The Crossdressers of the Civil War: Remembering the Transvestite of the 153rd of New York and Other Beardless Men

Perhaps the most famous heroine in American combat history is Molly Pitcher.  At an early age children know her name and how she was on stand-by with water to cool the canons at the Battle of Monmouth (1778) then took up her husband’s station at the cannon when he fell in battle.  One children’s book proclaims, “General Washington heard what Mary had done.  He honored her by making her a sergeant in the army. From then on, Mary was known as ‘Sergeant Molly.'”[1]  This particular work is geared towards children of six years of age and does some interesting ‘adult’ things by including detailed information on her and her husband’s lineage .  On the cover is a strong, powerful, striking image of Pitcher and so striking is this image, that the battlefield fades away in the background in a haze of gunpowder smoke.

Monument of Molly Pitcher in Old Carlisle Cemetery, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. Erected in 2000 for the 250th anniversary of the founding of Cumberland County

Molly Pitcher’s monument from afar.

This isn’t the only recent children’s book written on the heroine.  There is: Jessica Glasser’s,  Molly Pitcher: Young American Patriot (2006), Anne Rockwell’s, They Called her Molly Pitcher (2006), Augusta Stevenson’s, Molly Pitcher: Young Patriot (Childhood of Famous Americans) (1986), and Frances E. Ruffin’s, Molly Pitcher (American Legends) (2002). These are just a few and don’t include academic works.  In fact, so much is written on Pitcher it would seem that she won the Battle of Monmouth single-handedly.  Unfortunately, the American forces at the Battle of Monmouth only fought to a standstill and Pitcher has seemingly become the only legend out of the battle.[2]  So convoluted is this picture that on the back of a sing-along book dedicated to Pitcher it reads, “She helped win a big battle in the American Revolution.”[3]  In the ‘big battle’ Pitcher ‘helped win’, British General Henry Clinton was able to retreat and later the same year, sacked Savannah.[4]  The battle itself is important to remember as it was the first major battle fought along side America’s strongest ally, the French, and includes one of the most heroic moments in American history when General George Washington met retreating Continentals and rallied them to turn around and engage in a frontal assault on Clinton, forcing him to retreat.

Sarah Edmonds as herself: Left. Sarah Edmonds as Franklin Thomas: Right.

Voices aloud, calling attention to this work being intended to focus solely on the American Civil War and not the Revolution, are correct in pointing this out.  However, where are the children’s books on Sarah Edmonds, or the sing-along of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, and the robust statue of Albert Cashier?  Nowhere.  Indeed, cross-dressing women in the Civil War have been ignored and their role in combat downplayed.  For all intents and purposes, Sarah Edmonds, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, and Albert Cashier would be forgotten if not for a new wave of historiography giving proper due to the cross-dressing women of the Civil War.  While it may be argued that some of their stories were of no secret during and after the conflict,  the fact remains that the cross-dressing women that helped win the war lack a proper memorial.

The story of Sarah Edmonds begins in Canada.  Born in New Brunswick in 1841, her father didn’t much care for a daughter and fled south to the United States as ‘Franklin Thompson’.[5]  After joining the Union first as a male nurse, she applied to be a spy under General George B. McClellan.  What is amazing about this is that she successfully spied on the Confederates as a black man.[6] Edmonds contracted malaria after eleven successful spy missions and left the military having proved herself a heroine in the world of gathering information against the enemy.  In 1884 ‘Franklin Thompson’, by this time going by Emma Seelye, petitioned Congress to grant a pension which Congress did so at $12 a month for service during the Civil War for the rest of Edmond’s life.[7]

Pension of Sarah Edmonds listed as Franklin Thompson.

Edmonds was open about her time during the Civil War, going so far as to give interviews and write on her experiences.  In an incident at the Battle of Antietam (1862), Edmonds recalled that she discovered the dead body of another female soldier disguised as a man.[8]  Historian Anita Silvey contrasts this by pointing out that, “At least six women remained undiscovered in the army until they gave birth to babies.”[9]  Edmonds didn’t stay in the role of Thompson for any long period of time, but bravely served her country on the front lines.

