It has been said that America’s Civil War was fought “brother against brother”. This is true, for the most part. What many don’t realize is that some of the soldiers were women. They had to pass themselves off as men in order to enlist. One of your female ancestors may have been among them.
The Smithsonian has an interesting article titled “Women Fought in the Civil War Disguised As Men (And So Do Today’s Re-enactors)”. It gives details about real women who became soldiers and fought in the Civil War.
How did they do it? Today, it would be impossible due to the extensive medical examinations and required forms of identification that a person must have in order to join the military. That’s fine, though, because today it is absolutely legal for women to choose to become a member of the armed forces and to fight for her country.
Things were different during the time of the Civil War. Back then, people didn’t have driver’s licenses or the other types of identification that we use today. The physical examination that prospective soldiers were given weren’t anywhere near as thorough as what happens today.
Slate notes that Army surgeons often checked for only two things. They made sure the recruit had teeth (so he could tear open powder cartridges). They also made sure the recruit had a finger with which to pull the trigger on a rifle. That was all!
Women who wanted to become soldiers would cut their hair and pick a new, male, name for themselves. Some would wrap their breasts in order to present a less curvy figure. All would have to take care to hide their bodies from their fellow soldiers. According to Slate, up to 1,000 women fought for both the Union and Confederate armies during the war (while disguised as men).
Some women went to war along with their fathers (who obviously were willing to keep their “sons” true identity a secret). A woman from Tennessee, named Melverina Elverina Peppercorn, joined the Confederate army to be with her brother. Frances Louisa Clayton changed her name to Jack Williams and enlisted with her husband in 1861.
How would a genealogist discover that her female ancestor fought in the Civil War? One clue would be if you found an old photo of that ancestor in uniform. Old letters can sometimes be useful, since soldiers did write letters home. If you can find out the male name your ancestor adopted, it might be possible to look up her military records.
Today, there are women who join Civil War reenactment groups. While some will portray a woman who is on the sidelines, doing laundry and knitting socks, others will not. Women who are able to pass themselves off as men can, and do, become reenactment soldiers.
Image by Russ Walker on Flickr.
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