Secret Soldiers: The Gentle Sex Goes to War
by Jo Ann Butler
Women have taken up arms since our first ancestress long ago picked up a handy tree branch to defend herself. Penthesilea led her Amazon warriors to defend Troy, Boudicca rallied the Britons against Rome, and Joan of Arc inspired French forces. However, though Joan often dressed as a man, none of these formidable leaders hid their female identity.
Women have served during wars for centuries as nurses and camp followers (whose roles ranged from cook to prostitute), and Dr Mary Walker became the Army’s first female surgeon during the American Civil War. Though Dr Walker was arrested several times after the war for wearing men’s-style clothing, nurses and camp followers were also clearly women.
During the American Revolution, a handful of women were celebrated for taking up arms. When artilleryman John Corbin was killed during the 1776 battle for Manhattan, his wife Margaret operated his cannon until return fire crushed her face and upper body. The disabled woman was granted half of a soldier’s pay and a pension by Congress.
Two years later, Mary Hays became remembered as “Molly Pitcher.” Mary used her famed ewer to carry water to wounded soldiers and the artillery crew. When her husband William Hays collapsed during the battle at Monmouth, N.J., Molly picked up his ramrod, joking when enemy shot passed harmlessly between her legs. General Washington inquired about the woman he’d seen loading cannons, and gave her a warrant as a non-commissioned officer to commend her for courage.
A handful of women are known to have concealed their sex under a man’s jacket and trousers to join the Continental Army. Boys in their early teens were accepted as soldiers, so it could be easy for a woman to enlist, especially one with a weather-beaten face and callused hands. A cautious woman could remain hidden. Soldiers slept in their clothes, one could slip away to a private spot instead of relying on the common latrine, and bathing was a luxury, even in summer. Women under stress often cease menstruating. Loose clothing, bound breasts, and an aura of aloofness conceal many things.
Eventually, some women were revealed to their fellow soldiers. Most were discharged, but Elizabeth Gilmore of Northumberland County, Pennsylvania married a fellow soldier in 1780 and served until the end of the war. Sally St. Clair of South Carolina followed her lover to war in disguise, and her identity was not revealed until she died during the Battle of Savannah.
In 1782, Deborah Samson, who enlisted in Massachusetts as Robert Shurtliff, remained concealed despite a saber wound to the head and two musket balls lodged in her thigh. When Deborah was taken to the hospital, she let the doctor treat her scalp wound, but slipped away to cut the musket balls out of her own leg, lest the doctor discover her gender.
Alex Myers’ Revolutionary (Simon & Schuster, 2014) is a dazzling account of Deborah/Robert’s service in the Continental Army, and an intimate exploration of the soldier’s struggle to define her identity, both for the world and for herself. Myers writes beautifully, and as a transgendered person, he is uniquely suited to tell Deborah’s story.
Only a handful of Revolutionary secret soldiers are known. Illiteracy rates were high, so personal accounts are nearly non-existent. A few women applied in vain for pensions, but there is no formal list. Betsy Doyle is a famed heroine of the War of 1812, having carried red-hot cannonballs to American artillery at the Battle of Niagara despite a withering British cannonade. She was compared to Joan of Arc in bravery, but her gender was no secret. A year later Betsy did wear a soldier’s uniform to stand guard in a cold December rain, hoping to stiffen the spines of timid militia. It didn’t work, and the next day Fort Niagara fell.
Women’s participation in the Civil War is far better known, and conservative estimates list some 450 secret soldiers on both sides. Many went with husbands, lovers, or brothers. Others sought a bounty and steady pay, patriotism, or adventure. If they had an abusive husband or father, disappearing into the army might be preferable to what they faced at home.
Revenge is a powerful motive, and is powerfully depicted in Sisters of Shiloh (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) by sister-authors Kathy and Becky Hepinstall. When Libby Tanner’s husband is slain at Sharpsburg, Libby vows to kill twenty-one Yankee soldiers; one for every year of Arden Tanner’s life. Her sister, older Josephine, thinks that Libby’s fury will pass, but when Libby crops her hair and binds her breasts, Josephine does the same – not because Josephine shares her sister’s grief, but to keep twenty-one Yankees from killing her.
A few women who served as soldiers left their own accounts, and Sarah Emma Edmonds, who enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Volunteers as a male nurse named Franklin Thompson, wrote: “I could only thank God that I was free and could go forward and work, and I was not obliged to stay at home and weep.” Sarah attributed patriotism as “the grand secret of my success.”
