Uncommon Soldiers: Women During the Civil War

Take a new look at the Civil War by focusing on the women who fought and died for their country.
By Gail Skroback Hennessey

The question of whether women should be allowed in combat may seem like a modern issue, but it's really not. More than 130 years ago, a surprising number of women served as soldiers in America's bloodiest conflict, the Civil War. Granted, those women hid their gender in order to fight, but they were present on the battlefield nonetheless--from Bull Run to Antietam to Gettysburg, and more.

You don't have to wait for Women's History Month in March to invite your middle schoolers — boys as well as girls — to explore the whys and hows of women's participation in the Civil War. The information and ideas that follow offer a place to start.

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Math: How Many Were There?
It's estimated that at least 400 women from both sides fought in the Civil War. Lauren Cook Burgess, author of An Uncommon Soldier, The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Private Lyons Wakeman [Minerva Center, 1994], has found documentation for 135 women soldiers but believes there were many more.

Most of the confirmed women soldiers come from the Union ranks — a reflection of the greater number of Federal soldiers in the war and better documentation procedures in the Union Army.

Have students compare the estimated number of female soldiers with the total number of soldiers who fought in the Civil War. (Best estimates say 2.1 million soldiers served in the Union Army and 800,000 men served in the Confederate Army.) Discuss whether the place of women on Civil War battlefields is important strategically or symbolically, and why. Then, using populations figures for the North and South (23 million in the Union; 10 million in the Confederacy, of which a third were slaves) to estimate the number of women on each side, discuss the impact allowing women to serve openly in both armies might have had on the duration and outcome of the war.

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Social Studies: Why Join The War?
Explore reasons why women in the last century enlisted to fight. Among those scholars give is patriotism; keeping watch over a husband, boyfriend, or brother; a way to earn money; and a chance for adventure.

To provide a context for this discussion, ask students to research women's rights and roles in the nineteenth century. Then have them create a character sketch of a woman who disguises herself to join the army. What kind of personality might she have? Remembering the issues surrounding the Civil War, what might motivate her to fight? What skills would she need to maintain the hoax? What other social options were available to her? Encourage students to share their character sketches with the class.

If your school is located near a military base or school, or if students have female relatives or friends in the armed forces, invite students to interview a woman in the military today. Why did she enlist? What is her job? What is her position on women serving in combat? Ask students to share their interviews with the class.

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Literature/Creative Expression: Soldier, Nurse, Spy
Sarah Emma Edmonds, a Union soldier who fought under the name Franklin Thompson, offers an interesting case study. Sarah was born in 1841 on a farm in New Brunswick, Canada. At age 17, she ran away to avoid an arranged marriage. Sarah took on the persona of Franklin Thompson, and became a successful book salesman. She moved from New Brunswick to Hartford, Connecticut; then to Flint, Michigan. In 1861 she joined a regiment of Michigan volunteers. In her autobiography, "Unsexed, or The Female Soldier (also known as Nurse and Spy)" and published around 1865, she explains why she enlisted: "I am naturally fond of adventure, a little ambitious and a good deal romantic and this together with my devotion to the Federal cause and determination to assist to the utmost of my ability in crushing the rebellion, made me forget the unpleasant items."

Ask students to take the role of Sarah Edmonds, either as a 17-year-old young woman feeling trapped by her family's decisions or as 20-year-old "Frank Thompson," enlisting in the Union Army. Through an original poem, monologue, or song, have students express how they feel about their situation and the action they are about to take.

Interested students can read more about Edmonds's experiences as soldier, nurse, and spy in Behind Rebel Lines by Seymour Reit (Harcourt Brace, 1988) and Frank Thompson: Her Civil War Story by Bryna Stevens (Macmillan, 1992). Edmonds's story is also included in A Separate Battle: Women and the Civil War by Ina Chang (Lodestar, 1991); and in The Civil War: Literature Units, Projects, and Activities by Janet Cassidy (Scholastic Professional Books, 1993).

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Civics: Women Fighting in Disguise
How could a woman join the army undetected? There were no medical exams required to enlist in Civil War armies. "Basically, if a soldier had a trigger finger, teeth to tear open a cartridge, two legs, and could walk, you were in," notes Lauren Cook Burgess. Women also went to great lengths to conceal their gender. They bound their breasts, cut their hair short, and used charcoal to simulate a five-o'clock shadow.

Often women were discovered only when they were wounded. Clara Barton wrote about nursing a soldier at Antietam with a chest wound. Barton couldn't understand why the soldier didn't want to remove his clothing — until discovering that "he" was Mary Galloway, who had enlisted to follow her husband.

Invite interested students to research current military induction procedures — they might even contact a local recruiting office. Could a woman disguise herself in the modern military? Would she have any reason to do so? Have students report their findings to the class.

As a debate topic, discuss other single-sex institutions, such as professional sports teams, and whether they should be changed to accommodate women. Students might also survey other students and family and community members on this question, then share their results.

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Writing: Letters Home
Sarah Rosetta Wakeman was known as Lyons Wakeman in the Union Army. Her letters to her family, discovered recently in an attic trunk, have been collected in a book by Lauren Burgess.

Wakeman's letters offer a picture of what it was like to be a woman in disguise. Detection was a constant fear, because it meant being kicked out of the regiment.

Wakeman also describes the routines and hardships of service in war. "I have gotten so that I can drill as good as any man in my regiment," she boasted. . . . "It would make your hair stand on end to be where I have been. How would you like to be in the front rank and have the rear rank load and fire their guns over your shoulder?" And she wrote of war's horrors: "Over miles of shattered forest and torn earth the dead lie, sometimes in heaps and in rows. Friends and foe, black and white, with distorted features, among mangled and dead horses, trampled in mud, and thrown in all conceivable sorts of places. You can distinctly hear, over the whole field, the hum and hissing of decomposition."

Share some original letters with students. Along with Burgess's book, accounts can also be found in "Women in the Civil War: Warriors, Patriots, Nurses, and Spies," edited by Phyllis Raybin Emert [Discovery Enterprises, Ltd., 1995; for ordering information, call (800) 729-1720]. Then ask students to imagine themselves as a soldier in the Union or Confederate army--female or male--and write a letter to family members about their experiences in camp or in battle. Encourage some students to take the role of Sarah Emma Edmonds or Sarah Rosetta Wakeman and make the case to a public figure, such as Lincoln or Lee, for women being allowed to serve openly. Ask them to consider what points those women might have made in 1861 that modern servicewomen would make today.

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Art: Honoring Women Soldiers
Tell students that there is discussion today of erecting a monument in Arlington National Cemetery dedicated to women who have served in the military. Invite students to design such a monument, using drawing paper or three-dimensional building materials. Provide time for students to explain the symbolism of their designs.

Gail Skroback Hennessey teaches sixth grade in Harpursville, New York.

This article was adapted from Middle Years, January/February 1995, page 41.

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