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.