Like all wars, the American Civil Waris perceived as a man’s world. However, women, disguised as male soldiers, fought alongside men completely underminingcontemporary ideas of the ‘true woman’ and proving there is space for women in male dominated war.But what legacy did they actually leave?
At a time when women were thought of as weak but pure and moral, war was too corrupting and violent. In fact it was illegal for women to fight in the Civil War. Of course, women were involved but in typically female roles like sacrificial mothers who maintained the homestead. Even extremely dangerous nurse jobs were still seen as largely feminine.
However, despitelegal and social restrictions,an estimated four hundred plus women did fight. Given their obvious secrecy,there could be hundreds more unknown cases. This phenomena was not unique to the Civil War either – there is evidence that women donned male clothes to fight in the American Revolutionary War too.
Although itseems incredible that women could pass as men; sometimes for years,physical examinations on both sides were pitifully simple. As long as you were abled bodied with a good set of teeth, you qualified. Neither side had an established and enforced minimum age for enlisting. It is less surprising then that women across America could take active part in this war.
There is also a case to be made for respect amongst male soldiers. Initially, women had to dupe officers into believing their masculinity; however, there are many cases of senior officers who turned a blind eye when they discovered women soldiers.
Why women decided to join up is a more open-ended question. For many it was the same reasons as men: patriotism, a sense of adventure, glory-seeking, to earn money or a vehement belief in the cause. Some used war as a means of escaping an unsatisfying home life. Yet others followed their husbands or brothers in the conflict, perhapsa more overtly feminine reason.
Most were young and accustomed to physical labour. They were predominantly from poor farming families, the exact same profile of male volunteers. These women universally proved they could contend with their male counterparts, whatever reason brought them to the battle field.
Malinda Blalock, later to become Samuel Blalock is one such non-conforming woman. In 1862 she joined the Confederate’s 26th North Carolina Regiment following her husband Keith. Incidentally Keith was unaware of his wife’s activities until he met a mysterious but familiar young boy shortly after he joined up. Malinda then posed as Keith’s 20 year old brother.
Intending to desert to the Union Army,they fought until Malinda was shot in the left shoulder. Naturally, injury led to detection for many women soldiers and Malinda was not an exception. After feigning measles, Keithwas discharged around the same time and they returned home together;Malinda having to relinquish her $50 joining up reward.
However, her war exploits didn’t end there. The couple soon ran away and, after other incidents, eventually joined a Union guerrilla group maintainingan underground rail road assisting escapees from Confederate prison.
The final chapter of their violent adventures saw them become marauders.Malinda suffered another shoulder injury, while Keith murdered his uncle and lost an eye.Together they gained a reputation throughout North Carolina.
Another particularly interesting case was that of Jennie Hodgers, or ‘Albert Cashier’.She enlisted in the 95th Illinois infantry in 1862. Whilst in service she is described as being relatively withdrawn, like most women soldiers who feared drawing attention. Yet she was considered a good soldier across her three year enlistment. In one account Cashiersupposedly escaped capture by overpowering a prison guard.
What is especially interesting about Cashier’s case, however, is her persistence in cross-dressing for around fifty years afterarmistice. Masquerading,she enjoyed the rights of a man in an intensely patriarchal society;holding many jobs from farmhand to street lamplighter, collecting veterans’ pension and even voting.
In fact, it wasn’t until she was admitted to mental hospital that Hodgers’ secret was discovered. Despite attendants controversially forcing her to wear a dress, on 10th December 1915Hodgers was buried as Cashier in full military uniform with her military service and male name inscribed on her tombstone.
However, what is the legacy of these brave women? Although they completely refuted nineteenth-century gender roles, their secrecy somewhat limits the impact they could have had on contemporary gender perceptions, and therefore on gender history. By becoming almost invisiblecan they still be revered as fighters of gender equality as well as military soldiers?