Many other women also enlisted in male disguise, since women at that time weren’t permitted to serve, but some were quickly discovered and either sent home or were arrested and sent to prison on false charges of prostitution. That was the only reason army officials could come up with for women to dress as men, although it would have been hard for them to ply their trade and not be found out. Others weren’t caught until they were hospitalized or killed in battle. While others served out their time and returned to civilian life without ever being found out.
Sarah was born on January 16,1843, the eldest in a fairly large farm family. She was used to hard work and in 1862, at the age of 19, with no prospects for marriage, she left home to seek outside work to help with the family finances that included a large debt owed by her father. Disguising herself as a man, she found work as a manual laborer on a coal barge for $20.00 for four trips up the Chenango Canal in New York state. On her first trip she encountered soldiers from the 153rd New York Regiment, who urged her to sign up. The enlistment bounty of $152.00 would have been more than a year’s wages, even if Sarah continued civilian work as a male, and so was a great enticement.
Sarah told the recruiters she was 21 and on August 30, 1862, signed up under the name of Lyons Wakeman. Her regiment was stationed in Washington, as one of many, to guard the Capital from the surrounding hostile territory.
In her frequent letters home, she asked her family not to be ashamed of her for the choices she’d made. She also sent money home on a regular basis, much more than she could have earned as a civilian. In February 1864, the regiment was transferred to the field to take part in the ill-fated Red River Campaign. By the end of the campaign, Sarah developed chronic diarrhea and ended up at a regimental hospital.
She died on June 19, 1864, never having been discovered.
Like Sarah, most of the women who disguised themselves as men to serve in the army were lower class, or immigrants, who had little education. Sarah is unique, however, in that she could read and write and, as a result, left her legacy of letters so we’d have the opportunity to see why a woman would choose to hide her identity to serve her country.
For more information on Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, read An Uncommon Soldier, by Lauren Cook Burgess, Oxford University Press, ISBN-0-19-512043-6