Women of The Civil War: Wives and Sisters Who Joined the Battlefield Fights Dressed As Men

The Civil War is famed for its brutal battles, its men slain on fields throughout the eastern half of the United States. It’s also a war remembered for bringing destruction into families, too, pitting brothers against each other as they fought for opposing armies.

What hides within the stories of the Civil War, however, are the women who hid amongst the ranks of men — women who enlisted, fighting alongside their husbands, brothers, and the men of their regiment.

As many as 1,000 women took to the battlefield during the Civil War, enlisting in both the Confederate and Union armies throughout the war’s duration. They were clandestine soldiers, women who were not, according to military law and rule, allowed to sign up and fight for the nation of their choice.

Not a single citizen of the time held a driver’s license, a Social Security card, or any other identification. Only an alias was needed if one wanted to join the war efforts. As many citizens do during times of war, these women of the late 1800s wanted nothing more than to protect their homes, to fight alongside the brothers and husbands they loved, and to fight for what they believed was right.

Frances Clalin, a mother of multiple children who posed as Union cavalryman Jack Williams. She fought in 18 battles under his disguise and was wounded three times and taken prisoner once.
Frances Clalin, a mother of multiple children who posed as Union cavalryman Jack Williams. She fought in 18 battles under his disguise and was wounded three times and taken prisoner once.

Both the Union and Confederate armies featured fighters of both sexes, whether they realized it or not during the actual time of conflict.

To fool the men they were serving with — and the commanders who oversaw them — women donned disguises to mask their feminine features. No physical examinations were required to enlist; the women interested merely had to, of course, cut their hair short and wore traditional male clothing; they also went to lengths to conceal their womanhood by binding their chests and adopting the behaviors of their fellow soldiers.

While it was easy and simple to dress the part, the women in hiding often took up chewing tobacco, the gaits of their brethren, and the accents and attitudes of those in their regiment. The more a woman could assimilate, both appearance and attitude wise, the less their chance of being discovered.

If she could throw a solid, deadly punch like Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, a woman who enlisted as Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, she could win over her fellow men with her strength. Others, like Loreta Velazquez, donned disguises like a fake mustache to make their femininity increasingly believable.

How, exactly, was it that these brave female soldiers of the late 1800s were discovered? Some were found out by their superiors; their gender brought to the forefront when they fell victim to injury by the enemy.

Upon discovery, some were imprisoned; others, however, were simply sympathized with. For example, France Louisa Clayton enlisted into the Union army as Jack Williams alongside her husband as 1861. Although her husband died nearby her position on a Civil War battlefield, Clayton moved past his body and stepped even further into the battle to ensure she carried on the Confederate cause.

War also proved financially beneficial, as a woman disguised as a man in the army could make almost double that of the average housemaid of the time.

Sarah Edmonds
Sarah Edmonds

So, how many women served under the cover of falsified manhood during the war? Additionally, an important clue to understanding just how many women enlisted during the years of the Civil War appeared in 1863, right in the midst of the conflict, when a burial site for Union soldiers was uncovered in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

This historic site revealed that women lay among the men preserved at the site, the bodies of women clothed in Confederate uniforms. This early discovery upon the battlefield itself indicated that the number of women hidden within Civil War army ranks was greater than anticipated. Unfortunately, because so many women had to enter the military in a clandestine manner, the exact number who served is unknown.

Many historians believe the number lies over 1000 female soldiers, all of whom made a difference within American history — ensconced in disguises and motivated to save their city or state, these women truly made an impact on the battles, whether remembered or not.

Heather Fishel

Heather Fishel is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE