Friday, 22 February 2013

They Fought Like Demons - Women in the Civil War


De Anne Blanton and Lauren Cook, 'They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War." 

This is probably one of the most fascinating books I have read. Not only is it an incredibly important and overlooked subject - i.e., women who fought in the Civil War - the authors manage to weave a fascinating tale of courage, heartache and loss in less than 200 pages. The book is rich with information, detailing why some women joined up, how they managed to outsmart their superiors and what happened if they were caught. Most women were exposed, literally, after a serious disease or wound and were sent back home. Others were not discovered until they could hide their identity no longer, i.e., they gave birth in camp.

Some women joined up to escape a male-dominated patriarchal society, many more followed their lovers or husbands into battle, determined to stay by their side. Frances Clayton joined up for love and country, refusing to leave her husband. At the battle of Murfreesboro, he was gunned down in front of her, and Clayton stepped over his body to seek revenge on the Rebels. Albert Cashier, real name Jennifer, donned a soldier's uniform, survived the war and lived out the rest of her life as a man, astonishing friends when an injury led to the discovery 'he' was actually a 'she'.

One male soldier wrote home to describe some of these female soldiers. "They fought like demons...I saw three or four rebel women soldiers in the heap of bodies." Far from a rarity, this letter shows that women played an important part in America's most divisive conflict.

One anecdote that stuck with me was the tale of a female soldier demanding pay. After it was revealed she was a woman, the military refused to give her what she earned. This caught the attention of President Lincoln, who was said to "blaze with anger" and decreed that she be paid at once.

Most of all though, the book managed to be inspiring and sad at the same time. These women risked social ostracism for joining up, and were prepared to give up everything. For those that died, buried in unknown graves across the United States, we will never know who they were, and what inspired them to join up and throw themselves in the valley of death. We will never even know their names. They are lost to history. When we glance down the records of the soldiers of the Civil War, how many were women? We will never know.

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