The Secret Soldiers Of The Civil War

By Gregory Myers on Friday, March 7, 2014
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“Women are more powerful than they think.” —Louise Burfitt-Dons

In A Nutshell

Despite the fact that women were not allowed to serve in either the Union or Confederate forces as soldiers, many women were involved in actual combat and secretly served alongside their male counterparts. Many of these women conducted themselves with great bravery and only were sent home when an injury in battle gave them away. It is hard to be sure of the exact number as the military never officially acknowledged it at the time, and many hid their secrets successfully throughout their entire army careers.

The Whole Bushel

The American Civil War is one of the most tragic events in United States history. The country practically tore itself apart, and the death toll on both sides was catastrophic. Perhaps then it shouldn’t be too surprising that the women of the time had reasons for wanting to fight in the war just as much as any of the men did. And according to historians, many women did just that and took up arms to fight in the war, both for the Union and the Confederacy. Now, it was very much illegal for a woman to serve in the army by both the rules of both groups, and it would seem with physical examinations that it would be pretty hard to sneak through. However, the circumstances of the time uniquely allowed women to blend right in.

The reason for this was that at the time so many people were dying in the war so quickly that both sides were desperate to increase their size of their respective armies. What this meant for the women who wanted to fight in open combat was that rigorous physical examinations weren’t taking place. This also meant that while the warring factions were usually against taking children, they ended up taking whoever could operate a weapon and run into battle. Many teenagers signed up for war and with all the kids whose voices hadn’t fully changed, it wasn’t particularly hard for a woman to sneak in. The female soldiers would simply cut their hair, hide their breasts, and dress in male clothes.

These brave soldiers didn’t always avoid getting caught though. While historical records show that one woman was able to keep her identity secret all through the war and even earn a military pension, others have not been so lucky. One firsthand account describes a secret female soldier, who for a time was guarding another female soldier who was in jail for sneaking into the army. Also, a teenage girl named Lizzie Compton was determined to fight in the war and, despite being kicked out for being a woman after being wounded in battle, she never gave up. In all the hectic bustle of the Civil War, people weren’t exactly paying close attention, so she just kept joining up with different groups and getting kicked out again. Many women also served as nurses or in other dangerous positions quite openly, but the actual number of female soldiers is hard to quantify. Some historians say the number may be as high as 250, or possibly much higher. Due to the secrecy that was naturally involved, there is obviously no definitive record on the issue.

To make matters even more muddled, the Army spent several decades after the war refusing to even admit that women had served among their ranks. The official line was that there was no record of such events ever taking place, even though it was obvious to the people who had known them that women fought bravely alongside men during the American Civil War.

Show Me The Proof

Smithsonian: The Women Who Fought in the Civil War
Prologue Magazine: Women Soldiers of the Civil War
Washington Post: Women soldiers fought, bled and died in the Civil War, then were forgotten