Civil Discourse, January 1864, Women-At-Arms

In the newly minted state of West Virginia, the January 16th, 1864 issue of the Wheeling Daily Register carried a curious story captioned “Another Lady In The Ranks”.  It seems that a group of eight or ten Confederate prisoners were brought into Harper’s Ferry.  After a week or so of incarceration, an observant guard suspected that one of his prisoners might be a female.   The young woman of sixteen or eighteen years was immediately released and given proper feminine garb.  It turned out that she came from a wealthy local family, but had abandoned a life of comfort to be with her beau.  When he enlisted in the Confederate army, she sneaked through enemy lines, found his regiment and enlisted in his company.  She disguised herself well, as they drilled alongside one another for several days before she saw fit to reveal herself to him.  She was persuaded to return home, but was soon back in the ranks with her lover – hence her capture.  Our spitfire refused to take the Union oath of loyalty, unapologetically declaring her intention to return to the Confederate army at her first opportunity.  One imagines that she did.
For more, see http://www.wvculture.org/history/sesquicentennial/18640113.html.

The caption “another lady in the ranks” implies that this had happened before – it turns out that it happened a lot.  An estimated 250 women served as combatants in the Confederate army and perhaps 400 women opposed them in the Union ranks.  No one knows the real numbers, as these women were frequently not identified until they were sick, wounded or dead.  Perhaps 60 are known to have died in combat.  At least one woman died in Pickett’s charge, as a shocked Yankee burial party discovered (probably as they rifled her pockets for valuables).  In 1934, a mass grave of nine Union soldiers at Shiloh was found to contain a female skeleton in association with a minie ball which likely killed her; that she was buried among soldiers suggests both that she was herself a soldier and that she was never recognized as a woman.  Sarah Wakeman lies in a United States military cemetery near New Orleans, where she died of dysentery in 1864.  Her headstone bears the nomme de guerre “Lyons Wakeman”; her identity was not revealed until long after the war, when her letters home were rediscovered.

Keith Blalock was a Unionist from western North Carolina.  When he was forced to join the Confederate army, his wife Malinda signed up as well under the alias “Sam” Blalock.  Described as a good looking 16-year-old boy, she shared a tent with her husband and performed all of the duties of a soldier.  In her brief enlistment of about a month, she fought in three engagements, being wounded in the shoulder in the last.  The surgeon removing the bullet discovered she was a woman.   Worried that he and his wife were about to be separated, Keith rubbed himself down with poison oak to simulate small pox.  It worked and he received a medical discharge.  “Sam” then advised her colonel that she was a woman and she too was discharged.

That was not the end of the Blalocks, though.  Returning home, they fought the ugly partisan war in the mountains, this time on the side of the Union.  Serving as scouts and guerillas, they assisted escaped Union prisoners and sympathizers to safety.  Eventually they joined a Federal cavalry unit.  Keith was wounded again twice, in the shoulder and face, losing an eye.  Some say Malinda received a second shoulder wound bushwhacking a neighbor.
For more, see: http://www.nccivilwar150.com/features/women/women.htm

Not all women fought incognito.  A woman might serve as a “vivandiere”, originally simply a female sutler.  But in practice a vivandiere accompanied her regiment on the battlefield as a first responder serving whisky and water to the wounded.  Some were armed and shot back.  A common virtue is the outstanding courage of these women.   Annie Etheridge enlisted in a Michigan regiment with 19 other women.  She saw action at First Manassas and Chancellorsville, where she was wounded in the hand and won the Kearny Cross for her courage under fire.

Marie Tepe, Library of Congress
Marie Tepe, Library of Congress

Marie Tepe also won the Kearny Cross for valor, being wounded at the first battle of Fredericksburg.  She had enlisted in a Pennsylvania regiment of zouaves along with her husband in spring of 1861.  She had a falling out with her husband and joined a different Pennsylvania regiment.  She dressed as a zouave in a blue jacket with red pants, with a skirt trimmed in red to set her off from the men.  After her wound at Fredericksburg, Tepe was at Chancellorsville, where her colorful skirt was riddled with bullets.  She also served at Gettysburg, tending the wounded after the battle.  Tepe’s colorful outfit drew attention at the Bloody Angle during the battle of Spotsylvania, where once again she did not hesitate to follow her regiment into some of the heaviest fighting in American history.

Tepe survived the war and participated in the Grand Review in Washington in May 1865.  She returned home to Pennsylvania and remarried in 1872, divorcing again in 1897.  In 1901, crippled by rheumatism and the Confederate bullet in her heel, she took her own life by drinking pesticide.  See Mihalov, Vivandieres: Forgotten Women of the Civil War, http://www.army.mil/article/11458/Marie Brose Tepe, http://wiki.carrick-overbrook.org/Marie_Brose_Tepe.

Kady Brownell
Kady Brownell

Vivandiere Kady Brownell was born in 1842 in South Africa to a French mother and Scottish colonel.  Adopted after her mother’s death, she grew up in Rhode Island.  Three days after being married, her husband’s militia unit was called up.  Despite efforts to dissuade her, Brownell accompanied her husband’s regiment to Washington, having been anointed a “daughter of the regiment” by Colonel Ambrose Burnside.  She served at First Manassas as the regimental color bearer – a post of considerable peril.  She was trapped beneath a soldier who was killed and fell on her.  Wounded herself, she managed to avoid capture without losing her colors.  It is said that she slept with the regiment’s flag wrapped around her for safekeeping.

Brownell also served at the battle of New Bern, where she was decorated for her valor in narrowly averting a friendly fire incident between two Rhode Island regiments.  She accomplished this by running out between the two regiments and waving her flag.  Her husband received a disabling wound in this battle.  Brownell went home with him bearing a ceremonial sword awarded by General Burnside in recognition of her valor.  One may read the New York Times article celebrating her life here:

Now, 150 years later, we debate whether women should serve in combat.  They already have.

Written by: Doug Coleman

0.00 avg. rating (0% score) - 0 votes