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Women on the Civil War Battlefront


by Richard H. Hall. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas,
2006, x, 395 pp.

A review by Jo Freeman published in The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Vol. 104, No. 2, Spring 2006, pp. 324-325.

The debate of the last twenty years over whether or not women should be allowed in combat would have benefitted from a through read of Women on the Civil War Battlefront. Richard Hall demonstrates convincingly that women did everything men did in that War, and in greater numbers than heretofore thought possible. He concludes that at least several hundred and possibly several thousand women faced the dangers, the hardships and the privations that the civil war brought to this country not just as civilians but as part of the military on both sides. Some disguised themselves as men, and some served openly as women. Many shifted between the two. It took him years of historical detective work to identify and verify their stories. He credits digitized databases and the internet for making available much information that was heretofore hidden.

Who were these women? Most of them were very young, girls who could pass as beardless boys. Some were older and some were, as he put it, “husky.” Most came with a male relative: husband, sweetheart, or brother. Some enlisted on their own, or with another female. Although their personal histories are sparse, Hall says they came “from across the economic and social spectrum, ranging from poor and sometimes illiterate young girls to highly-educated upper-class women.” (1) Once “colored” units were organized, African-American women also joined. At least one light-skinned woman managed to double pass as a white man (204). These women’s motivations, in so far as they can be ascertained, included pure patriotism, the desire to stay near a loved one or to escape a bad family relationship, a longing for excitement, and sometimes to avenge the death of a family member.

The most intriguing are those who disguised themselves as men and “used guile and resolute determination to join the army.... They cut their hair short, wore loose-fitting clothes, practiced male mannerisms .... and if found out, often turned right around and tried again in a different regiment.” (120) While the number of girls and women who tried to enlist will never be known, the records are full of those who failed their medical screening or were otherwise discovered before seeing any serious service. By the middle of the war it became easier to join. Because recruits were needed to fill the thinning ranks, Army doctors only examined their eyes and limbs. At least a few hundred women served in either army for significant periods of time. They were found out when death, disease, or injury resulted in removal of their clothes. The sex of some was discovered when they gave birth (!); others only years later when they told their stories to newspapers or wrote memoirs. Women who completed an enlistment demanded and received pensions for their service.

Public reaction to these women was mixed. Some were admired as “bold and daring.” Some were scorned as prostitutes or spies, or mentally disturbed. But the male soldiers who lived and served with them for a period of time consistently praised their fortitude and bravery. By the end of the war many women who had served well were deliberately shielded by either the ranks or officers when discovered – they were too valuable to lose. Quite a few rose through the ranks to become officers, even in the Confederacy.

The circumstances in which they served made their deception possible. It was quite common to remain clothed day and night for weeks at a time. Those who wanted to bathe would find a stream in the woods. Those who joined up with a family member had help in maintaining the deceit. There were plenty of jobs for the slight of build, as drummer boys, buglers and orderlies for officers. When their disguise failed, some were sent away, but others were given jobs as nurses, couriers or spies.

Hall writes engagingly about other women who put themselves in harm’s way as well as the soldiers. Nurses treated the wounded while battles raged around them. Initially discouraged from tending the bodies of men, women changed the nursing profession by the end of the war. Some succeeded in being accepted as physicians and surgeons. Women spied for both sides, as soldiers dressed as men and as civilians dressed as women. Some were thrown into jail. Women were also smugglers, bringing medical supplies, ammunition and other scarce items through the lines hidden in hoop skirts and embedded in petticoats. Others were scouts, riding out surreptitiously to find and deliver news of troop movements to eager generals.

This book is the result of meticulous research. Hall is careful to tell the reader when stories can’t be checked against known facts, assess those which might be true, and discount those which cannot be supported with at least some verifiable facts. By the end of the book whether or not women can handle combat is no longer an issue. They did; they can, and someday they will be allowed to serve in all service capacities not in disguise, but as women.