Breaking Barriers and Making [Up] Names
The American Civil War changed what women were allowed to do. Women were going to the fields of battle and contributing in countless ways.
One of the predominant means that women participated in the American Civil War was through medicine. The first women doctors in the United States, including Drs. Elizabeth Blackwell, Esther Hill Hawks, and Mary Edwards Walker, worked to break barriers not only in the medical field and on the battlefield, but for women in general. Dr. Blackwell, for instance, was instrumental in setting up the United States Sanitary Commission. Dr. Walker was employed by the Union as a surgeon (and a spy). Countless women also went to war as nurses, a field that had been previously dominated by men.
As a previous post mentioned, it was not easy for women to get to the front lines. Women such as Dorothea Dix and Clara Barton fought hard for women to be allowed to nurse soldiers on the battlefield, and their hard work played a large part in paving the way for much of what is now known as the first-wave feminist movement. The first female doctors, discussed above, broke educational barriers. The women who nursed broke down the idea that medicine was wholly a man’s field. They were not afraid to do what they needed to do to help. Many of these women went on to advocate for women’s rights, as well as the rights of African Americans.
One such woman was Sarah Emma Edmonds, alias Franklin Thompson. Edmonds was one of the hundreds of women who dressed as men during the Civil War in order to fight. As Franklin Thompson, Edmonds acted as a soldier, nurse, and spy in the Union Army. As a nurse, she worked at Alexandria’s Mansion House Hospital, the inspiration for Mercy Street. Perhaps she’ll grace our television screens next season. After the war, Edmonds wrote a memoir of her time in the war, entitled Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse, and Spy: A Woman’s Adventures in the Union Army detailing her time in service of the Union Army. She, along with others such as Albert Cashier (born Jennie Hodgers), Loreta Velazquez (alias Henry T. Buford), and Mary Galloway (alias unknown) made great contributions to the war and paved the way for women to serve in the military in later wars (including recent decisions to allow women into all combat positions).
Unlike young girls today who have countless powerful female role models, real and fictional, to look up to (see Emma Watson, Malala Yousafzai, and Elizabeth Warren for some of my favorites), Edmonds and her female peers had access to a very small pool of female role models. One place Edmonds found inspiration was in the book, Fanny Campbell: The Female Pirate Captain, published in the 1840s. In her memoirs, she cites this book as an inspiration to dress up as a man to escape her abusive father and the marriage to his creditor that he had arranged for her.
Before the war, Edmonds was living as a man—Frank Thompson. She heard the call of the American Civil War and went to fight with the Union, despite being a Canadian citizen herself. Edmonds is my favorite woman soldier of the Civil War partially for this reason; unlike many of the others who went to war disguised as men to find the men that were missing from their lives (Mary Galloway was seeking her fiancé, Loreta Velazquez followed her husband into service and continued serving after his death). Edmonds went because she felt a deep connection to the Union cause. She was wholly conscious of the fact that she was living in a man’s world. Rather than allow this to limit her, she temporarily took on a male persona in order to seek greater opportunity and free herself from the constraints she felt as a woman in the Victorian era.
After the Civil War came to an end, Edmonds was one of the first women to receive a pension for her own military service. She reported injury from her service. While the pension bureau did not believe she had been injured in combat at first, her comrades rallied to help her get the pension she deserved. She then lived out the rest of her life as a woman, eventually marrying a man of her own choice.
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About the Author
Sienna Bronson received her Bachelor’s degree in History from Hood College in May, and has focused her historical study and research on Civil War women, including female soldiers and Clara Barton.
Tags: Female Soldiers, Real Characters of Civil War Medicine, Sienna Bronson, Women Soldiers Posted in: People