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Old women talk about old things: history, myth, magic and their
checkered pasts, about what changes and what does not.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A 19th-Century Female Soldier

In my Promise & Honor Civil War trilogy, I included a female soldier in the cast of characters. Over 400 women are known to have served during the war, but it's anyone's guess how many went unrecorded. While researching my first nonfiction title, A Fate Worse than Death, I came across a fascinating article about a female soldier. Very few have read her story since the 19th century. Unfortunately, I can't even tell you her name because the reporter in the 1863 Missouri Democrat article withheld it to retain her privacy. He described her in typical Victorian style, "... large lustrous dark eye... ruddy and fresh looking..." But from there on out, he let her tell her own story.
Even before the American Civil War, her story was far from mundane. She lost her parents at a fairly young age, and at fourteen she was married to a member of a minstrel troupe. Widowed after eighteen months of marriage, she was supported by her two brothers. Then, the war broke out, and both of her brothers enlisted.
Not knowing what to do with herself, she grew restless. She traveled to Baltimore to be near her brothers and became a nurse, caring for the sick and wounded. Before long, she got tired of being on the receiving end of "insults and ungrateful returns" from some of the recovered soldiers. An idea came to her, and she asked her brothers' permission to "dress in male attire and join their regiment."
Her younger brother brought her to some "rough places" for her to learn how to act more like a man. No one noticed, and she enlisted as the major's orderly. Shortly after, the regiment was sent to New Orleans. Her younger brother was wounded in a skirmish and later died. She had no time for grief. In the second assault on Baton Rouge, she received a "severe sabre cut on the right arm. A ball grazed one of the lower limbs, and a number passed through my clothes."
As a result, the inevitable happened. The major of the regiment discovered her gender. During the war, if a female soldier was discovered after she had proven herself in battle, she was often allowed to stay. So it was for this woman.
For the most part, she lived as any other soldier, doing her job as best as she could. Another man learned her identity and attacked her in a "out of the way place." Her would-be rapist failed to realize that a female soldier could defend herself. She shot him. "I meant to disable his arm, but he stooped... the ball entered his face and found its way under his skull-cap." Instead of being angry at him, she tended him until he was out of danger. He sent her a written apology "in such a manner that I forgave him."
Although the article is unclear as to how long she remained in the regiment, she continued working for the major until he resigned. When she went home on furlough to Michigan, she had every intention of returning to her brother. Unfortunately before she could get back, he died from a fever.
Alone and uncertain what to do with herself, she had a few non-military adventures before enlisting once again. In a familiar job as a major's orderly in Rolla, Missouri, she met a young officer from Iowa where she fell "desperately in love." He had no clue of her true identity until she finally told him. "The result was that we engaged to be married this fall."
I salute this 19th-century soldier, and truly hope that she lived a long and happy life with her Iowa officer.

"Genuine Romance in Real Life," Missouri Democrat, September 1, 1863.

Kim Murphy

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