The mention of the Civil War usually conjures up images of a bloody battle for America’s soul, where young men gave their lives to ensure the freedom of others. We think of the Union North, the Confederate South, and the thousands of lives lost at Gettysburg.
What doesn’t normally come to mind, however, is the image of a woman, dressed in a heavy soldier’s uniform, musket tucked under her arm, getting ready to slug it out for her country on the battlefield. According to history lecturer and Civil War buff Glenn LeBoeuf, however, this is exactly what some four hundred women soldiers did during the Civil War.
Speaking Sunday at the Monmouth County Library Eastern Branch in Shrewsbury, LeBoeuf shed some light on a little know aspect of a very well known moment in history. LeBoeuf noted that many people think of women in the Civil War as a small footnote on a very large piece of history. While this may be true, LeBoeuf deems it noteworthy due to the fact that it is a human story.
Women were not in any way required to join the army, yet they felt driven by a patriotic fervor and the desire to assert their independence in a way that they could not in everyday society. Life for women during the 1860’s was rough; they had a limited number of avenues to pursue.
Most women looked for marriage and depended on a man for security and protection. Once their husbands went off to war, women became saddled with double the work, half the money and no protection at all. Many thought of another option-- follow their husbands and join the army disguised as young men.
It was relatively easy for women to join the army during those times. As the war dragged on and the casualties grew, more and more stress was put on a fast enrollment process that would allow new soldiers to get on the field as quickly as possible.
There were not enough doctors or time to fully investigate each new volunteer or recruit. Doctors hastily checked eyes, hands and guesstimated on the age of each volunteer. They never made the volunteers submit to a full exam that involved them getting undressed; there was simply no time. This allowed eager young women to sneak in unnoticed.
Once enrolled, one of the biggest concerns for women was being discovered. This is one reason why it is speculated that women did not write letters or keep diaries; they feared they would be sent home if someone discovered their secret.
They did their best to stay out of hospitals or a doctor’s care as those were the two best options for being discovered. Other than that; it was relatively simple for women to conceal their identity. The bulky uniforms hid any semblance of their womanhood, and there were no showers or private bathrooms where people undressed as a group, therefore, they ran little risk of being discovered on a day to day basis.
Most women were part of the Calvary, which involved live combat on horseback. Men in this position had to be small and thin in order to be able spend many hours on horseback. A women’s frame was particularly well suited for this job, and it is thought that this is why so many women in the war were in this division.
Although information of women soldier’s is hard to come by, evidence does exist that proves they fought side by side with young men throughout the war. To date, there have been only three letters written by women discovered, only two memoirs written, and no diaries found. Much of the evidence is second hand evidence written in men’s diaries or letters in which they described women fighting in their units. Through this research, it has been estimated that 300 to 400 women were known to have fought in the war.
Of the 300 to 400 that fought, 70 percent fought for the North; 30 percent for the South. Of that total, 15 percent were wounded in action and sent to hospitals where their true identity was discovered. After having their identity revealed, 17 percent went on to serve openly as women. Many times the men who they fought alongside of demanded they be allowed to stay since they had performed extremely well. Their strong service didn’t go unnoticed, either-- 14 percent of those who served were promoted for doing such as stand out job, and four officers went on to become Lieutenant.
Most people still hold the image of women in service filling the role of nurse or other non combat related positions. Clearly this is not always the case, and the brave women who fought during one of the bloodiest periods in American history help reveal yet another layer of the strength that is characteristic of American women.