Commentary Historic America

Did Women Fight in the Civil War?

Yes! Hundreds of women donned blue or gray uniforms to fight alongside men.

The indie film Finding Josephine (2019) purportedly follows the true story of Josephine Robison, who disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the Confederate Army to find her husband. Although I couldn’t find any evidence the real Josephine Robison did this, hundreds of women during the American Civil War (1861-1865) actually did.

When the Civil War broke out between the North and South in 1861, women didn’t just sit on the sidelines. It’s estimated between 2.75 and 3 million men served in combat in Union and Confederate armies and navies during the war, which meant women were needed to tend farms, work in textile industries, sew flags and uniforms, and fill roles traditionally filled by men in that era. Thousands worked as nurses, and many others as spies. Some, like Rose O’Neal Greenhow, gave their lives for their cause. Still others served a more unsavory role as camp followers and prostitutes.

While impossible to know for certain, it’s estimated somewhere between 400 and 750 women disguised themselves to enlist in Union and Confederate armies. Some were quickly discovered and discharged for “sexual incompatibility.” Others were discovered when they became pregnant. But still others served their entire enlistment, fought in battles, and even died in the line of duty.

An Irish immigrant, Jennie Hodgers, aka “Albert D. J. Cashier“, lived her entire adult life as a man. She served in the 95th Illinois Regiment, fought in 40 battles and skirmishes, and her true sex wasn’t discovered until 1913.

A Union burial detail was shocked to discover one Confederate soldier, who died in Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, was a woman. Nurse Clara Barton discovered Union soldier Mary Galloway’s true identity while treating a wound Galloway received during the Battle of Antietam. Hundreds of similar stories attest to the presence of women in uniform during the Civil War.

According to historian Anya Jabour, “Fully 15 percent of women soldiers sustained battle wounds; 18 percent were taken prisoner of war; and 11 percent died while serving. Overall, women soldiers had a combined casualty rate of 44 percent, compared to 30 percent for their male counterparts.”

The sensational nature of women clandestinely serving in combat at a time when they were barred from military service means it’s temping to overstate the case. Even taking the most generous estimate of 750 female soldiers, that represents less than one tenth of one percent of all Civil War soldiers. Far more African American men joined (or were impressed into) Civil War armies. In 1888, for example, Mississippi granted 1,739 pensions to African Americans who served in the Confederate Army in noncombat roles.

In my opinion, the more historical nuance in film the better. I love learning about unusual people and extraordinary events throughout history, and women in combat during the Civil War certainly fits the bill. But we should always keep these topics in perspective and not lose sight of their relatively minor role in the larger picture. It’s just one of many ways women participated in America’s largest war.

3 replies on “Did Women Fight in the Civil War?”

I thought of you yesterday when I went to the Winnebago/Boone Society Genealogy meeting. Our speaker talked about 3 different people from Rockford and one of them was a nurse who followed her husband into the Civil War

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