–by Tessa Wakefield, USCHS intern
When I think of women and their involvement in American wars, the images that come to mind are typically nurses or Rosie the Riveter. This does make sense, as these are the images that have been promoted: at many of the Smithsonian gift shops, you can purchase Rosie memorabilia, thus making her even more the epitome of women’s war efforts. But women have been more deeply involved than you might have been taught in your average American history class. From spies, to nurses, to factory workers, women have been a part of all aspects of American warfare from the get-go.
With the recent announcement of women now being able to serve in military combat roles, it’s interesting to look back at their historic place in combat. Women have been fighting in battles since the American Revolution. Granted, it generally was not known they were doing so, but that doesn’t discount their involvement or contributions. The Civil War, for example, saw a great influx of women joining the military, often disguised as men.
It’s quite the challenge to pinpoint the exact number of women who fought in the Civil War. There were at least 250 serving in the Confederate Army with many more probably going undetected. These women were careful to hide their identities, adopting male names and mannerisms. They chopped off their hair, bound their chests, and often covered their necks to hide the fact that they didn’t have an Adam’s apple.
The enlistment process was far less rigorous than it is today, making it easy for women to slip into the ranks unnoticed. You would merely have to produce an ID and state your name and job once arriving at the recruiting office. Furthermore, the physical examinations were far from thorough. Most doctors only measured things such as height and checked to see if the recruit had teeth and fingers. I feel like those qualifications would be fairly simple to meet. Once enlisted, however, women had to keep a low profile in order to stay hidden.
They became so good at this that they would really only be discovered if wounded or killed. Mary Owens, aka John Evans, for example, served 18 months before being wounded in the arm and discovered. She had mastered being a man. If she hadn’t been hurt, who knows how long Owens could’ve stayed enlisted? I would be curious to see her fellow soldiers’ reactions when they found out who she really was. Some women managed to avoid all detection. Mary Stevens Jenkins was wounded several times over the course of two years yet was discharged without anyone realizing who she actually was.
Jenni Hodgers is one of the more well-known female soldiers. Of the ladies I read about, she stuck out. Hodgers created the identity of Albert Cashier, enlisted, and served for three years, fighting in 40 battles. She was present at some of the major events of the war, such as the siege of Vicksburg. She would then go on to live as a man for many years following the war, only being revealed when she was injured in a car accident.
I think it’s pretty cool that female soldiers played a part in Civil War battles. Their presence is a piece of history worth exploring. They fought alongside their brothers and husbands, serving their country proudly.
Cincinnati Civil War Round Table talk
NPR story on Jennie Hodgers/Albert Cashier
NY Times story
National Archives’ Prologue Magazine article