The issue of women in combat is contentious today, but unimaginable 150 years ago during the Civil War. That doesn't mean it didn't happen. The way approximately 500 to 1,000 women dealt with it during the Civil War, on both sides: disguise themselves and fight as men.
A ceremony at Arlington Cemetery honored their service on September 18, fittingly ending up at the Tomb of the Unknown Civil War Dead.
Genevieve Chase, the keynote speaker, is a veteran of the Afghanistan war, injured when an IED struck a vehicle in which she was riding. She has become an advocate for veterans, especially female vets. (300,000 women have served in Afghanistan and Iraq so far, and there are about 2 million female vets, she noted.) She spoke about the link with female veterans of the past, including the Civil War women who "served in silence."
For various reasons--patriotic, a search for adventure, an escape from abusive home situations, and more--these women chose to pass as young men and join the two armies. They used false names, dressed in male clothing, and lowered their voices.
Without the rigor of ID and other verification today, nor apparently very extensive physicals, the women mustered in or simply melted into regiments already on the move. The fact that both sides desperately needed soldiers no doubt eased them in.
In many cases, no one knew (or revealed) the truth until the women became sick, injured, or died. They lived under tremendous pressure to keep their identities secret, even while living in close camp quarters with men. Fortunately in this case, hygiene was so lax that they went without much in the way of showering, clothes-changing, and the like, and could slip away to defecate.
What struck me was a comment Chase made at the ceremony about the women returning home--that most could not share their experiences. A certain amount of healing comes from processing after the event. Instead, they "served in silence."
That said, according to historian DeAnne Blanton, who has extensively researched and written on the topic, it was known that some women served, often through anecdotes. A very few received pensions. But by the early 1900s, any record was erased from official documentation.
The ceremony included a bagpiper playing Amazing Grace and a bugler sounding Taps--both of which sound very haunting in the midst of Arlington Cemetery.
Twenty wreaths symbolized 20 women, who, in turn, represented the rest. They included Mary and Mollie Bell, two Virginia cousins who fought for the Confederacy; Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, who fought with a New York regiment and whose letters were found several decades ago; and Sarah Edmonds, a Canadian who fought with a Michigan regiment and wrote a book about her experience.
A Soldier in Action
Julia Wilbur met one of the women who received a name call-out at the ceremony--Maria Lewis. Lewis was black, formerly enslaved; according to my colleague Anita Henderson, who has researched Lewis' life, Lewis hid both her sex and her race when she rode with a New York cavalry unit and fought in the Battle of Waysneboro.
In April 1865, Julia and her sister Frances met Maria Lewis in Washington. By then, Lewis shed her soldier's identity. Julia wrote in her diary on April 4:
A colored woman has been here who has been with the 8th N.Y. Cav. for the last 18 months.... She wore a uniform, rode a horse & carried a sword & carbine just like a man.The officers protected her, & she was with them mostly. The regiment did’nt know that she was a woman She was called Geo. Harris, but her real name is Maria Lewis. She is from Albermarle Co. Va, & escaped to the Union army. It was not convenient to leave the army at first, & she soon became accustomed to it & began to like the excitement. She rode in the front ranks & scouted, & skirmished, & fought as they did...
Maria Lewis has doffed her uniform & wishes to return to womanly ways & occupations. I gave her a chemise, petticoat & hoops, & we shall see that she has a good place to work. It is interesting to hear her tell how the raiders destroy bridges & railroads, & burn houses, mills &c. From the 1st to the 25th of March they were almost constantly in the saddle. She has been well, she is only 17 but is very muscular & strong.