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Why Did Women Disguise Themselves as Men to Fight in the U.S. Civil War?

Women donned men's uniforms in the Civil War, driven by patriotism, the quest for adventure, or the need to stay close to loved ones. They bravely faced societal norms, showing valor equal to their male counterparts. Their stories of courage and determination redefine heroism. What could have motivated these women to take such a bold step? Join the conversation and share your thoughts.
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman

You probably didn't learn much about this in school, but historians now believe that a total of around 400 women fought in the U.S. Civil War, for both the Union and Confederate armies. Although both sides forbade women from joining up, some women succeeded in disguising their identities by wearing men's clothing, binding their breasts, smudging their faces with dirt, and cutting their hair.

In many cases, the details are lost to history, but fragments of their stories show that women had many of the same motivations for enlisting and fighting as their male counterparts, such as patriotism, a belief in their side's cause, wanting to earn money, escaping a difficult home life, or simply a sense of adventure.

The physical exam that accompanied enlistment was often cursory, and with so many teenage boys with smooth faces and juvenile voices also volunteering, it was fairly easy for women to slip through the cracks.

Secret war heroes/heroines:

  • One of the best known examples is Sarah Edmonds, a Canadian-born woman who adopted the identity of "Franklin Thompson" when she enlisted in Company F of the 2nd Michigan Infantry and served as a nurse and spy during the Civil War. Although her identity as a woman was ultimately discovered, she was successful in applying for a military pension, was admitted to the Grand Army of the Republic, and was buried with full military honors after her death in 1898.

  • Irish-born Jennie Irene Hodgers lived as a man named Albert Cashier for 53 years, including serving with the 95th Illinois Infantry from 1862 to 1865. Historians now believe that Cashier was a trans man. Even after Cashier's biological sex was discovered in the 1910s, the veteran's pensions board decided to continue pension payments and Cashier was buried in military uniform with full honors in 1915.

  • There is also evidence that women disguised themselves as men in order to fight in the Revolutionary War, most famously Deborah Sampson, who fought for 17 months as "Robert Shirtliff" until her secret was found out.

Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for WiseGEEK about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education. Learn more...
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for WiseGEEK about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education. Learn more...

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    • There are hundreds of documented cases of women like Sarah Edmonds (shown here as Frank Thompson) disguising themselves as men to fight in the U.S. Civil War.
      There are hundreds of documented cases of women like Sarah Edmonds (shown here as Frank Thompson) disguising themselves as men to fight in the U.S. Civil War.