Women on the Battlefield

MARCH / APRIL 2014: BY TRYNTSJE CUPERUS

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In 1863, six young men, soldiers in the Union army, are having their picture taken: a portrait to send home to their parents or girlfriends. As young men do, they tease and prod each other until the photographer urges them to stand still. With a flash, their likeness is recorded. A likeness that maybe will be studied by historians over 150 years later, looking for clues to the everyday life of the Civil War soldier. But there is something hidden in this picture. One of the men is a women!

So begins the remarkable novel I Shall Be Near To You by Erin Lindsay McCabe. The novel tells the story of Rosetta Wakefield, a farmer’s daughter from rural New York. Only two weeks after she marries her sweetheart Jeremiah, he sets off for war, leaving Rosetta behind. Alone in their small new home, Rosetta doesn’t know how to fill her days or how to deal with the stifling pressure of her parents-in-law to be a person she can’t be. Missing Jeremiah is like a physical pain that keeps her awake at all hours. All she knows is she wants to be near him and one day she decides to do just that, to disguise herself as a man and follow her husband into battle.

This book isn’t based on a real event or the story of a real person. It is, however, inspired by the more than 250 written accounts of women who fought disguised as men in the Civil War. Historians guess that in total over 400 women fought in the Union and the Confederate armies. Many of their names and deeds will never be known, but reading through the letters and diaries of those that left written evidence of who they were, you will find stories of incredible bravery and strength.

Erin Lindsay McCabe was inspired by these stories and by the questions they raised: what was it like, being a woman hiding within so many men? How did they conceal their identity for so long? What where their reasons for taking such a drastic step? To imagine an answer to some of those questions, Mrs McCabe decided to write a novel detailing the story of one female Civil War soldier: Rosetta Wakefield. Though Rosetta is a fictional personage, there was a real Rosetta who was a soldier in the Union Army. Sarah Rosetta Wakeman served as private Lyon Wakeman in the regiment of the New York State Volunteers from 1862-1864.

Other, more famous female soldiers were Sarah Edmonds and Jennie Irene Hodgers. Edmonds served as a battlefield nurse and spy in addition to her soldiering. She fought in several campaigns under General McClellan, including the infamous battles of Bull Run and Antietam. Despite her being discovered as a female, her fellow soldiers spoke highly of her and called her fearless. She was later to become the only female in the Civil War veterans organization.

How was it possible for women to become soldiers and to live so long disguised in close quarters with men? The physical exams enlisters needed to pass before being let into the army weren’t the problem. They were not rigorous at all. If you could run straight and hold a musket, you were fine. Also, though for the Union army there was an age restriction of 18, many younger boys enlisted and were taken on as soldiers. This meant the women weren’t less manly than many of their young fellow soldiers and their smooth faces didn’t stand out. We must also keep in mind that in those days gender roles were very restricted and women in pants were a rarity. Therefore, if you had short hair and wore men’s clothes you were simply thought of as a man.

Once the women were in the army they kept to themselves. Stories from fellow soldiers about these women described them as aloof. Above mentioned Jennie Hodgers was known to prefer to be alone. This must certainly have helped the women to keep their secret, even in the crowded army camps. In the end some of them were found out: when they were wounded or ill or in some cases when they were giving birth! Some of the women were found after their death when they were laid out for burial. And some, like Jennie Hodgers, were never found out at all and served until the end of the war.

From the surviving letters and diaries of these women, often the question of why they decided to join up can be answered. For many of them, the reasons were the same as their male fellow soldiers: to support the cause they believed in. Remember, unlike in the First and Second World War, women could do very little outside of soldiering to help with the war effort. While in the 20th century, women built army material, worked in war offices and even flew planes, the women of the Civil War era could hardly be involved at all. There were female nurses, but only in small numbers and the work of cooks and laundresses for the regiments was only done by women of “low standing.” The women who fiercely believed in the cause of the Union or the Confederacy saw no other chance to be involved than to become a soldier themselves. But for many other women the reason was the same as for Mrs McCabe’s heroine Rosetta: to stand by their husbands. To stay with them for better or worse, as they vowed.

Though quite a lot is known and a large number of books have been written about the remarkable female soldiers of the Civil War, some questions will always remain unanswered. The thoughts and dreams, hopes and fears of these women, we will never know. But by reading the story of Rosetta Wakefield we get a glimpse into their private lives that feels very real. ♥

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