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Women Soldiers in the Civil War

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Women Soldiers in the Civil War

Imagine wanting to fight for a war but disguising yourself due to your gender? Traditional female gender roles did not hold some women back from disguising themselves as male soldiers and fighting in the Civil War. There are roughly 400 cases of female soldiers documented throughout the Civil War. One of the most compelling cases was Albert Cashier, also known as Jennie Hodgers. Cashier served for three years in the Civil War disguised as a man, without being found out, and would continue to live as a man after the war's end! Though female soldiers in the Civil War were often forgotten or ignored, they took an incredible stance against traditional feminine stereotypes.

Vivandier vs. Soldier

Vivandieres were ideally younger women who donned a military uniform and aided soldiers on the battlefield but did not identify as soldiers. These women did not participate in battle, though they carried weapons. The medical care provided by vivandieres became their most important contribution. These women saw action in the early years of the war until General Ulysses S. Grant removed all women in 1864. Though vivandieres played a critical role in the Civil War, there is little mention of them. We know of these women due to diaries, letters, and personal memoirs.

Photo of Kady Brownell. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

The Legend of Kady Brownell

One of the most famous vivandieres was Kady Brownell, though much of her story may be steeped more in legend than historical fact. Kady married Robert Brownell days before the outbreak of the Civil War. Robert immediately volunteered for military service, leaving his new wife. However, Kady followed her husband's regiment and would become a color-bearer. In one skirmish, it is said that Kady ran out in between the opposing sides with her colors in hand to find out the other side to be friends. It is highly debated whether any of Kady's story is historically accurate. After the war, there were many conflicting records of Kady Brownell, yet she remains an essential legend of the Civil War.

Color-Bearer- A person who carries the flags of the regiment during a war

Famous Women Soldiers in the Civil War

Albert CashierPicture of Albert Cashier. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

Albert Cashier

Born Jennie Hodgers, Albert Cashier enlisted in the 95th Illinois Infantry in 1862. Cashier's short stature did not deter her from being accepted amongst the infantry. The 95th Illinois Infantry participated in over forty engagements during the Civil War. Cashier served her three-year enlistment and settled in Illinois and afterward continued life as a man and even collected a veteran's pension.

Did you know?

In a period that did not acknowledge women's suffrage, Cashier voted in several elections.

Loreta Janeta Velazquez

Loreta Janeta Velazquez. Source: TradingCardsNPS, CC-BY-2.0Wikimedia Commons.

Loreta Janeta Velazquez

Born in Cuba in 1842, Loreta Velazquez disguised herself as a man in 1861, determined to fight for the Confederacy. Velazquez eventually joined up with a regiment and saw fighting in the Battle of First Manassas and the Battle of Ball's Bluff. Switching roles, she took on her female attire to collect intelligence in Washington, DC. And eventually, in 1862, she became injured, and the doctor discovered her gender.

Sarah Rosetta Wakeman. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

Sarah Rosetta Wakeman

Born in 1843 to a poor farming family, Sarah Wakeman decided to enlist in the 153rd New York Infantry Regiment as Lyons Wakeman in 1862. She engaged in a skirmish at Pleasant Hill in April of 1864 and would eventually die in June 1864. There is no evidence that her true identity was ever discovered, and she was buried in the National Cemetery near New Orleans. Her family kept her letters, and later, they were published as a memoir. In one, Sarah writes:

I don't know how long before I shall have to go into the field of battle. For my part, I don't care. I don't feel afraid to go."2 -Sarah Wakeman

Sarah's comment on bravery indicates that courage did not solely belong to male soldiers.

Female Soldiers in the Civil War

Sarah Emma Edmonds. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

Sarah Emma Edmonds

In 1857 Sarah Edmonds disguised herself as a man, took the name Franklin Thompson, and worked as a traveling salesman. In 1861 Edmonds took a three-year enlistment with the 2nd Michigan Infantry. The unit saw engagement in the Siege of Yorktown and the Battle of Williamsburg, where it is reported that Sarah took up arms and fought. After coming down with malaria, Edmonds refused to seek medical treatment and deserted. Later on, she fought to receive a pension which was awarded in 1884.

Malinda Blalock. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

Malinda Blalock

Keith and Malinda Blalock lived in a part of North Carolina split by Union and Confederate loyalties. Malinda's husband Keith enlisted in the Confederate army to avoid the draft. However, Malinda did not want to be left behind shortly afterward, disguising herself as a male soldier. Both Malinda and Keith were discharged from the army; Malinda for disclosing her gender and Keith for having a severe case of poison ivy. Eventually, the Blalocks joined Union raiders stationed near their home.

African American female soldiers in the Civil War

Cathay Williams

There are few records of African American women participating as Civil War soldiers. However, the record of Cathay Williams shows us that becoming a female soldier was not isolated to white women. During the Civil War, Williams enlisted in the Union army at just 17 years old to serve as a washerwoman and cook. In 1866 she enlisted in the US Army as William Cathay, successfully passing as a man. After contracting smallpox, a surgeon discovered her true identity, and she received an honorable discharge. After her discharge, she quickly enlisted with the Buffalo soldiers as part of an all-African American regiment. Williams was the only woman to ever serve as a Buffalo soldier in the US Army. Eventually, Williams applied for a pension and was denied. Her application denial is seen below.

Disapproved Pension Application for Cathay WilliamsDisapproved Pension Application for Cathay Williams. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

Responsibilities of Women Soldiers

During the Civil War, women occupied several roles, including spies, camp aides, cooks, nurses, and posing as male soldiers. Many women enlisted to be close to family members, while others heeded the call of their deep patriotic beliefs. Still, other women wished to buck traditional gender roles and enlisted for a different life.