Marissa Moss’s A Soldier’s Secret (Amulet Books, 2012) is a charming depiction of the life of Sarah Edmonds/Frank Thompson, who was expert at disguise even before the war. Sarah is unique in that she is known to have lived as a man before she enlisted, fleeing an abusive father and a forced marriage. Sarah served as a nurse and mail courier, and even scouted Rebel lines dressed as a Confederate soldier or an old woman, providing information on troop and artillery movements, and exposing Confederate spies who had crossed Union lines on their own covert missions.
P.G. Nagle also explores Sarah/Frank’s exploits in her excellent Call to Arms (Evennight Books, 2014). Nagle’s character uses her middle name, Emma, and in 1883 applies to have the charge of desertion struck from her military record so she can apply for a pension. Like Deborah Samson, Emma conceals a badly wounded leg to keep her gender secret. Eventually her identity is discovered by her tent mate, and they become lovers. When her protector leaves the Army and Emma falls ill with malaria, she walks away from her station so she won’t be taken to the hospital.
A secret soldier’s greatest risk of discovery came when she was wounded or sick, and faced a doctor’s examination. In Laird Hunt’s haunting Neverhome (Little, Brown, 2014) Constance/Ash Thompson barely survives her wounds, only to be committed to an insane asylum when her gender becomes known. Presumably, only a crazy woman would want to be a soldier.
Like their sisters in the Revolutionary War, secret soldiers were discharged when they were exposed. Sharyn McCrumb turns the table in Ghost Riders (Dutton, 2003) when Malinda Blalock follows her husband to war. When Keith rolls in poison ivy, then claims he’d been poxed by a prostitute so he would be furloughed, Malinda exposes her own identity to follow Keith home.
Jennie Hodgers was a rarity: she continued life as a man after she served her three-year enlistment, and her gender wasn’t discovered until 1913 when she was committed to a hospital for the insane with dementia. However, secret soldiers were often known to their tent mates, and sometimes to many in her company. In I Shall Be Near to You (Crown, 2014) by Erin Lindsay McCabe, Rosetta Wakefield/Ross Stone enlists with her husband, Jeremiah, along with many from their home town. Friction arises with other soldiers who fear that a weaker, slower woman puts her comrades at risk. Are they duty-bound to protect her from harm? The greatest struggle of all lies between Rosetta and her husband, who is torn between the joy of having his beloved wife near to him, and the dread of losing her.
A spy is a different sort of secret soldier, and there were many famed female spies on both sides of the Civil War. They did not conceal physical identities, but masked their true reasons for talking with enemy soldiers behind a friendly demeanor. In Spy of Richmond (Moody, 2015) by Jocelyn Green, Sophie Kent pretends to court the Confederate Captain Lawrence Russell to collect information on Richmond’s defenses, which is then passed on to other Yankee sympathizers hidden in a hollow egg. Sophie knows well what she risks, for she witnessed the hanging of another spy who wasn’t cautious enough.
I have not read these nonfiction books, but if you wish to learn more about women soldiers in the Civil War, Karen Abbott’s Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War (Harper Collins, 2014), They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War by De Anne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook (Louisiana State University Press, 2003), and I’ll Pass For Your Comrade: Women Soldiers in the Civil War by Anita Silvey (Clarion Books, 2008) would be worth a look.
As for the Revolutionary War, Women of War: Battlegrounds Were Not Always Just for Men by Ken Mink (CreateSpace, 2012), and Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier by Alfred F. Young (Vintage Books, 2005) are a good place to start.
The memoir of Sarah Emma Edmonds has been published as Unsexed, or the Female Soldier (Philadelphia Publishing Company, 1864) and is available for Kindle. A 1797 account of Deborah Samson’s exploits is available as a GoogleBooks download, The Female Review, or Memoirs of an American Young Lady.
Over the centuries, women have gradually gained acceptance in the military, even in combat positions. Today, the final soldiers forced to remain secret are LGBT women and men. They still face an uphill battle in many countries, but the U.K. began allowing openly gay soldiers of both sexes in 2000, and as of 2011, U.S. soldiers are no longer forced to keep their identities secret.
About the contributor: JO ANN BUTLER is a genealogist and one-time archeologist, and tapped her love of America’s colonial period for her historical novels, The Reputed Wife and Rebel Puritan. When she’s not working on the conclusion to her “Scarlett O’Hara meets The Scarlet Letter” trilogy, she can be found playing a very big clarinet in community band. She’d love to hear from you at email@example.com.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 71, February 2015