I went looking for some of the source material for “They Fought Like Demons” and found “An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman,” edited by Lauren Cook.
It is rare to come across an account written in an everyday woman’s voice—not a published book or a diary written by an upper-class woman with an eye on posterity, but honest, unassuming letters written for family back home. They offer valuable insight into real life.
Rosetta Wakeman left home at 19 and pretended to be a man to get a job on a coal barge on the Chenango Canal. Soon after, she joined the 153rd Regiment of the New York State Volunteers for a bounty of $152—more than a year’s wages. She stayed in touch with her family throughout the war. Only her letters to them, and not their replies, survived.
She spent most of her time on guard duty in and around Washington, D.C. When stationed on Capitol Hill, she writes that she can get all kinds of fruit, including watermelon, musk melon, peaches, pears, apples, figs and raisins. She asks her family to send her butter and pies (she doesn’t care for cider or wine). I can’t imagine how they would manage that in the days before refrigerated trucks. She says to send the food by express, which doesn’t clear it up for me.
She served two years of her three-year enlistment before dying of chronic diarrhea in New Orleans in 1864. Despite her increasingly debilitating illness, there is no record that the nurses or doctors discovered her secret. When she died, she was given a soldier’s burial.
For more than a century, her family kept her letters, photo and a silver ring she sent to her mother (it cost 75 cents) in a pine trunk in the attic. Though her family did not talk of her often, they did not disown her, and in the early 1990s, one of her descendants contacted Lauren Cook because they wanted to share Rosetta’s story.
Although she often wrote of her longing for home, toward the end Rosetta also talked about re-enlisting because she found that soldiering suited her.
I don’t care anything about coming home for I [am] ashamed to come, and I sometimes think that I never will go home in the world. I have enjoyed myself the best since I have been gone away from home than I ever did before in my life.
My favorite line is from an earlier letter, where she talks about not fearing whatever fate awaits her because:
I am as independent as a hog on the ice.
I don’t believe she wanted to be a man so much as she wanted to be herself. And sometimes, home is the last place you can do that.