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they fought like demons

16 October 2003

In They Fought Like Demons, DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook recount the story of a Union soldier named Alfred Galpin who became convinced that a certain Jacob Thurston in his unit was a woman. (Thurston wasn't.) This is one of the odder anecdotes to come out of the Civil War. As the authors point out, however, Galpin was mistaken but not delusional. There were hundreds of women in Civil War infantry units, passing as men. Like all soldiers, Galpin had heard of these cross-dressing warriors, and it wasn't a stretch to believe he'd caught one.

Blanton and Cook document at least 250 cases of women serving in the Union and Confederate ranks. Some did messenger duties, some were musicians. Some were nurses; in an age when most military nurses were male, women had to impersonate men to get jobs that would later be stereotyped as women's work. The majority of women soldiers served as line infantry, however. They messed and marched and fought alongside men. They were not overmatched by their tasks; as the authors observe, the infantryman's "average load of weapons, ammunition, and supplies was thirty pounds, or the weight of a small child."

Many women serving in the army were not unmasked until they were wounded, captured, or killed, leading the authors to infer that hundreds more women simply passed for men unscathed and undiscovered till the end of the conflict. Some were passing as men before the war and simply carried that role into combat. One of the most fully documented cases is that of Albert Cashier, born as the Irishwoman Jennie Hodgers. Hodgers became the man Cashier before the war and lived as Cashier for a long time afterwards. In his old age, Cashier was institutionalized. His sex was revealed, and he was forced to wear a dress; in a cruel irony, he broke his hip in a 1914 fall caused by the unfamiliar clothing.

A motif throughout They Fought Like Demons is that of the woman soldier betrayed by pregnancy. Often the revelation of her sex did not come till her baby was born. This would be an exceedingly odd story if it happened only once, but Blanton and Cook cite several examples. Many women enlisted under assumed identities in order to follow husbands or lovers into the service, and these pregnancies were a natural result of such devotion.

With such twists, the story of women Civil War soldiers takes on mythic aspects. The fame of women soldiers was widespread during the war itself. Some proto-Corporal-Klingers took advantage of the dynamic to come out as women and get sent home even though they were actually men. I suppose the ultimate example of such tactical dressing is the legend of Jefferson Davis trying to escape from Union troops by wearing female clothes. Cross-dressing was deeply woven into contemporary accounts and representations of the war.

And then, such stories were lost to history. Though there were mid-19th-century novels and memoirs (notably Nurse and Spy by Sarah Emma Edmonds, 1864) about women soldiers, a historiographical essay by Blanton and Cook shows that early 20th-century historians lost sight of women fighters altogether. Dismissed from the popular imagination, these women soldiers barely survived as footnotes until recovered by feminist historians.

Blanton, DeAnne, and Lauren M. Cook. They Fought Like Demons. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2002.