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secret soldiers: women who fought in the civil war

Setting

The U.S. military recorded over 250 cases of women disguised as men in the Union Army. The actual number of women who fought was much higher as most were never discovered. Their bravery and sacrifices are lost to history. Many women died of disease, were wounded in battle, or died on the battlefield. The reasons they were willing to risk their lives and the consequences of discovery were varied. Sarah Rosetta Wakeman dressed as a man and worked on a coal barge to earn a decent wage. Enlisting in the army (under her alias: Lyons Wakeman) allowed her to earn more money and help her family out of debt. Wakeman documented her journey in the candid letters to her family. She died of dysentery in a military hospital following the disastrous Red River Campaign. Wakman’s military service went unrecognized until her letters were discovered in 1976.

Why did women who were discovered in uniform receive vastly different treatment that in the press, depending on their motivation for enlisting?

What were various reasons women fought in the Civil War disguised as men?

How did the culture and mores of the era help women hide their identities?

THEMES
  • Gender identity

  • Gender roles

  • “colored” regiments

  • Women’s history

  • Women’s roles in the military

  • Letters as primary source documents

  • Fear of discovery

historical connections
  • Civil War

  • Suffrage Movement

  • Underground Railroad

  • Draft Act of 1863

  • 54th Massachusetts Regiment

  • Battle of Bull Run

  • Red River Campaign

  • Military pensions

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