Why Did They Do It?
In this final installment of my series on women Civil War soldiers, now that I’ve explained how women managed to join and fight in an army that didn’t admit female soldiers, the next question is, why did they do it?
Why would women want to pretend to be men and fight in a war?
One of the reasons was pure and simple patriotism. Louisiana’s Sarah Morgan wrote: “Oh! If I only were a man, then I could don the breeches, and slay them with a will! If some few Southern women were in the ranks, they could set the men an example they would not blush to follow.” All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies, p. 200.
Other reasons for joining the military were to stay with a husband, sweetheart or brother. Many of these women were recognized by friends or family visiting the camp. Mary Burns “… followed her love into the 7th Michigan Cavalry under the alias ‘John Burns’, and succeeded in maintaining her disguise for two weeks.” All the Daring … p. 208
“Florina Budwin and her husband enlisted together, served side by side in battle, were captured at the same time by Confederates, and both sent to the infamous Andersonsville prison.” http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1993/spring/women-in-the-civil-war-3.html
Her husband died there, but she survived and was sent to another prison, where a Southern doctor discovered she was female. Despite receiving better treatment, she also died after being “stricken by an unspecified epidemic.” http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1993/spring/women-in-the-civil-war-3.html
These women went to war by choice, even though they knew the risks involved. Although patriotism and the wish to be by the side of loved ones were reasons, others were the chance for travel, adventure and money. Bounties and regular paychecks were incentives for poor women who needed to help support large families.
In 1865, Sarah Edmonds wrote: “I could only thank God that I was free and could go forward and work, and I was not obliged to stay at home and weep.” http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1993/spring/women-in-the-civil-war-3.html
Since women soldiers in our own time are barred from combat units, these Civil War women soldiers were definitely ahead of their time. And since most of them served undetected, the examples listed here are just a small sampling of the women who fought in the Civil War armies.
Hope all of you enjoyed this look at an event often ignored in historical records.
Sources: All the Daring of the Soldiers: Women of the Civil War Armies by Elizabeth D. Leonard, pp. 199-225