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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Clothes Make the Man - Or Woman!



Motivations for dressing as a man varied. In some cases, women in love desperately wished to join husbands or sweethearts on the battlefield. One can only wonder how many of these couples succumbed to desire and rose eyebrows in the process. In others, becoming a man offered a woman the chance to fight for a cause, either on the battlefield or as a spy.

One of the most notorious cross-dressing spies was Sarah Emma Edmonds, known as Private Franklin Thompson, Union Army nurse turned spy. As a girl, the Canadian-born tomboy craved adventure and could outshoot boys her age. When her father’s attempt to force her into marriage with a local farmer drove her to run away, Sarah worked as a milliner before assuming the identity, Franklin Thompson, traveling Bible salesman.

When war broke out, Sarah/Franklin rushed to enlist. Serving as a male nurse, Private Thompson served in the First Battle of Bull Run and distinguished herself with dedication and competence. Recruited for the newly created Secret Service, she maintained her male persona and crossed Confederate lines to gather information. Taking her deception further, she disguised herself as an African American man to glean intelligence. She used silver nitrate to dye her skin, shaved her head, donned old, worn clothing like that of a plantation slave, and called herself “Cuff”. Working alongside African American men working to build Confederate fortifications, she employed her keen memory and some well-implemented bribery to glean information for the Union. In another instance, Sarah/Franklin donned the clothes of a captured Confederate soldier to move through enemy lines.

In a strange twist, Sarah’s Franklin alter-ego disguised himself as a woman on at least two occasions. Pretending to be an Irish peddler named Bridget O’Shea, she planned to infiltrate the army by becoming a camp follower selling pies and cakes. In another instance of “Franklin” donning a disguise as a woman, he dressed as an African-American laundress working for Confederate officers.

Sarah Edmonds’ story has been recorded in far more detail than many other women who fought in the Civil War in the guise of a man. Women such as Mary Livermore, Mary Owens, and Albert D.J. Cashier (born Jennie Hodgers) joined the war effort in the guise of a man and served their cause. In some cases, female soldiers died from wounds or disease. In others, they lived to old age, raised families, and wrote memoirs. Sadly, the United States Army did not recognize female soldiers and tried to ignore their contributions for decades after the Civil War ended. Fortunately for all of us, accounts of their daring masquerades survived despite the Army’s attempt to pretend they didn’t exist.

Regardless of their motivations and which side of the conflict they were on, the women who disguised themselves as men to become a part of Civil War battles and espionage risked their lives and became a part of history. What fascinating stories they must have had to tell.


12 comments:

Victoria Gray said...

Thanks to those who left comments earlier. Unfortunately, I somehow deleted the post and the comments - guess I'm not as tech savvy as I thought. Sorry! Please repost if you get a chance.

I am in awe of the women who went to such lengths to fight for their cause. Talk about commitment!

Kathryn Albright said...

Victoria - great post! Just fascinating--especially how they dressed as men and then spied as a woman. I would get so confused! I hate the fact that men deemed it unnecessary to record women's contributions so much of the time. How arrogant! Guess that's why it's called "history" rather than "herstory." LOL. But it is sad we have lost so much of how women shaped the present state of our world. They have been instrumental in so many instances. Thanks for a great post!

Victoria Gray said...

Kathryn,
I couldn't agree more. We'd have a much greater understanding of our culture if the contributions of women throughout the centuries had been recognized and recorded.

Nicole North said...

Wow that's interesting! Thanks for sharing!

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

What a great post. Women have served in the military for eons, though, as with these ladies, their contributions have gone mostly unrecognized.

misskallie2000 said...

Victoria, All I can say is WOW, This is awesome. I never realized there were women in the civil war. They had to be great at disquises to pull this off. Like how did they hid their monthly period? or go to the bath room with men around? This is really awesome and I would love to read more.

misskallie2000 at yahoo dot com

Virginia said...

Great post, very interesting! I can see some women doing this!

lead[at]hotsheet[dot]com

Victoria Gray said...

It does make you wonder how they concealed things we seldom give much thought to, such as going to the bathroom. They certainly had guts and convictions!

Carol L. said...

I love History but this is the first I heard of this. Amazing and interesting post. So many women throughout History were never given the credit they deserved. Thankyou for sharing .
Carol L.
Lucky4750@aol.com

Brandy said...

My daughter will love this story... she is very much the tomboy but atleast now there are more opportunities for women!!!

Viagra Online said...

Sarah Emma Edmonds , was a Canadian-born woman who is known for serving with the Army during the American Civil War. the story of her is wonderful, I think that the value of her life was so important!

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She is an icon in Canada. The first time I read he biography I stayed shocked, because it's difficult to see a woman like her, she has a lot of nerve.