Archive for Saturday, September 6, 2003

Book chronicles women who posed as men in Civil War

September 6, 2003


— Alfred Luther enlisted as a corporal in the 1st Kansas Infantry Regiment in 1861, during the Civil War, was promoted to first sergeant and would have been promoted to lieutenant in the U.S. Army if smallpox hadn't killed him.

As Luther was prepared for burial, a startling discovery was made.

The man that soldiers in the 1st Kansas Infantry had marched with, lived with and fought with for 19 months was a woman.


Luther wasn't alone, said DeAnne Blanton, who with Lauren M. Cook wrote "They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War."

"We have absolutely no idea how many women soldiers there were," Blanton said. Blanton and Cook documented 260 Union and Confederate female soldiers, but since the book's publication, they have received information about more.

"I know there are a lot more out there that we didn't find," Blanton said.

Information about Alfred Luther, who was in her 20s when she was mustered into the 1st Kansas at Leavenworth, is limited. Her real name isn't even known.

Luther and other women posing as men to serve in Civil War armies "were really, really good at hiding themselves, trying to be men," Blanton said. Union service records don't indicate that Luther was a woman.

When writing the book, Blanton and Cook received tips from Civil War re-enactors and historians about individual female soldiers.

"Some kind soul sent us a newspaper article from the 1920s about Alfred Luther. I went, oh, that's interesting," Blanton said. The Kansas State Historical Society was particularly helpful to the authors when it found a file containing a letter from a soldier in the 1st Kansas to a relative talking about Luther's death, Blanton said.

In the April 6, 1863, letter, Fred Haywood described her as "pretty good size for a woman with rather masculine features. She must have been very shrewd to have kept her secret so long when she was surrounded by several hundred men. ... She was brave as a lion in battle and never flinched from the severest fatigues or the hardest duties. She had been in more than a dozen battles and skirmishes."

The authors credit Susan K. Forbes and Linda Barnickel, of the Kansas State Historical Society, with telling Luther's story.

How did they do it?

On a day-to-day basis, how could a woman pass as a man?

Mainly because they lived in the Victorian age, when most people didn't like to expose their necks, and most men wouldn't know what a woman would look like dressed in pants, Blanton said.

"Men were modest. They didn't tend to undress in front of anyone other than a brother," Blanton said. Soldiers didn't shed their clothes when they slept at night, and they rarely bathed, Blanton said, quoting a soldier's diary that said you could smell an army before you saw it.

A soldier seeking privacy to use the toilet wouldn't draw attention to himself, Blanton said.

Women joined the army to escape their hometowns or an unhappy life situation and to improve themselves economically. Working-class women had few job choices in civilian life, including working as laundresses or maids. A Civil War soldier was paid $13 a month and a $50 bonus for enlisting, which was a step up, Blanton said. Carrying a musket was easier work than carrying water to wash clothes, she said.

About half the women joined the army to stay with their husbands, fiances or fathers.

"Then there's just good old-fashioned patriotism, for the same reasons that their brothers were going," Blanton said. Some soldiers were found to be women when they were wounded, became ill or were killed. The living were dismissed from the service. At the Battle of Gettysburg, Confederate women casualties included one dead, one probably killed and one whose leg was amputated.

Accidental discovery

Blanton and Cook didn't know each other when they independently researched female soldiers. Blanton, a senior military archivist at the National Archives in Washington, was looking for something else when she found a War Department file labeled women soldiers.

"I was reading this, and I was just stunned. How cool is this?" Blanton said.

Cook made national news when her portrayal of a male soldier was challenged at a Civil War re-enactment. Blanton read the news stories, and the two eventually met when Cook came to the National Archives to research a female soldier. The two had lunch, became friends, started working together and decided to collaborate on a book.

"What became apparent to us was that there was a huge pattern pointing to the participation of women as soldiers," Blanton said. Information came in bits and pieces as Blanton and Cook worked part-time on the 10-year project. "It was fun. It was like a jigsaw puzzle."

Cook is a special assistant to the chancellor for university communications at Fayetteville (N.C.) State University and is the editor of "An Uncommon Soldier: the Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, Alias Private Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.