Tag Archives: role of women during Civil War

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, (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’,” (accessed June 26, 2012).


[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.


[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

While reading The Reel Civil War by Bruce Chadwick and then watching the movie Gone with the Wind I found myself intrigued by Scarlett O’Hara and her fierce stubbornness to break the modern mold of traditional women while simultaneously sabotaging her own happiness. A woman with such strength and attitude did not fit the predominant southern belle image. The Scarlett O’Hara of Gone with the Wind looks and dresses like a southern belle and her animosity towards the North is in accordance with that of a southern belle, but all resemblance stops there. Her personality which has won over millions of audiences’ hearts depicts the strong spirited and newly liberated woman of the 1920s and 1930s.

Unfortunately there is little coverage regarding American women during the years shortly before and after the Civil War but according to A History of American Women by Carol Hymowitz and Michaele Weissman (this happens to conveniently be a fully accessible and free ebook on Google) women were independent during the war as is typically the case. Hyomowitz and Michaele state, “While the men were away fighting, women became managers, decision makers, heads of families, and income earners—roles that had usually been assumed by men.”* When the war began women readily “took up arms” at home and fought for the cause by providing many essential items such as clothing and food or becoming a nurse. Once the war ended many women were proud of their work. Hymowitz and Weissman state, “Many white Southern women saw themselves as the stronger sex. But though they acknowledged their independence, physical strength, and fortitude they never questioned the traditional image of woman as wife and mother.”** It appears the independent woman of the Civil War quickly relinquished the role given to her during the war, so why then did Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind create a southern belle character whose acquiescence does not conform to the typical southern belle of the 1860s and 1870s?

It appears that many southern white female writers began to include plot lines with a strong willed southern belle. According to the review of the The Belle Gone Bad—and Just Gone written by Carol S. Manning and reviewed by Emily Toth, “Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett, the quintessential bad belle, is smart, self centered, and mean when she has to be, and this is what saves her. It is also what makes the bad belle endlessly intriguing.”*** This new “bad belle” is indicative of women’s thoughts and feelings at the time the author’s wrote the stories.

Margaret Mitchell began writing Gone with the Wind the infamous love story in 1926 a time where women made many gains especially in the work arena and as a result they explored greater freedom in America than ever before. In the 1920s two types of women existed: the Gibson girl and flapper. Scarlett’s character combines the “bad belle” and flapper in to a synonymous character that intrigues and infuriates. According to the article Prosperity’s Child: Some Thoughts on the Flapper,” by Kenneth Yellis, in American Quarterly, during the 1920s their existed two types of women the Gibson girl (Melanie) and the flapper (Scarlett).****  Yellis expertly describes the dichotomy of these two vastly different types of women stating:

The Gibson girl was maternal and wifely, while the flapper was boyish and single. The Gibson girl was the embodiment of stability. The flapper girl’s aesthetic was motion, her characteristics were intensity, energy, volatility. While the Gibson girl seems incapable of an immodest thought or deed, the flapper strikes us as brazen and at least capable of sin if not actually guilty of it. She refused to recognize the traditional moral code of American civilization, while the Gibson girl had been its guardian.*****

It appears that whereas the bad belle Scarlett has no physical resemblance to the flapper her attitude fits perfectly.

Scarlett’s character takes a stand against the traditional roles of women, she even refuses to have any more children and seems withdrawn from the only child she had. In addition, she owns her own business, drinks, and will stop at no ends to ensure her own prosperity. Whereas most women were not at the point of giving up motherhood many were in essence sick and tired of the traditional and often boring role of women both historically and figuratively in literature. Women felt liberated during the Civil War and World War I having had the opportunity to break out of the traditional and mundane housewife role to realize their potential to provide and maintain for their families. In the Reel Civil War, by Bruce Chadwick, he admits, “Although about 25 percent of the women in America worked during the late 1930s and women had voted since 1920, they were still constrained, shackled by their role in the family and society.***** The 1920s saw greater advancements for women as compared to any other time in American history but ultimately women still felt frustrated as Chadwick admits and Scarlett O’Hara’s character proves. The proof lies with the stubborn and strong-spirited Scarlett who captured the hearts of women, their admiration depicts a desire to break the traditional mold. As a disclaimer I feel I should also say that whereas women admired her fierceness, her lack of caring for her child and any desire for future children along with her inability to find happiness were probably not sought after characteristics. It is her character as a whole that attracts audiences and the latter that makes a fantastic soap opera.

*Hymowitz, Carol, and Weissman, Michaele. A History of Women in America. New York: Bantam, 1984. chapter 9. (there were no page numbers online, sooo. . . sorry)

**Hymowitz and Michaele, chapter 9.

***Emily Toth. Rev. of The Belle Gone Bad: White Southern Women Writers and the Dark Seductress, by Betina Entzminger. South Central Review. Volume 22. Issue 1. (Spring 2005): pp. 120-122. JSTOR. Web. 13 June 2012.

****Kenneth A. Yellis. “Some Thoughts on the Flapper.” American Quarterly. Volume 21. Issue 1. (Spring 1969): pp. 44. JSTOR. Web. 13 June 2012.

***** Yellis, 44.

****** Bruce Chadwick, The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, 2001), 223.