Fight Like a Man: Civil War Soldier Sarah Rosetta Wakeman

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Sarah Rosetta Wakeman served her country for almost two years in an infantry unit, serving bravely in combat before falling ill and ultimately dying at the age of 21. And while reports of female soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines dying while on active duty are not uncommon, the circumstances of Wakeman's service and death were nothing short of extraordinary.

But the U.S. Army has no record of Wakeman ever serving at all, much less seeing combat. She is listed only as Private Lyons Wakeman, a farm boy from Bainbridge, New York. The year she died was 1864.

Prior to the 20th century, women were rarely permitted to serve in the Army in any capacity. When the Civil War broke out, Wakeman and hundreds of other women traded in their skirts for dirty uniforms, swapped out their cooking spoons for bayonets, and marched off to war to fight as men.

But how did Wakeman and the other female soldiers manage to pull off this deceit, not just on one occasion, but for months and years at a time? Could a woman, no matter how sly and clever, really pass as a male soldier?

The idea that a woman of the 19th century could pretend to be a man and live as a fellow soldier — sharing close quarters and fighting alongside them — without being discovered seems far-fetched to our 21st-century minds. However, the everyday customs and Victorian mindset of that era aided these women in their ruse.

In the broadest terms, to a 19th-century man, if you wore pants, you must also be a man. In public, women typically wore long skirts for every occasion. A farm girl like Wakeman may have borrowed her brother’s trousers to do manual labor in the privacy of the family farm, but even that would have been rare. Once a woman bound her breasts, cut her hair, and donned the often oversize and ill-fitting uniforms typical of that era of wartime, the ploy was easier to pull off.

"Most of these determined women knew that it would take much more than a haircut and a wardrobe change to really sell the disguise."

Most of these determined women knew that it would take much more than a haircut and a wardrobe change to really sell the disguise. Many of them practiced their pretense — working to lower their voices, adjust their walk, and take up masculine habits like swearing, spitting, tobacco-chewing, and card playing. Wakeman’s opportunity to perfect her manly behavior came when she left her family’s struggling farm in upstate New York’s hill country. Donning male clothing, she secured a job aboard a coal barge, hoping to make enough money to send home to her family. When Union Army recruiters came aboard looking for volunteers to join a newly formed New York infantry regiment, the offer of $152 to join must have struck her as a princely sum.

Teeth, Strength, and Fingers

Once disguised, getting into the Army was not difficult. Before 1872, the medical examinations required to join the army did not involve the removal of clothing, aiding in Wakeman’s ability to fool the military doctors. As long as one appeared generally healthy, had enough teeth to tear a cartridge, enough strength to hoist a gun, and enough fingers to pull a trigger, they were welcomed with open arms.
Women also didn’t have to worry much about being in close quarters with the other men — soldiers often went for months without changing clothes, even sleeping in their boots and coats. They bathed just as infrequently, and people of this time were generally more private, so opting out of group bathing would not have aroused suspicion. Also, answering the call of nature in the privacy of the woods wouldn’t have seemed odd since the camp latrines were typically filthy and spread disease and were thus avoided by many.

Since they were of child-bearing age, Wakeman and the other disguised women had to deal with their monthly cycles. Their ability to gain relative privacy within the woods may have aided them here as well. It’s also likely that amenorrhea (loss of menstrual cycle) would have set in, due to harsh conditions, scarcity of food, and the emotional stress of maintaining their new identities, not to mention participating in the horrors of war.

There are many accounts from male soldiers who suspected something was off about one of these effeminate looking soldiers but just couldn’t figure out what it was. The fact that these women didn’t shave was glossed over or attributed to the fact that they must be teenage boys. Official age requirements were rarely enforced, and children as young as 10 were allowed to participate as regimental drummer boys. It is unconscionable for us to imagine allowing children or young teenagers on a battlefield today, but it was common in that era.

Wakeman’s true sex was never discovered, but there were many women soldiers who aroused suspicion and were caught, including one unmasked because of the unmanly way she had been seen putting on her socks and shoes. One was relieved of duty after drawing notice because of the way she wrung out a dishcloth. Another was initially noticed because of her fair complexion and small hands. Someone else was called out because of her laugh.

Once discovered, some women were allowed to stay and serve as medical aides, laundresses, or clerks. Others who had been discovered soldiered on, enlisting in other regiments after being exposed and dismissed. One such woman was so determined to fight for the Union that she joined the army seven different times.

Many were only discovered after being wounded, while some had their true genders revealed only when their lifeless bodies were removed from the battlefield. Others suffered from the contagions that accompanied Army life and were revealed while seeking medical care.

"Despite being in a Union hospital for nearly a month before her death, it does not appear that her identity was ever discovered."

Wakeman contracted a debilitating intestinal ailment, probably a form of dysentery that often plagued soldiers after drinking water tainted by the corpses of animals and humans, along with their waste. Despite being in a Union hospital for nearly a month before her death, it does not appear that her identity was ever discovered. It is hard for us to imagine a hospital patient, lying in the kind of filth that would have to accompany such a disease, never being changed or bathed while receiving medical treatment, but such lack of care was common during that terrible war.

When she finally succumbed to the disease, she was buried in a nearby New Orleans cemetery, her grave marked only with the name of her alias, Lyons Wakeman. The letters she wrote home to her family that detailed her days in the Army sat tucked away in the attic of a relative for more than 100 years before being rediscovered in the 1970s and ultimately published in 1994 as An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, Alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862–1864.

It is women like Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, who bent the rules as well as her gender, who blazed the trail for women in the armed forces today. Now they are finally free to serve their country in any way they choose, including in special forces or combat roles. We don’t often think of the women of the 19th century as being tough enough to endure battle, but they were not shrinking violets, wilting magnolias, hothouse lilies, or any other euphemism for genteel ladies of the era. They were warriors.

Tags: Women's History, Women's History Month

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Written By

Becky Hepinstall Hilliker

Becky Hepinstall Hilliker is the co-author of Sisters of Shiloh (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) and a freelance writer. See Full Bio

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