Women soldiers were not a secret during the Civil War. Men wrote letters home about the women discovered in their ranks, most often with surprise and admiration, and newspapers also carried the stories.
The knowledge naturally worked its way up to the highest level of both armies, with evidence that Sherman, Sheridan, Burnside, Forrest and Lee were aware of what was going on and in some cases condoned it.
A good part of that acceptance was due to the widely popular motif of the Female Warrior Bold: a “cultural icon of a patriotic or love-struck heroine” who goes to war, according to DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook in “They Fought Like Demons.” Wartime novelettes, serialized stories and ballads publicly promoted the concept of women going to war as men.
Throughout the war and especially toward the end, when the Confederacy was in desperate need of soldiers, some women served openly. And a few did in the Union army as well, mostly in the West:
Frontier and Midwestern regiments seemed more open to women serving undisguised in the ranks, perhaps because Victorian notions of women’s proper place were not as firmly entrenched in the rough West as they were in the refined East.
At least one man pretended to be a woman to get out of the army—twice. Charlie Anderson took advantage of his feminine appearance and the fact that everyone knew there were women in the army to “reveal” himself to be a woman in disguise so he would be dismissed. He used the ruse to take leave whenever he wanted.
So why is the subject of women soldiers in the Civil War so novel now? Because of a strange blend of chauvinism and feminism—and some radical changes in society.
According to Blanton and Cook, separate spheres of influence for men and women were so entrenched in 19th century America that wartime exceptions to the rule did not threaten cultural norms. Furthermore, until World War I, women soldiers fit a romantic and heroic archetype.
However, women could vote beginning in 1920, and they were gradually playing a greater role in the civilian workforce—and the military during World War II. A backlash was inevitable, Blanton and Cook wrote.
Beginning in the 1930s, European sexologists, especially Sigmund Freud, popularized theories that independent women were generally insane and likely to be lesbians—or whores or all of the above. It was a way to control female behavior that threatened societal norms. In that climate, stories about armed and capable women soldiers were destabilizing in the extreme.
By the 1960s, women soldiers had virtually disappeared from Civil War studies. Even women authors disparaged or dismissed them, largely because some feminists did not believe women had that kind of power back then. They viewed the accounts as wishful thinking.
Furthermore, the improved legal and economic landscape for women in the mid-20th century obscured the dismal state of opportunities for women in the 19th century. It was hard for people to understand earlier women’s willingness to go to such lengths to expand their employment options and enjoy greater personal freedom.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s that mainstream Civil War historians began taking a long-overdue look at the role and contributions of women soldiers. I am grateful for that. Blanton and Cook have opened my eyes to a fascinating phenomenon and broadened my understanding of women’s lives in the 19th century. My fiction will never be the same.