Enlisting as a soldier required women to perform all the traditional responsibilities of a male soldier. Engaging in military service meant spending long periods away from loved ones, long and treacherous marches, diseases/severe injury, and fighting in battle. Some duties included mundane tasks such as cleaning weapons, gathering water and wood, and taking care of the horses. One of the most important routines of a soldier was the drill routine. These routines, held every day, included marching and learning to operate weapons properly. A key component to military tactics, drill instilled essential battlefield maneuvers. To successfully participate as a soldier women had to maintain all traditional military responsibilities.

Reasons women went to war

  • Follow loved ones into battle
  • Fight for their own patriotic beliefs
  • Buck traditional gender roles and access opportunities reserved for men

Women disguised as soldiers in the Civil War

Loreta Janeta Velazquez. Source: TradingCardsNPS, CC-BY-2.0Wikimedia Commons.

Women disguised as men cut their hair, wrapped themselves, donned uniforms, and sometimes faux facial hair. For example, Loreta Janeta Velazquez donned a fake mustache when she enlisted as a male soldier. Luckily for the female imposters, military uniforms were ill-fitted and hid their physical feminine traits. To gain entry into the military, a physical exam was required by all soldiers. However, the exam during the Civil War was quick, and in most cases, soldiers did not have to remove their clothes. Even with disguises, some women were discovered, often when they were injured and needed medical attention.

Did you know?

Two disguised female soldiers were discovered due to the "unmasculine" way they put their socks and shoes on.1

List of Famous Female Soldiers

NameMilitary Unit/AffiliationBattles
Albert Cashier (Jennie Hodgers)95th Illinois Infantry/UnionParticipated in over forty engagements, but Cashier was involved in two main battles of Battle of Shiloh and Battle of Stones River
Lieutenant Harry Buford (Loreta Janeta Velazquez)ConfederacyBattle of First Manassas (Bull Run), Battle of Ball's Bluff
Lyons Wakeman (Sarah Rosetta Wakeman) UnionRed River Campaign
Cathay Williams (first entered the military as an army cook and then enlisted as a male soldier)UnionSaw the Battle of Pea Ridge and the Red River Campaign while serving as an army cook
Franklin Thomas (Sarah Emma Edmonds) 2nd Michigan Infantry/UnionSiege of Yorktown, Battle of Williamsburg, Battle of Second Manassas, Battle of Fredericksburg
Sammy Blalock (Malinda Blalock)Union & Confederate (Blalock started as a soldier for the Confederacy and would then later become a raider for the Union)Battles/skirmishes are unknown

Women soldiers of the Civil War - Key takeaways

  • There are roughly 400 documented cases of women becoming soldiers in the Civil War.
  • There are very few documented cases of African American female soldiers during the Civil War.
    • Cathay Williams is the only documented African American female soldier in the Civil War, though she worked as a cook and washwoman during the war
    • Williams became the only female Buffalo Soldier
  • Female soldiers took on the same responsibilities as their male counterparts
  • Women disguised themselves by wrapping their bodies, donning uniforms, cutting their hair, and sometimes donning fake facial hair.
  • Women had several reasons for going to war:
      • Follow loved ones into battle
      • Fight for their own patriotic beliefs
      • Buck traditional gender roles and access opportunities reserved for men

1. https://blogs.loc.gov/teachers/2013/02/women-soldiers-in-the-civil-war/

2. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/sarah-rosetta-wakeman

Frequently Asked Questions about Women Soldiers in the Civil War

Some women soldiers in the Civil War were: Jennie Hodgers, Loreta Velazquez, Sarah Wakeman and Sarah Edmonds. 

In the Civil War female soldiers performed all the tasks that were assigned to male soldiers. They fought in battles, tended to the sick, performed camp duties, and participated in marching exercises. 

Though the figure is still uncertain, roughly 400 women became soldiers during the Civil War. 

Women disguised themselves in the Civil War by taping their breasts, cutting their hair, and some even wore fake mustaches. 

There is no official record of the first woman to fight in the Civil War. However, some of the first women to accompany the army were known as vivandieres or canteen carriers. 

Final Women Soldiers in the Civil War Quiz

Question

How instances of female soldiers were documented during the Civil War? 

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Answer

400

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Question

Who was the first African American female soldier in the Civil War? 

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Answer

Cathay Williams

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Question

What was a vivandiere? 

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Answer

A female soldier who fought alongside other soldiers

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Question

Which General disbanded the vivandieres and removed all women from military units? 

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Answer

General Ulysses S. Grant 

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Question

Which female soldier continued to successfully live as a man after the war was over? 

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Answer

Jennie Hodgers

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Question

Who was a legendary vivandiere who supposedly was a color-bearer for her regiment? 

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Answer

Kady Brownell 

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Question

List the reasons disguised themselves as soldiers and went into battle? 

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Answer

  1. Follow loved ones into battle  
  2. Fight for their own patriotic beliefs
  3. To buck traditional gender roles and take advantage of more opportunities offered to males

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Question

Female soldiers' true gender was often discovered at what point? 

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Answer

When they sought medical treatment after being injured 

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Question

Some female soldiers were awarded a sum of money generally reserved for male soldiers. This sum of money was called what? 

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Answer

A veterans pension 

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Question

Which female Civil War soldier fought on both Confederate and Union sides? 

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Answer

Malinda Blalock 

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