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A Woman's Experience in the American Civil War
Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, (alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman), was a young, five-foot tall farm girl from central New York. In early August 1862, Rosetta disguised herself as a man, left home, and signed on as a boatman on the Chenango Canal. There, she crossed paths with several enlisted Union troops and made the decision to enlist in the army.
Rosetta did not survive the war, but she did leave behind an unusual record of her military service in the form of letters written to her family. Rosetta's rare collection of letters were kept secret for over a century by family members who thought her adventures in male clothing were a bit strange. Her letters “represent the only unvarnished, contemporary account of a woman’s experiences as a soldier during the Civil War” (Burgess 9).
Private Wakeman was not alone in her exploits. Hundreds of women, from both North and South, donned male garb and enlisted as men in the American Civil War. They shaved their heads, wore trousers, adopted male aliases, and served in the army undetected by their male comrades. Their motives varied as much as their backgrounds and hometowns. They enrolled to spend time with a husband or loved one, or for the excitement and romance of traveling to distant places. Some women signed up to earn bounties, while others enlisted out of patriotism, to serve their country and causes.
How Women Enlisted in the American Civil War
In her post-war memoirs, Mary Livermore of the U.S. Sanitary Commission wrote that “the number of women soldiers known to the service . . . [is] little less than four hundred,” although she herself was convinced that “a larger number of women disguised themselves and enlisted in the service, for one cause or other, than was ever dreamed of” (Burgess 2). If army officials and most historians took no notice of the contributions made by these women in the ranks, the popular press did, and many accounts of Civil War women soldiers that survive today come from newspapers of the period.
How Did So Many Women Pull Off Such an Incredible Deception?
Army recruitment examinations during the Civil War were not very rigorous, often limited to nothing more than a handshake. A recruit might only have to demonstrate that he had a working trigger finger and that his teeth were strong enough to open up a ball cartridge in order to pass.
Army life in the 1860s was vastly different from what it is today. The soldiers were led by volunteer officers whose understanding of military life was no greater than that of their subordinates.
The majority of the living and sleeping quarters were outside. Most soldiers were allowed the freedom to wash and care for their personal hygiene apart from their comrades. Victorian standards of modesty ensured that “shy” soldiers were seldom questioned.
Gender identity in the Victorian era was more strongly related to clothing and other external features than bodily traits; thus, there was a broad acceptance of people based on superficial appearances. Women’s hairstyles were long and swept up into elaborate arrangements, and long hoop skirts were the typical attire of the day. In 1861, a woman wearing pants was extremely rare to see. As a result, if “it” wore pants, most people of the period would assume the person was a man.
Assimilation was facilitated by the presence of pre-adolescent males. The large number of young beardless boys whose voices had not changed allowed women to go unnoticed in both the Confederate and Union forces.
However, women troops were regularly discovered while receiving medical treatment for wounds or illnesses. In rare circumstances, the woman's death on the battlefield or capture by the enemy revealed her gender.
The Story of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman
Rosetta was the eldest child of Harvey and Emily Wakeman. She had eight younger siblings, seven sisters and two brothers. Her father had incurred a large debt that instilled in Rosetta a sense of family obligation. Any labor she did on the farm would have been inconsequential in repaying Harvey Wakeman"s debt, and any domestic job she could have found would not have paid enough to support her family. Rosetta likely recognized that dressing and behaving like a man was one of her last options for getting a respectable job that paid enough to help her burdened family. She wrote home that “I knew that I could help you more to leave home than to stay there with you” (Burgess 9).
She had other home issues which may have influenced her decision to leave the farm. Her relationships with some family members seemed to be strained. “I want to drop all old affray and I want you to do the same, and when I come home we will be good friends as ever,” she wrote in her first letter home.
Even so, after Rosetta left home, her mother received regular assurances from Rosetta that her feelings for her family were as strong as ever, which was demonstrated by the large sums of money and presents she sent back to her mother's house. In her letters Rosetta had a lot of questions for her father regarding his agricultural endeavors, land purchases, and other economic ventures. Rosetta's high degree of interest in her father's farming, her understanding of the specifics of the family farm, and her desire to run her own farm after the war are all indications that she worked as a farmhand for her father before the war.
Rosetta Enlists in the Infantry
Rosetta enrolled in the 153rd Infantry Regiment as “Lyons” Wakeman on August 30, 1862, giving a false age of 21 years old. The regimental description roll describes her as a "boatman" with brown hair and blue eyes. Rosetta's letters cover a two-year period. They detail army life in Washington D.C.'s bulwark, as well as her participation in the 1864 Louisiana Red River campaign.
While stationed in Washington D.C., the 153rd regiment guarded the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad terminal, patrolled the city, transported troops to the front and prisoners to the prisoner of war camp at Point Lookout, Maryland. They guarded the "contraband," or ex-slave refugee camp, as well as the central guard house and Carroll and Old Capitol Prisons.
The 153rd was sent to the field in late February 1864 to take part in the ill-fated Red River Campaign in Louisiana. Bad water, bad food, and over 700 miles of hard marching and combat in the hot, humid Louisiana swampland and hill country unleashed hell on unacclimated men like the 153rd, who were reported by one veteran to sicken and die by the thousands (Burgess 12). When Private Wakeman did eventually come face to face with the enemy on the battlefield, the 153rd is reported as halting Confederate forces in an initial encounter. A second battle was fought at Monett’s Bluff further down on the Red River.
With the campaign nearing its conclusion, Rosetta developed chronic diarrhea, as did a large number of her fellow soldiers who had been reassigned from light garrison duty to active campaigning in a hostile climate. She died on June 19, 1864, following a month in a New Orleans hospital.
Impact of the Civil War on Women's Suffrage
According to Clara Barton, in the course of the four-year conflict women's social status advanced fifty years. In 1881, women leaders of the suffrage movement, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Matilda Gage, published a history of woman suffrage manifesto called History of Woman Suffrage, which stated that the frontline service of women demonstrated that they should be granted the same rights as the males who served in the military. During the Civil War, the nation began to see that its citizens were capable of doing more, and that fueled a new movement for equality that wasn't simply about race, but gender as well.
Further Information on Women in the Civil War
Lauren Cook Burgess.1994. An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864. The MINERVA Center: Pasadena, MD.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Trudy Last (author) from Massachusetts on August 10, 2021:
Thanks for your kind response!
Viet Doan from Big Island, Hawaii on August 09, 2021:
Thanks Trudy for sharing this fascinating historic fact that they didn't teach us at school. Great research and article!