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Why Did Women Fight in the Civil War?

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 1, Number 8

Why does anyone volunteer to fight in a war, especially someone who would not otherwise be called upon? There are approximately 400 documented cases of women who served in the ranks, both North and South. But, why did these women fight?

The ladies may have "had their reasons," but for the most part, we have no documentation to tell us why. There was John Williams, also known as Sarah Blaylock, who states only that she was mustered in as a private and discharged one month later when she was discovered to be a woman. Why did she enlist to fight?

Charles Freeman, or Mary Scaberry, enlisted in the summer of 1862. Her identity was discovered after she was admitted to the hospital the following November. Her discharge papers state she was dismissed for: "Sex(t)ual incompatibility and fever." Why did she fight?

Sarah Edmonds enlisted as Franklin Thompson and describes her physical exam as "a firm handshake." She participated in several battles and left the service when she caught malaria and feared discovery if she were treated. After the war she married, raised three children, and received a government pension for her Civil War service. Why did she fight?

The most telling story is that of another fighting lady, Rosetta (Lyons) Wakeman. She was the oldest child in a large family, and by necessity worked under brutal conditions on the family farm in upstate New York. She left home at 19, and instead of taking a job as a laundress or a domestic for pennies a day, she dressed as a man and hired onto a canal boat as a coal handler. When she learned she could earn $13 per month in the army, she enlisted as a private in the 153rd New York State Volunteers.

Her early letters home tell just how oppressed she felt there. Still, she saved her army pay and sent home large sums of money and generous gifts. In return she asked the home folks for tobacco, apples, pies, and cakes. In the army she enjoyed freedoms not possible to her as a woman. And, she was having the time of her life. She writes, "I enjoy myself first rate ... I have had plenty of money to spend and a good time asoldiering. I find just as good friends among strangers as I do at home." Her true identity was never discovered, not even when she visited male friends in other regiments who knew her from home, or even when she was hospitalized with dysentery. When she died in a New Orleans Army hospital, she was buried as a soldier. She rests at Chalmette National Cemetery with a soldier's headstone.

We might assume that women soldiers in the Civil War fought for the same reasons as men--patriotism, adventure, to rid the country of slavery. But we know exactly why Rosetta Wakeman fought. She fought to gain her own freedom. Only as a soldier was she able to live as free and "independent as a hog on the ice."