Colby Magazine - Summer 1999 All the Daring of the Soldier

Upholding a tradition that dated back at least to the American Revolution, between 500 and 1,000 girls and women disguised themselves as males and enlisted in the armies of North and South during the Civil War.

Motives varied. Some followed husbands, brothers or lovers into the service. Others ran away from home to escape a life limited to “woman’s work.” Some were in desperate need of money. Still others were motivated by sheer patriotism.

In All the Daring of the Soldier (W.W. Norton, 1999), Elizabeth Leonard (history) reveals the scope of women’s participation in the Civil War. The story is so compelling that The History Book Club has purchased the rights for a book-club edition.

The women who served fell largely into three categories, Leonard writes: spy, “daughter of the regiment,” and disguised soldier. In the first capacity, women often were able to escape detection for long periods because invading forces underestimated them. They did genuine damage—or service, depending on one’s perspective. Because of information about Union troop strength gathered by Belle Boyd of Martinsburg, Va. (now W. Va.), for instance, Stonewall Jackson and his men were victorious in the Shenandoah Valley campaign.

Annie Etheridge of Michigan was a “daughter of the regiment.” She followed her husband into the 2nd Michigan Infantry Regiment and stayed despite his almost immediate desertion. She served in some of the most gruesome battles of the war, including Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, nursing soldiers as they fell and, at least once, carrying the regimental flag into battle.

Unlike daughters of the regiment, women who donned uniforms and carried guns were pursuing masculine opportunities. Products of the farm and of the foreign-born working class, these women had known nothing but hard physical work. Some were eager for adventure and for the chance to make money quickly. The Civil War offered both.

After enlisting in the 153rd New York State Volunteers, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman sent her $152 bounty money home to Binghamton. Several weeks later she wrote from Alexandria, Va., “The weather is cold and the ground is froze hard, but I sleep as warm in the tents as I would in a good bed. I don’t know the difference when I get asleep. We have boards laid down for a floor and our dishes is tin. We all have a tin plate and a tin cup, and a knife and Fork, one spoon. We have to use the floor as a table. I like to be a soldier very well.”

By all accounts, particularly those of their male comrades, most of the disguised women fought bravely. Many escaped discovery until they were wounded. Several even delivered babies while serving—one shortly after fighting at Fredericksburg. “Union General William S. Rosecrans became enraged,” Leonard writes, “when an unnamed sergeant under his command ‘was delivered of a baby, which,’ he irately noted, ‘is in violation of all military law and of the army regulations.’”

Leonard writes that “far too few women who lived and served in the military during the first century of United States history” left enough documentary evidence to reconstruct their experiences. But with All the Daring of the Soldier, she brings to us a variety of women’s commitment to their country and its cause.

Sally Baker is director of communications for Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences

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