Women and Children on the Battlefield

Contrary to popular belief, the Civil War was not fought only by adult males. Women and children also participated in the conflict in a variety of capacities, often giving their lives for a cause they deeply believed in.

Women in Camp

Many women did their part by traveling with soldiers as members of the so-called soapsuds brigade, whose sole job was to clean the clothes of military units. In most cases, members of the soapsuds brigade were the only women given official status in camp. Others, including officers' wives, were simply labeled camp followers. In the Union army, each company was permitted four laundresses. Many washerwomen were married to soldiers and lived with their husbands in the area of camp commonly known as suds row. If they were not married to a soldier, washerwomen were expected to be at least somehow related to a member of the unit. A washerwoman named Hannah O'Neil, for example, followed her son, who was a member of Company H of the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry.

Far more rare were women who followed their loved ones into battle as more than washerwomen. A few military units adopted women as mascots or aides, and these women faced the same dangers as the male soldiers. One example is Kady Brownell, who was married to a member of the First Rhode Island (later the Fifth Rhode Island). Brownell was made the official “daughter” of the regiment and followed her husband to the front. According to some accounts, Brownell showed tremendous heroism during a battle in New Bern, North Carolina, on March 14, 1862, when she saved the Fifth Rhode Island from a friendly fire attack by rushing into the thick of battle and waving the flag. Brownell's husband was seriously wounded during that battle, and she spent the rest of her life caring for him.

Women Soldiers

Rarer still were women who disguised their gender in order to enlist and fight at the front. Pulling off such a feat was not easy, but many women did so successfully, slipping through the enlistment process and fooling their fellow soldiers. Those who were exposed because of injury or illness were either honorably discharged or merely dismissed, depending on their commanding officer. Many of those who were lauded for their military service drew veterans' pensions following the war.

Jennie Hodgers left Ireland as a stowaway, disguised herself as Albert D. J. Cashier, and served in the Illinois Volunteer Infantry from 1862 to 1865. Hodgers successfully kept her secret until the age of sixty-six, when she was struck by a car. A doctor at the veterans' hospital where she was treated discovered her true gender, but he kept it secret at Hodgers's request so she could continue to receive her veteran's pension.

Probably the most amazing tale of hidden identity was that of Loreta Janeta Velazquez, the Cuban-born widow of a Confederate soldier who raised and equipped at her own expense an infantry unit known as the Arkansas Grays. After her husband's death early in the war, Velazquez left her home and passed herself off as Harry Buford.

Velazquez was twice wounded and cited for gallantry. She was eventually stationed in Richmond, where her secret was discovered. Arrested as a spy, she convinced Confederate officials of her allegiance to the South and began work as a secret agent. In her autobiography, she wrote — truthfully — that she was as good a soldier as any man.

Children Rally

Children — that is, boys under the age of eighteen — also saw quite a bit of military service. Many lied about their age when enlisting; others were adopted as mascots by various military units. The exact number of underage soldiers is unknown, but some historians estimate the figure could be as high as 400,000. Many children were able to slip into the armed forces because recruiters were eager to fill quotas and usually didn't question boys who looked eighteen years old. However, even boys who were obviously underage succeeding in getting in, and many were assigned as regimental musicians.

Probably the most famous child to participate in the war is Johnny Clem, who became a legend in the Northern press. Clem ran away from home in 1861 at age nine to join a Union army regiment that had traveled through his hometown in Ohio. He was turned away but later joined another unit and served as its drummer boy; he also performed other camp chores.

According to U.S. military records, 127 Union soldiers were just thirteen years old when they enlisted, 320 were fourteen years old, nearly 800 were fifteen years old, 2,758 were sixteen, and approximately 6,500 were seventeen. Statistics regarding the number of underage soldiers in the Confederate army are unknown, but most historians believe the numbers to be even higher.

Clem was first immortalized in the press following the Battle of Shiloh, during which his drum was apparently destroyed. Officially enrolled in the army, complete with a miniature, hand-carved musket, Clem received additional press coverage as “the Drummer Boy of Chickamauga.” During that battle, Clem allegedly shot and captured a Confederate soldier who tried to take him prisoner.

Despite his young age, Clem was captured once, wounded twice, and rose to the rank of lance sergeant before his fourteenth birthday. A few years later, Clem tried to enroll in West Point but was denied admission because he lacked a formal education. As a result of a direct appeal from President Grant, he was given a commission as second lieutenant and placed in command of a unit of black soldiers. He made the military his career, retiring as a major general shortly before the start of World War I. He died in 1937.

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