Thursday, July 14, 2011

She Was A Soldier Too by Diane Wylie

She Was A Soldier Too
By Diane Wylie
Author of Secrets and Sacrifices

"I am a soldier too."

You may remember those poignant words spoken by Jessica Lynch of the U.S. Army's 507th Maintenance Company when her rescuers came to get her from that Iraqi hospital where she was being held prisoner.

While women today can openly enlist in the military, women of our past had no such freedom. Women were able to serve as nurses or camp followers, and, sometimes, as spies. During the U.S. Civil War, women like Belle Boyd and Rose Greenhow became household names due to their daring exploits spying for their chosen armies.

Less known in our history has been the role of a woman as a fighting soldier. What's that you say? There were no women soldiers back then? Not so. Many people don't know about the nineteenth century women who put aside their wide skirts and bonnets, cut their hair, donned trousers and passed themselves off as a man.

How could that happen? Just how would a woman sneak into the army in 1861? I got the answer to that question and many more from a fascinating book called All the Daring of the Soldier-Women of the Civil War Armies by Elizabeth D. Leonard.

First of all, why would a woman enlist in the army, knowing they would be marching off to war? The reasons were many. Like the men, some were called to service by patriotic duty, some to escape their dreary lives, and some to earn a much-needed paycheck. But, unlike the men, some women enlisted to follow their loved one, unable to bear the idea that he should be gone from her side. Bingo! I was hooked by that notion. I had to learn more. As a historical romance novelist, I smelled a great plot idea.

In her book, Leonard claims that "probably somewhere between five hundred and a thousand women, who disguised themselves as men, enlisted as full-fledged soldiers during the Civil War." While Ms. Leonard goes on to cite well-documented cases, complete with names like Deborah Sampson, Sara Edmonds, and Jennie Hodgers, I wanted to know more intimate details.

How could a female enlist in the first place? Wouldn't she be noticed right off, short hair or not? Women are generally smaller in stature, have more highly pitched voices, and are quite beardless. Who would miss that?

To understand how they could enlist, you need to take into consideration mid-nineteenth century military life. So great was the need for recruits on both sides, that a physical examination, if performed at all, was very perfunctory. Sometimes the exam was nothing more than demonstrating the presence of a trigger finger or opening one's mouth to show teeth strong enough to tear open a powder cartridge.

In addition, there were so many young men and boys signing up, some as young as fifteen, that one more smooth-skinned, small boy would not attract undue notice. Because of the way people dressed during that time period, the mentality of the day was, "if it wore pants, it was male."

Okay. Our lady could make it past the enlistment process. What about the physical demands on a soldier of the time? It had to be difficult. The women, just like the raw male recruits had to learn to carry forty to fifty pounds of gear—gun, bayonet, scabbard, ammunition, blanket, canteen, cooking implements, rations, clothing, etc. You can only imagine how many troops had sore muscles, male or female. Since army recruits of the time came from all walks of life, a male clerk struggling to handle his gear would draw no more attention than the young "boy" doing the same.

I still had questions. What about personal hygiene and bodily needs?

Camp life for both Confederate and Union troops, as it turns out, was not terribly restrictive. This would enable a careful woman to take care of her needs by just walking off into the trees and brush, away from prying eyes. In addition, the uniforms of the day were loose fitting to accommodate many different body types…and you normally only received one. Therefore, soldiers of the time rarely changed their clothing. While smelly, another problem for our lady soldier was solved.

Then there was the strictly feminine issue of a young woman's monthly cycle. How did a female soldier deal with that and avoid detection? In her book, Leonard puts forth the argument that many women soldiers probably became lean and athletic from the long arduous marches and simply stopped menstruating. Others might have managed to dispose of the evidence of their menstrual periods by burying it or sneaking it in with the similar-looking cloth from the hospital tents.

With all of these arguments, I became convinced that it could be done…and, in fact, was done. But I had one more question. With all of these ways to escape detection, did the women get caught?

Some were never discovered. Jennie Hodgers, who called herself, "Otto Schaffer," survived the war and lived out the rest of her life as a man. She spent most of her days living as a hermit. The Chicago Times-Herald published the story of "Schaffer," the war veteran's death when a bolt of lightning destroyed "his" cabin. It was the coroner who discovered the old soldier's secret, and "his" identity as a woman was revealed at last.