Sarah Rosetta Wakeman volunteered as a man in the 153rd of New York after her brother was killed in battle.[10]  Wakeman went by the first name Lyons and sent letters during the war addressing herself as both Rosetta and Lyons.[11]  She died before the end of the war contracting dysentery.[12] Wakeman is the archetype heroine, showing bravery in the face of danger.  In a letter she wrote to her father on July 2, 1863 Wakeman writes, “Our regiment has laid out in the fields for some time every night, awatching [sic] for the rebels.  For if they do, they will get lick.”[13]  She is amazingly candid and brings to light some of the issues of the soldiers on the battlefield like pay.  She was steadfast in every way proclaiming, “For my part I am ready at a minute’s warning to go into the field of battle and take my stand with the rest.”[14] Wakeman invokes emotions that are certain to make individuals laugh and empathize with a true heroine, but are also sure to instill wonderment in her courage as a soldier.  In a memorable letter she writes, “I am as independent as a hog on the ice.  If it is God [sic] will for me to fall in the field of battle, it is my will to go and never return home.”[15]

Sarah Wakeman as Lyons Wakeman

One of the most interesting and tragic occurrences of a cross-dressing female soldier during the Civil War is that of Albert Cashier.  Cashier was born Jennie Hodgers.  Serving in  the 95th of Illinois during the Civil War, Cashier lived his entire adult life as a man.  His immersion into the cross-dressing role was not, it should be pointed out, intended to solely help him serve during the Civil War.  As such, he can be viewed as a hero in the modern transgender community, serving his country through battles like the Siege of Vicksburg (1863).  It was not discovered until 1911 that Cashier was physically female when he was examined by a doctor for a wound in a car crash.[16]  In a 1915 deposition given by a soldier that served with Cashier the comrade said, “I never suspected anything of that kind.”[17]  Any memorial depicting Cashier is sure to invoke controversy, but his contribution in the struggle for equality should never be forgot.

Albert Cashier

Grave of Albert Cashier

Deposition Concerning Cashier

Remembering the role of women in the Civil War is paramount, properly done only through memorialization.  The statue of Pitcher is feminine in nature, safe in assurance that she stayed within cultural conventions and stepped into the role of heroine by taking up her position from a masculine figure, only to continue his work.  What is not conventional is the role of women in the Civil War, cross-dressing and posing as men in order to fight.  A children’s book on cross-dressing soldiers during the Civil War will most likely never be written.  However, the women that fought during the Civil War deserve no less recognition.  It may be contented that Cumberland County chose Pitcher to represent the area and as such, have discretion in the manner in which she is depicted.  Pitcher, however, is not the typical heroine in American history as the women mentioned here prove.  The Civil War female crossdressing soldiers broke social boundaries that existed then and indeed, even today.  These individuals, it must be contented, should not be memorialized out of the act of crossdressing alone, but also the extreme bravery and courage they displayed in defending their country.  The Civil War may have been a war between ‘brothers’, but the role of ‘sisters’ cannot be discounted either.  Only by incorporating cross-dressing female soldiers in the story of the Civil War, through memorialization, can the full picture of the Civil War really come to light.

Frances Clayton as a male soldier.

_________________________________________________________________________________

[1]Rick Burke, Molly Pitcher (Chicago: Heinemann-Raintree, 2003), 23.

[2]Dennis P. ed. Ryan, New Jersey in the American Revolution, 1763-1783: A Chronology (Trenton: New Jersey Historical Commission, 1975), 343.

[3]Michael Dahl, Bring Us Water, Molly Pitcher!: a Fun Song About the Battle of Monmouth (Minneapolis: Picture Window Books, 2004), Back cover.

[4] Henry Beebee Carrington, Battles of the American Revolution, 1775-1781 (Charleston, SC: Nabu Press, 2010), 477.

