The Women Who Fought in the Civil War- page 2 | History | Smithsonian
Current Issue
September 2014  magazine cover

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

One of the best-documented female soldiers is Sarah Edmonds. She was a Union soldier and worked during the Civil War as a nurse. (Bettmann / Corbis)

The Women Who Fought in the Civil War

Hundreds of women concealed their identities so they could battle alongside their Union and Confederate counterparts

(Continued from page 1)

It absolutely did. I think by all accounts, the women seemed honestly to want to fight in the war for the same reasons as men, so that would range from patriotism, to supporting their respective causes, for adventure, to be able to leave home, and to earn money. Some of the personal writings that survive show that they were also running away from family lives that were really unsatisfying. You can imagine that perhaps they felt trapped at home or weren’t able to marry and felt that they were financial burdens to their families. If you profile the substantiated cases of these women, they were young and often poor and from farming families, and that is the exact profile of the typical male volunteer. If you think about that, girls growing up on a farm would have been accustomed to physical labor. Maybe they even would have worn boys’ clothing to do farm chores. But then there are also some cases in which women follow their husbands or a brother into battle, and so there are at least a couple of those cases in which female soldiers were on record of enlisting with their relative.

What duties did the women perform?

They did everything that men did. They worked as scouts, spies, prison guards, cooks, nurses and they fought in combat. One of the best-documented female soldiers is Sarah Edmonds—her alias was Frank Thompson. She was a Union soldier, and she worked for a long time during the war as a nurse. You often can’t really draw a delineation between “civilian workers” and battle, because these people had to be in battle, tending to soldiers. They were often on the field or nearby trying to get to the wounded, so you could argue that it was just as dangerous for them to work as nurses as to be actively shooting and emptying gunfire.

What is another one of your favorite stories from your research?

One of my favorite stories of the Civil War era is of Jennie Hodgers, and she fought as Albert Cashier. She enlisted in Illinois and she fought the entire Civil War without being discovered and ended up living out the rest of her life as a man for another fifty years. She even ended up receiving a military pension and living at the sailors’ and soldiers’ home in Illinois as a veteran. The staff at the home kept her secret for quite sometime, even after they discovered that she was a woman.

Even though it seems pretty outstanding that women were disguising themselves as men and going off to fight, it seems like actually they were accepted amongst their peers. This kind of loyalty to your fellow soldier in battle did in certain cases transcend gender. It’s pretty amazing; there was a lot of respect.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus