Women Fought in the Civil War Disguised As Men (And So Do Today’s Re-enactors)

Some women dressed up as their husbands, or even fought alongside them

Frances Louisa Clayton, who witnessed her husband's death while fighting side-by-side for the Union. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Historians often say that America's Civil War pitted brother against brother. But what many people do not know is that, on occasion, it also involved sisters. As Slate reports, up to 1,000 women fought for both the Union and Confederate armies during the war, disguising themselves as men to slip by.

To pass as men, these women bound their chests and cut their hair, Slate explains. Then, they chose a male name and simply signed up. Slate:

One of these soldiers was Frances Louisa Clayton, alias Jack Williams, a Minnesotan who enlisted with her husband in 1861. To pass as one of the boys, she took up drinking, smoking, chewing, and swearing. When Frances’ husband died, a few feet in front of her at Stones River, she stepped over his body and kept fighting. Many like Frances enlisted with loved ones; a woman from Tennessee named Melverina Elverina Peppercorn joined the Confederate army to be with her brother. At least two women went to war with their fathers. 

Women went to war for all sorts of reasons: they wanted to fight, the pay was good. They weren't just soldiers, either: as Smithsonian reported a few years ago, women worked as spies, too. 

Today, Slate reports, on Civil War battlefield reenactments across the country, modern women are donning grey or blue uniforms, too, ever since re-enactor Lauren Cook Burgess, who had been banned from participating based on her gender, successfully won a discrimination suite in 1989. But women still must conform to the same standards those historic women did: create a passable male disguise. 

The Gettysburg Anniversary Committee puts it like this: "If any Army or event volunteer (as above) determines the female gender at not less than 15 feet, that individual will be asked to leave the field/ranks." (The roles for all re-enactors, regardless of gender, are quite strict, although some female re-enactors still report discrimination on the battle field from male re-enactors.)

To spread the word about this "subculture within a subculture," Slate says, J. R. Hardman, a re-enactor (for both sides) and film maker, is making a documentary feature called Reenactress, about female Civil War soldiers and those today who chose to portray them. 

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