Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Friday, January 29, 2010

Guest Blogger: Victoria Gray - Clothes Make the Man


Clothes make the man, or so the saying says. In the case of numerous Civil War soldiers and spies, this was quite a true statement. It’s estimated that at least four hundred Civil War soldiers were women disguised as men. This number may actually be higher, as women were usually discovered when they needed medical treatment or died.

Motivations for dressing as a man varied. In some cases, women in love desperately wished to join husbands or sweethearts on the battlefield. One can only wonder how many of these couples succumbed to desire and rose eyebrows in the process. In others, becoming a man offered a woman the chance to fight for a cause, either on the battlefield or as a spy.

One of the most notorious cross-dressing spies was Sarah Emma Edmonds, known as Private Franklin Thompson, Union Army nurse turned spy. As a girl, the Canadian-born tomboy craved adventure and could outshoot boys her age. When her father’s attempt to force her into marriage with a local farmer drove her to run away, Sarah worked as a milliner before assuming the identity, Franklin Thompson, traveling Bible salesman.

When war broke out, Sarah/Franklin rushed to enlist. Serving as a male nurse, Private Thompson served in the First Battle of Bull Run and distinguished herself with dedication and competence. Recruited for the newly created Secret Service, she maintained her male persona and crossed Confederate lines to gather information. Taking her deception further, she disguised herself as an African American man to glean intelligence. She used silver nitrate to dye her skin, shaved her head, donned old, worn clothing like that of a plantation slave, and called herself “Cuff”. Working alongside African American men working to build Confederate fortifications, she employed her keen memory and some well-implemented bribery to glean information for the Union. In another instance, Sarah/Franklin donned the clothes of a captured Confederate soldier to move through enemy lines.

In a strange twist, Sarah’s Franklin alter-ego disguised himself as a woman on at least two occasions. Pretending to be an Irish peddler named Bridget O’Shea, she planned to infiltrate the army by becoming a camp follower selling pies and cakes. In another instance of “Franklin” donning a disguise as a woman, he dressed as an African-American laundress working for Confederate officers.

Sarah Edmonds’ story has been recorded in far more detail than many other women who fought in the Civil War in the guise of a man. Women such as Mary Livermore, Mary Owens, and Albert D.J. Cashier (born Jennie Hodgers) joined the war effort in the guise of a man and served their cause. In some cases, female soldiers died from wounds or disease. In others, they lived to old age, raised families, and wrote memoirs. Sadly, the United States Army did not recognize female soldiers and tried to ignore their contributions for decades after the Civil War ended. Fortunately for all of us, accounts of their daring masquerades survived despite the Army’s attempt to pretend they didn’t exist.

Regardless of their motivations and which side of the conflict they were on, the women who disguised themselves as men to become a part of Civil War battles and espionage risked their lives and became a part of history. What fascinating stories they must have had to tell.




Victoria Gray is the author of historical romance. Her debut novel Destiny will reslease in May this year. Visit Victoria at http://www.victoriagrayromance.com/



15 comments:

Robin's Egg Bleu said...

What I don't get, is how did they conceal their private needs and habits from the other men? I cannot imagine how I'd accomplish this!

Victoria Gray said...

I wondered about the same thing. You'd think that simply going to the bathroom would have attracted some attention, not to mention menstruation. It is indeed puzzling.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating!!!!

Tessy

Mary McCall said...

Well, now we know how the North won. Women were probably feeding the men strategy. I'll have to tell Bubba! (JK)
This is wonderful info and speaks to the muse in me. Thanks, Victoria. Looking forward to your debut in May!

Pauline said...

In my research on women at sea - and there were a lot more of them than most experts like to discuss - ladies in the navies and on private ships generally attached themselves to a reliable mate. Having another sailor keep an eye out while the woman in disguise changed, bathed, used the head, etc. helped conceal those "personal issues". And there was not always a sexual relationship involved between the two, although one did sometimes develop. I've often wondered if something similar didn't happen with women passing as men in armies by land.

Victoria Gray said...

I would imagine that was the case. Some of the women in the Civil War disguised themselves to be with their sweethearts or husbands...It would be hard to imagine two people being in that situation and not having a sexual relationship. I wonder how "secret" the situations truly were in these cases.

Le Loup said...

Great information. Has anyone got any info on the same lines only in the 17th and 18th century?
Regards, Le Loup.

Victoria Gray said...

Women disguised themselves as men during the American Revolution. Deborah Samson is one of the better known figures who served in the Colonial Army as a man.

Susan Macatee said...

This is such a fascinating subject, Victoria! I used this same research to create the heroine of my latest Civil War romance, Confederate Rose. It was fun writing a feisty heroine who actually fought beside the men.

EmilyBryan said...

Very interesting post. I had no idea there were female soldiers in the Civil War.

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you so much for visitng and sharing with us Victoria! Your post was fascinating! I have the same questions about the feminine issues... definitely a topic to ponder!!!!

librarypat said...

Interesting post. Not enough has been written about these women and what they did. Considering the status of women, it is understandable that the government would not want to recognize their abilities and contribution outside their usual roles.

Bearded Lady said...

great post! I was just over at your blog too and I love the post about hollywood inacurracies. btw, Dr. Mary Walker is another great example of a civil war heroine. I agree...more should be written about these women.

I will definitely check out your new book. I love fictions with strong female characters.

Blythe Gifford said...

One of my favorite subjects. (And the setup for my medieval IN THE MASTER'S BED.) Impossible as it may seem, there is a record of a woman in the middle ages who attended university (all male) for two years before she was discovered. Certainly, how a woman manages to take care of her "private needs" is a puzzlement, but my theory is, in part, that men see what they expect to see.

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