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Book Review - They Fought Like Demons, Women Soldiers in the Civil War, By DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 5, Number 6

These authors, one a Civil War re-enactor and the other a military archivist, spent ten years researching National Archives records and found documentation to verify that over 250 women fought in the Civil War. Some were wives and mothers, some not; some were discovered, some not; and some even applied for and received pensions for their service. But most were never recognized for their service, until now.

It is hard to believe, at first. Why would women enlist? How did they keep from being discovered? What kind of soldiers were they? Why didn't we know about this before? This book tells it like it was.

The authors' first revelation is that women fought for the same reasons men did--because they were patriotic or because they wanted to be with their brothers, fathers, or husbands. Some joined the army for the money. At a time when a housemaid earned 50 cents per week, the $11 per month private pay was a way out of poverty and dependency. Some women enlisted to get away from a poor home life or the hard physical labor of family farming. More than one young woman gladly exchanged the prospect of life-long drudgery for the risk of being shot at.

They weren't immediately discovered for many reasons. On enlisting, physical exams were required but usually consisted of a hearty handshake and a check to ensure the enlistee had enough teeth to tear a cartridge box. Young women's sizes and voices were comparable to the teenage boys serving in the ranks. So unless they were wounded or gave birth (as sometimes happened) many weren't discovered at all, which is another reason it will not be possible to know how many women actually fought in the Civil War.

This was the Victorian age, and people did not customarily undress, even for bed. Baths were an infrequent occurrence. And, it wasn't unusual for a soldier to seek more privacy and cleanliness in the woods instead of using the communal "sinks" in camp. The ill-fitting "shoddy" uniforms enabled women to hide their shapes, as well as pregnancies until they delivered. This is documented many times, notably in a reprimand from General Rosecrans to a subordinate who allowed his orderly sergeant to have a baby "in violation of all military law and army regulations."

A soldier who suspected his comrade tossed her an apple that she tried to catch with her apron-but of course, the female soldier wasn't wearing one. Some were suspected because of how they put on their shoes or the way they laughed. Once found, the women were discharged for "congenital peculiarities" or "the unmistakable evidence of being a woman." But most were undiscovered for the duration of the war.

What is most surprising is why this hasn't been taught in modern history books. Stories of women soldiers had long been part of military lore. Pulp fiction of the era was filled with titles like Justina the Avenger, The Lady Lieutenant and, Minnie Ball, Vivandiere at Bull Run. In each of these novels, women fought bravely, won the man of their dreams, and went home to be the wives and mothers they really wanted to be in the first place. (To repeat, this was popular fiction.) So why didn't we learn about this in school? Based on contemporary sources, it seems every town newspaper had articles about a local lady who enlisted or returned from the war. Some women published memoirs detailing their experiences. Letters show that several women even met with hometown friends in other camps, but continued to serve as soldiers even though their sex was known.

The fact there were women soldiers was part of the national consciousness it seems, until the Freudian age, when anyone acting in other than customary sexual roles was deemed abnormal or depraved. With few exceptions these women's stories were minimized and eventually forgotten, until now. This book shows that female soldiers did not faint at the sight of blood and they did not swoon in the heat. They endured the same physical hardships as their comrades; they didn't cry when they were tired; and, they fought bravely, and were even promoted. Many died in battle and from disease. "They fought like demons," just like the men did, even if they tried to catch apples with their aprons.

For the first time this book makes the stories of these women soldiers credible by explaining how the truth fell from our national memory. Now that we know that normal, average Victorian women served, don't be surprised to see the limited edition Civil War Barbie in stores in time for next Christmas.