Acknowledging the Unacknowledged of America’s Civil War
By: J. Marlando
Every war has its graves marked “unknown” and certainly this is very true of the Civil War. What is little known, however, is that a large count of unmarked Civil War graves are those of women who fought and died gallantly as soldiers between 1861 and 1865. There were well over 600,000 men and women killed during that long and bitter conflict between the North and South.
While many women joined the war effort to become battlefield nurses and hospital organizers are acknowledged by history very few historians speak of the brave women who fought side by side with male soldiers clad male uniforms. There is even little acknowledgement of women doing dangerous spy work at the time. For example, the spy work daringly accomplished by women like Bella Boyd, Pauling Cushman, Rose Greenhow, and Elizabeth Van Lew has been treated more like mythology than anything else by the press and other reporters. History, however, has been bias against women even until most recent times!
Harriet Tubman is no doubt the most famous black heroin of the Civil War. During the pre-war days there was a $40,000 reward for this brave lady who helped thousands of slaves escape to the north. After the start of the war the Union hired her to be a scout and spy to help plot Confederate troop positions and their supply routes. She risked her life over and over by crossing behind enemy lines to complete her missions.
Among the few known women who fought as males during the war is Sarah Emma Edmonds for the North and Loretta Janeta Velazquez for the South.
Sarah was born in Nova Scotia but fled to the United States at a young age because of a cruel father who resented her for being born a girl. She loved the United States and when war broke out she immediately put on male clothing, did her best to disguise herself a male and joined the Union Army where she remained for many years and eventually became a spy.
Loretta’s husband was already fighting in the war when she decided to join. She enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1861 and fought at Bull Run, Ball’s Bluff and Fort Doneison. Her true gender was discovered in New Orleans, however and she was discharged. She rejoined and fought at Shiloh. We have her picture in and out of her disguise.
Incidentally, back then there were no physical examinations when joining the military and this is why at least 400 (known) women were able to join the war effort as males).
What is not very well known, however, is that the U.S. government also created Army regulations that obliged women to fight in disguise! So there seems to have been a hypocrisy or double standard that is applicable but not understood since some women were rejected from duty as soon as their gender was discovered.
Another heroine of the Civil War is Dr. Mary Walker.
Mary was born in upstate New York, was encouraged along with her sisters to become well educated and eventually went to Syracuse Medical College and graduated with a medical degree in 1855. She went into private practice then and married another doctor, Albert Miller.
As soon as the war broke out she went to Washington and volunteered her services to the Union Army and worked as a nurse in a temporary hospital set up in the capital. Later she went to Virginia where she tended to the wounded and after this she was assigned as a surgeon in an Ohio Regiment. Shortly after this, sometime in 1864, she was captured by the Confederates. Very little is known about her captivity however but it is suspected that she was probably raped along with other devastations. Nevertheless, she was released in trade for a Confederate soldier and became assistant surgeon with the Ohio 52nd infantry.
Mary Walker would become the first woman in history to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, given her for her work during the war.
After the war she became involved in women’s rights and campaigned for women to have a more public and professional role in society. Women clothing also became an issue of the campaigns.
Mary complained that the long, heavy skirts and corsets were not only bad for women’s health but kept women from a great many activities. As a result she made a dress at home and wore it with trousers—a very daring thing to do back then. Nevertheless, other women began to do the same thing but because they became targets of ridicule in public and by newspaper cartoonists, they returned to wearing the fashion of the day. Mary Walker, however, became more rebellious and began dressing fully in male clothing. In fact, she was arrested a few times for impersonating a man.
This no doubt had some influence on government because in 1917 her name was removed from the honor list of awardees and she was asked to return her Congressional medal. She flatly refused and wore it for the rest of her life. Because of her family and others, however, she was reinstated in 1977 and returned to the list of awardees!
History I believe has apparently been unfair and bias when it comes to the achievements and bravado of females. Most certainly, in most instances, they have become lost in the shadows of male heroics and daring. Yet, there is no doubt that women have carried much of human labor and progression on their shoulders that will never be fully known and therefore acknowledged. We can only make sure that this does not occur in our own times.