“Women lived in germ-ridden camps, languished in appalling prisons, and died miserably, but honorably, for their country and their cause just as men did.”
Conventional narrative has framed the Civil War as a man’s fight, with historical accounts focusing almost exclusively on the men who fought as Yanks and Rebs in the 1860s. But such commonly accepted accounts present, like all history, a revisionist history that excises the stories of the women who, despite the extraordinary obstructions of the era, took to the battlefields. In They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War (public library), historians DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook chronicle and contextualize more than 250 documented cases of women who served in the ranks of both the Union and Confederate armies dressed as men, “the best-kept historical secret of the Civil War” — an act at once rebellious and patriotic, using this usurped male social identity to claim full status as citizens of their nation and access male independence in an age when neither was available to women. Blanton and Cook write in the introduction:
Popular notions of women during the Civil War center on self-sacrificing nurses, romantic spies, or brave ladies maintaining their home front in the absence of their men. This conventional picture of gender roles does not tell the entire story, however. Men were not the only ones to march off to war. Women bore arms and charged into battle, too. Women lived in germ-ridden camps, languished in appalling prisons, and died miserably, but honorably, for their country and their cause just as men did.
So why did women do this? For some, like their male counterparts, the motivation was purely patriotic. Others did if for love, taking to the battlefields in order to remain close to a husband, lover, fiancé, father, or brother. But for many, the reason was economic — an army private made $13 a month, roughly double what a seamstress, laundress, or maid would make. At the time of the Civil War, women, unable to vote or have bank accounts and still subject to Victorian ideals of homemaking and motherhood as the sole purpose of female existence, had neither personal nor political agency. In fact, these female soldiers tended to come from particularly marginalized groups — immigrants, the working class, farm girls, and women living below the poverty line. The freedom to make and spend their own money, Blanton and Cook argue, was a source of unprecedented, if private, empowerment as they gained access to social opportunities and privileges previously unavailable to them. Blanton and Cook write:
Society placed enormous restrictions on females. While upper-class and educated middle-class women might find a small measure of independence through employment as teachers, writers, or governesses, working- and lower-class women had few appealing options outside of marriage. Their employment prospects were usually limited to sewing, prostitution, or domestic servitude. Statistically, the majority of unmarried working-class women chose the latter. In New York City in 1860, maids received between four and seven dollars a month, ‘good’ cooks earned seven or eight dollars a month, and laundresses might earn up to ten dollars per month. … On the other hand, three months’ service as a private in the Union army yielded a hefty sum of thirty-nine dollars in an age when most monthly salaries for men ranged from ten to twenty dollars.
Though once found out, these female soldiers were discharged from the army for “congenital peculiarities,” “sexual incompatibility,” or the unambiguously termed offense of “unmistakable evidence of being a woman,” most of these women went undetected, at least for a while — a fact not all that astounding in the context of Victorian society where the single most revealing litmus test, nudity, was a rarity given bathing was a rare occurrence and people often slept in their clothes. (But today, in an age when the tip of the devastating iceberg that is sexual assault in the military is only beginning to emerge, one has to wonder what happened to the women who did get found out.)
Thanks to the poorly fitted uniforms, some women were even able to disguise their pregnancies until the very end, startling their male platoon mates with the delivery. Others chose to continue dressing as men after the end of the war, raising gender identity questions also not discussed in the book. But perhaps most interesting of all is the question of how women got the idea for this in the first place. Blanton argues that much of it had to do with cultural influence — cross-dressing female heroines permeated Victorian literature, with military and sailor women often celebrated in 17th-century ballads, novels, and poems.
They Fought Like Demons goes on to explore the complex motivations, realities, and untold stories of women who fought as, and fought like, men, reminding us that omission is as much a tool of political oppression in the construction of cultural mythology as propaganda.
Some images via Smithsonian Magazine