Act recounts role of Civil War women

Joyce Thierer, co-owner of Ride into History, offers first-hand accounts of women who fought in the Civil War. Thierer, pictured last week at her home near Admire, will give a presentation Sunday as part of Civil War on the Western Frontier events.

Joyce Thierer, a Civil War historian who lives near Admire, puts a saddle on one of her horses. Thierer uses the horses to teach about history. She'll give a presentation on women fighting in the Civil War at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at Watkins Community Museum of History, 1047 Mass. It's among events for Civil War on the Western Frontier.

If you go

What: “Fighting Beside My Brother,” first-person narrative presentation by Joyce Thierer, partner in “Ride into History”When: 3:30 p.m. SundayWhere: Watkins Community Museum of History, 1047 Mass.Admission: Free

Growing up in rural Kansas during the 1960s, Joyce Thierer often rode her horse to town to check out books from the traveling bookmobile.

She liked books about the West, but she wondered why there weren’t any about women.

Then, one day, she checked out a book about a woman who fought in the Civil War.

“This just opened up my eyes,” Thierer says.

Like many Americans, she didn’t realize that hundreds – perhaps thousands – of women disguised themselves to join the ranks of both the Union and Confederate forces.

Now, Thierer does first-person narrative accounts of Civil War women to help teach about them. She’ll be in Lawrence for a presentation at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at the Watkins Community Museum of History, 1047 Mass. The program is part of the annual Civil War on the Western Frontier, which begins today.

Common bond

Thierer, whose character is “Jo,” is a partner in Ride into History, which provides first-person accounts of historical figures, including Calamity Jane and Amelia Earhart. She lives near Admire, which is about 20 miles north of Emporia.

She thinks the women who fought during the Civil War weren’t that different from women who enlist in today’s military.

“They all felt strongly for their cause,” Thierer says. “Women are either for war or against war. Their motivations to enlist today are the same as in the past.”

Though there are about 600 documented instances of women fighting in the Civil War, it’s difficult to know many of their motivations, says Richard Hall, who wrote “Women on the Civil War Battlefront,” published last year by University Press of Kansas.

Many of the women went along to accompany men, either brothers, husbands or boyfriends, says Hall, who lives in Maryland.

Women in disguise

Lauren Cook Wike, co-author of “They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War,” says it was easier for women to hide their gender than most people might think.

“It wasn’t that difficult in Victorian America to disguise your gender,” she says. “In Victorian America, people are accustomed to seeing you for who you represent yourself to be.”

That meant if you wore a skirt, you were a woman. If you wore pants, you were a man.

“It was common for women to recognize each other in the ranks,” Wike says, “whereas the men were just oblivious. If a woman was a good soldier and did her job well, she was accepted as a good soldier, and you could rely on them to save your life.”

Also, nude bathing was uncommon. Usually, soldiers would stay in their long underwear and bathe in private.

And if women entered service with a confidant, they would share a tent with the man they knew.

Still, Wike says, “these women must have been under tremendous stress.”

Often, women were only discovered after they were injured. Penalty was discharge because, as the army would put it, they were “sexually incompatible” for military service.

Kansas connections

One of the best-known women to serve in the Civil War, Sarah Emma Edmonds, had Kansas ties. She lived in Fort Scott after the war.

Edmonds served two years in the 2nd Michigan Infantry as a soldier, spy and nurse under the name “Frank Thompson.”

Another female soldier, known as “Alfred J. Luther,” served in the 1st Kansas Infantry. She was promoted to first sergeant before dying of disease in 1863.

“Otto Schaffer” was another Kansas connection. She farmed in Butler County after the war and only at her death was discovered to be a woman.

Some women went back to their female lifestyles at their homes after the war, Wike says. Others, like Schaffer, lived as men the rest of their lives.

More to do

Hall suggests for every known woman who fought in the Civil War, there may have been five to 10 who went undiscovered.

Diary entries after the war provide some clues to their existence and motivations. Bones found at Civil War battlefields also provide information.

“There’s a lot more to be learned about this,” Hall says. “This is just scratching the surface.”

Thierer realizes that there’s more to be done on the education side, as well. She also teaches history classes at Emporia State University.

“They come into my classes shocked,” she says. “It’s, ‘What do you mean women fought?'”