This guest post from Kristi Conkle, women’s studies specialist at the Library of Congress, is the second of two posts on women soldiers in the Civil War.
A blog post earlier this week noted that at least 400 women served as soldiers on both sides of the Civil War and explored why they joined and how they managed to pass as men. Primary sources from the Library of Congress chronicle the experiences of some of those women, and allow us to examine how they were remembered after their service.
In at least a few documented cases, women were already living as men prior to joining the army, primarily for financial reasons. Sarah Emma Edmonds is one such example. Even before joining, she dressed and lived as a man to earn money in order to survive on her own, having escaped what some historians have described as a romantic entanglement gone awry. Raised on a farm, she regularly performed duties such as plowing fields and chopping wood. In the spring of 1861, Edmonds enlisted under the pseudonym of Franklin Thompson.
In many instances, these women soldiers dressed, behaved and fought like men and so were assumed to be men. Frances Clayton was found to be above suspicion as she was skilled in cursing, drinking and shooting. Most historians believe she was found out when she attempted to seek treatment after having been wounded in battle.
Many of these women did see battle. Sarah Edmonds was present at the First Bull Run. At least five others were present at the Battle of Shiloh. In addition to Frances Clayton, three other women were present at the Battle of Stones. Five women fought at Gettysburg. In the aftermath of the Battle of Peachtree Creek, Union soldiers found the bodies of several women dressed in men’s clothing. “A Woman in the War” describes one soldier’s reaction on discovering that a slain soldier was a woman.
Oddly enough, during and after the war, the stories of women disguised as male soldiers were well known even if they were taken with more than a grain of salt. Sarah Emma Edmonds released her memoirs in the 1860s and later successfully petitioned Congress for her pension by having several of her fellow soldiers testify as to her faithful service. The stories of these women soldiers seemed to be collectively dismissed and disbelieved, pushed to the margins and regulated to footnotes if not forgotten entirely. Within the last twenty years, historians have worked diligently to bring their stories back into the larger narrative of the Civil War.
To explore these primary sources, ask your students to:
- Study both pictures of Frances Clayton, without knowing the identity of either. Invite them to look for clues to answer the question “what is the relationship between these two people?” Encourage them to cite details from the pictures to support their answers.
- Compare two newspaper articles: “A Woman in the War” to “War Woman of Note,” the story of Major Belle Reynolds. How did the experiences of the two women differ?
- Read and study “Disguised Her Sex to Go to War, ” a newspaper article that details the experiences of Sarah Edmonds and “Charles Freeman,” who refused to give her real name, though she was discharged as “a woman in disguise as a soldier.” (More of Sarah Edmonds’ story is told in “A Woman Soldier: First Female Ever Elected Member of the G.A.R.“) Ask students to think about the contrast between how she was treated at the time of the war (Edmonds deserted to avoid detection/discharged) and how her service was celebrated in the 1897 article.
What surprised your students when they learned more about the women soldiers in the Civil War?