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Wednesday, June 14, 2023

June 14, 2023: Women in War: The Civil War

[June 12th marks the 75th anniversary of the passage of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, an important step toward a more inclusive America on multiple levels. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that Act and other histories of women in war, leading up to a Guest Post from one of the best scholars of those histories and issues!]

First and foremost, I highly recommend archivist and historian DeAnne Blanton’s three-part article “Women Soldiers of the Civil War” from the National Archives’ Prologue Magazine. I’m not going to repeat everything that’s there, so will instead just highlight interesting AmericanStudies contexts for three of the women about whom Blanton writes:

1)      Frances Clayton: As this University of Virginia Special Collections blog post on Clayton (sometimes spelled Clalin) indicates, there are significant ambiguities and uncertainties surrounding her Civil War service. But even if Clayton did not serve in the military and/or see combat as she claimed repeatedly throughout her postwar life, the justifiably famous photograph of her in a U.S. Army uniform reflects an important element of every one of these figures and stories: their refusal to conform to gender norms, in ways that in the 21st century might connect to identities like nonbinary or transgender. Women in war have always pushed the envelope on such conversations, and whatever the exact details of her experiences Clayton was no exception.

2)      Sarah Edmonds (Seelye): While some of the individual stories of Sarah Edmonds’ Civil War action are likewise ambiguous, there’s less overall doubt that she was part of the Union Army for many battles and campaigns, both in and out of disguise as a man. The difference depended in large part on whether she was fulfilling her official role as a nurse or her more unofficial but certainly still vital ones as spy, messenger, and the like. Those are of course quite distinct, and most Civil War nurses did not, as far as any of us know, moonlight as secret agents (although obviously Walt Whitman did). But Edmonds nonetheless reminds us that countless women served in the Civil War, and honestly that the line between combatant and non-combatant was never as clear-cut as gender norms might make it seem.

3)      Albert D.J. Cashier: Despite the uncertainties, both Clayton and Edmonds were relatively well-known in their own lifetimes; the same cannot really be said for Albert D.J. Cashier, since he did not entirely exist. Or perhaps the exact opposite is true, since Irish immigrant Jennie Irene Hodgers lived as Cashier and thus as a man for more than half a century, long after their Civil War service and up until their 1915 death. Since that second life seems to have begun with that Civil War service, it’s possible to see Cashier as profoundly representative of this complex community of Civil War women soldiers; since it was so extended and secretive, it’s possible to see Cashier as quite different from any of their peers. But however we see Cashier, they’re just one of these many compelling and important American stories and histories.

Next war women tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other stories or histories you’d highlight?

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