soldiers, but that was often flouted and people often lied. They had a lot of young guys and their voices hadn’t changed and their faces were smooth. The Confederacy never actually established an age requirement. So [women] bound their breasts if they had to, and just kind of layered on clothes, wore loose clothing, cut their hair short and rubbed dirt on their faces. They also kind of kept to themselves. The evidence that survived often describes them as aloof. Keeping to themselves certainly helped maintain the secret.
When the women were found out, did it provoke an uproar?
Even in the cases where these women were found out as soldiers, there does not actually seem to be much uproar. More or less, they were just sent home. The situations in which they were found out were often medical conditions; they were injured, or they got sick from dysentery or chronic diarrhea. Disease killed many more soldiers than bullets did. You’re sitting in camps among all these people who are in close quarters. There wasn’t a lot of knowledge then about bacterial infection and particularly in close quarters there wasn’t much chance to prevent it.
There is some documentation that shows that some soldiers that were discovered as women were briefly imprisoned. In the letter of one [female disguised as a male] prison guard, it said that there were three [other] women in the prison, one of whom was a major in the Union Army. She had gone to battle with her fellow men and was jailed because she was a woman. It’s really interesting hearing about her being a woman, disguised as a man, standing as a prison guard for a woman imprisoned for doing the same thing.
What was the motivation on the part of the women you studied? Did it seem pretty much the same as the men?