Other female soldiers were discovered sooner. Some upon being wounded during battle, the most obvious end to her military career. In some cases, however, a female soldier gave herself away by an inadvertent act. One lady aroused suspicion by her "unmasculine manner of putting on her shoes and stockings." Another gave herself away because her table manners were too good!

So ardent were some female soldiers in their desire to remain in the army that some, upon being put out of one regiment, would assume a new name and reenlist in another.

I was fascinated! Now I wanted to create a strong, passionate female character who would enlist in the Confederate army. Thus, Charlotte "Charlie" Garrett was born in my imagination. She would follow her husband to war, and learn to spit, burp, and shoot like a man.

While writing Secrets and Sacrifices, published by Vinspire Publishing, I thoroughly enjoyed the research I needed to bring Charlie and her friends to life. She is my fictional tribute to the brave ladies who fought so many years ago, and to those who continue to do so today.

Leonard, Elizabeth D. All the Daring of the Soldier-Women of the Civil War Armies, New York, NY, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1999.

Links to purchase Secrets and Sacrifices:


Barnes and Noble


Vinspire Publishing


For more information you can visit Diane Wylie's website at http://www.dianewylie.com/.


Tina Donahue said...

What a wonderful idea for a book, Diane. Congrats! May you have many happy sales. :)

Sarah J. McNeal said...

As always, it is so interesting to read your blogs and this knowledgable account of women soldiers in the Civil War. What brave women. They sure went through hell to walk into danger.
I loved the part where the female soldier gave herself away because her table manners were too good. Good one, Diane.
I love your novels. Your in depth knowledge of the Civil War makes the reader feel like they were there.
All the best to you, Diane.

Fiona McGier said...

Wow, this would be real news to those who insist that women have no place in the armed forces, or that they are "too weak" to handle that kind of life, and that it has never been done before. Never mind the ample modern evidence to the contrary, some still persist in assigning second-class citizenship to females, for whatever reasons of their own. Biology is not destiny. Your research proves it! Thanks for sharing.

Diane Wylie said...

Thanks for dropping by to comment, ladies. You are right, Fiona, men tend to think women can't handle it when the going gets tough, especially the male of the mid-1800s! We women have had to face lots of hardships, both physical and mental...and we've proved we are up to the task. I like to portray strong women in my stories and really had a good time with "Charlie."


Dorothy Muir said...

Diane, I am so happy to see someone else writing about this. I have a work in progress (actually titled She Was a Soldier)about a woman soldier who is discovered at the battle of Gettysburg. Great blog, great research! I can't wait to read Secrets and Sacrifices...

jean hart stewart said...

Great blog, learned a lot. Thanks, Jean

Brenda J Weaver said...

That was great Diane! You are so full of fascinating details about the civil war...when its my turn to do my civil war novel I am certainly going to be bugging you for some info :)
You are the best :)

Janice said...

Great idea for a story. I wish you many sales.

My grandmother and cousin Ann were both above average in height, just shy of six feet. They both had to work like a man to help their families out on the farm. I could see either one of them dressing like a man and enlisting.


Marie Higgins said...

Diane, what a great blog. So much great information! Thanks sweetie. I wrote a story where the heroine pretends to be a man, but only because she couldn't be a doctor any other way. But reading this blog made me happy to know they did it for their country as well. (grins) Thanks for sharing!


Diane M. Wylie said...

Hi, Dorothy, its great to hear from a fellow Civil War author. I love that time period and will choose a historical romance set during that war over any other!

Brenda, let me know when your Civil War story comes out. I'll be the first in line to get it!

Having strong females in your family history is just terrific, Janice! Great role models.

Hi, Marie. Thanks for commenting. Another little known fact is that there was a college for women doctors back then. Back in my *ahem* younger days, I worked for the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania, located in Philadelphia. They began training female doctors in 1850! This little fact stuck in my head all these years and my heroine in JENNY'S PASSION sets her sights on signing up there.

As an author, you never know what tidbit of info will come in handy someday! LOL!

Sharon Buchbinder said...

Great post, Diane. I am fascinated by strong women who defy the roles society dictates to them.

Women enlisted in the Revolutionary War, as well (Deborah Sampson) and helped forge our nation on battlefields and home hearths.

Thank you for highlighting this important area of American Women's History.

I wish you many happy sales!