Although we have had women participate in wars throughout history, women soldiers during the American Civil War was unheard of. After all, the 1860s was the height of the Victorian era, where women, at least high and middle class ones, were thought to be delicate creatures, who needed to be taken care of and protected by their menfolk. The idea of a woman charging into battle, firing on the enemy or worse, yet, being wounded or killed was unimaginable.
Even women who nursed wounded soldiers were often frowned upon by polite society. But in the book, All the Daring of the Soldier, by Elizabeth D. Leonard or An Uncommon Soldier, by Lauren Cook Burgess, these real life women warriors are finally celebrated for the true heroines they were.
Women weren’t allowed to join either army during the American Civil War, but according to Leonard, many young women were driven not only by “Patriotism and the love of a good man…” but also by “…their quest for adventure and their hope for a different sort of paying job than was typically available to them.”
As part of my research for my 2009 release, Confederate Rose, I came across Burgess’s biography.
The book tells the story of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman through letters she sent home to her family that fortunately, her family preserved over the years.
What’s unique about Sarah’s story is, like scores of other young women during the American Civil War, she disguised herself as a man and served in the Union Army as a private. And during the years she served, no one ever discovered her sex.
Many other women also enlisted in male disguise, since women at that time weren’t permitted to serve, but some were quickly discovered and either sent home or were arrested and sent to prison on false charges of prostitution. That was the only reason army officials could come up with for women to dress as men, although it would have been hard for them to ply their trade and not be found out. Others weren’t caught until they were hospitalized or killed in battle. While others served out their time and returned to civilian life without ever being found out.
Sarah was born on January 16,1843, the eldest in a fairly large farm family. She was used to hard work and in 1862, at the age of 19, with no prospects for marriage, she left home to seek outside work to help with the family finances that included a large debt owed by her father. Disguising herself as a man, she found work as a manual laborer on a coal barge for $20.00 for four trips up the Chenango Canal in New York state. On her first trip she encountered soldiers from the 153rd New York Regiment, who urged her to sign up. The enlistment bounty of $152.00 would have been more than a year’s wages, even if Sarah continued civilian work as a male, and so was a great enticement.
Sarah told the recruiters she was 21 and on August 30, 1862, signed up under the name of Lyons Wakeman. Her regiment was stationed in Washington, as one of many, to guard the Capital from the surrounding hostile territory.
In her frequent letters home, she asked her family not to be ashamed of her for the choices she’d made. She also sent money home on a regular basis, much more than she could have earned as a civilian. In February 1864, the regiment was transferred to the field to take part in the ill-fated Red River Campaign. By the end of the campaign, Sarah developed chronic diarrhea and ended up at a regimental hospital.
She died on June 19, 1864, never having been discovered.
Like Sarah, most of the women who disguised themselves as men to serve in the army were lower class, or immigrants, who had little education. Sarah is unique, however, in that she could read and write and, as a result, left her legacy of letters so we’d have the opportunity to see why a woman would choose to hide her identity to serve her country.
For more information on Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, read An Uncommon Soldier, by Lauren Cook Burgess, Oxford University Press, ISBN-0-19-512043-6
My Christmas romance from The Wild Rose Press, The Christmas Ball, is the story of a fictional woman who joined the Union Army in male disguise. But although Sara Brewster is a figment of my imagination, she’s based on the stories I’ve read of the real heroines who fought this war and were up until now, mostly forgotten.
Blurb: While pretending to be a male soldier, farm girl Sara Brewster falls for a handsome Union army surgeon. When her secret is revealed, will a lavish Christmas Eve ball work in her favor–or will her heart be broken?
Kirk Ellison is shocked to discover the assistant he thought of as a boy is a young woman disguised as a man. As his feelings for Sara grow, he must convince her she can fit into his society life, if he’s to make her his own.
The Christmas Ball available from The Wild Rose Press http://www.wildrosepublishing.com/maincatalog_v151/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=176_135&products_id=5026
Barnes and Noble http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-christmas-ball-susan-macatee/1113749511?ean=2940015922417
and All Romance Ebooks https://www.allromanceebooks.com/product-thechristmasball-995347-158.html