[5]Susanna McLeod, “Canadian Sarah Edmonds a Civil War Spy,” Canadian History, http://suite101.com/article/canadian-sarah-emma-edmonds-a-civil-war-spy-a186190 (accessed June 22, 2012).

[6] Ibid.

[7]Laura Leedy Gansler, The Mysterious Private Thompson: The Double Life of Sarah Emma Edmonds, Civil War Soldier (University of Nebraska: Bison Books, 2007), 98.

[8]Anita Silvey, I’ll Pass For Your Comrade: Women Soldiers in the Civil War (New York: Clarion Books, 2008), 66.

[9]Silvey, I’ll Pass For Your Comrade, 77.

[10]Silvey, I’ll Pass For Your Comrade, 84.

[11]Maureen Zieber, “Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, ‘Private Lyons Wakeman’,” http://suite101.com/article/sarah-rosetta-wakeman-private-lyons-wakeman-a80449 (accessed June 26, 2012).

[12]Ibid.

[13]Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, An Uncommon Soldier: the Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, Alias Private Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1996), 36.

[14]Ibid.

[15]Ibid., 42.

[16]DeAnne Blanton, “Women Soldiers of the Civil War,” Prologue Magazine, Spring, 1993, 25.

[17]Robert D. Henneh, Deposition on the Case of Albert J.D. Cashier, 1915

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4 comments
  1. No surprise, but I really liked your post. I find it interesting that people more readily accepted Pitcher who fought in the Revolutionary War than Edmonds, Wakemen, and Cashier who fought in the Civil War. I’m no expert but maybe Pitcher found more support either because she was the first of her kind or because at the time of the Revolutionary War, Americans were less reserved. The Victorian image of the Civil War may have made it less acceptable for women to portray themselves as soldiers, therefor they received less support. I wonder how many other women portrayed themselves as soldiers both Union and Confederate? I would imagine that the three listed above were not the sole account of women battling as soldiers. It’s too bad that there isn’t a written personal account from these women, it would be interesting to see how they hid their orientation at camp and how they fared compared to the men, physically.

  2. Amanda Hlavacek said:

    Since the beginning of the writen word, women have long been cited as having participated in battles; both crucial and minuscule. Whether they fought as women outright, or bound their chests and cut their hair, they have always been a silent presence on the battlefield. Etiquette carried precedence over necessity, as gender roles became clearly defined. I believe the reason they are not sufficiently written about, or discussed, is in part due to the male egocentrism coupled with defined socially acceptable gender roles; as well as the Civil War lacking the grandeur as being the war that “freed” us from tyrannical oppression. It is a darkly ominous presence in our shared past, why would any man willing admit a women may be at par with them on the battlefield? Furthermore, why would they take their women off the pedestool and have them share blame, guilt, or shame?

  3. charlesanselmo said:

    This is a very interesting post. I was unaware that there were so many well documented women serving in the military during the Civil War. One would assume that there may be women that dressed as men in order to serve their country. But the number shon in this article is very interesting. The one that stands out the most to me in this article is the story of Cashier. Cashier certainly should serve as an inspiring figure to the transgender community. I wonder why it is that Cashier has not received more recognition? It makes me wonder if there are surviving family members or anything of that sort that would be against a commemoration.

    • I wondered the same thing. Did she have brothers, sisters, and what were her parents like? I’m finding it frustrating as an aspiring modern historian to be interested in some topics like this but because of the subject matter, there is a great lack of historical evidence. I agree with what Amanda said up above, I think their role is really intimidating to men. That’s why I like the analogy of Molly Pitcher. It is as though she is the least intimidating female battlefield figure to men. I don’t want to get graphic, but look at her hips and breasts, they are pronounced beyond belief. A year or so ago there was an online movement started called It Gets Better for the LGBT community and I think talking about individuals like Cashier will go a long way in showing that members of the the LGBT community historically do extraordinary things.

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