For too long the American civil war has been presented as a historical event of masculine strengths pitted against each other to create a politically unified nation. But this certainty is being overturned by historians such as Elizabeth Leonard who have pieced together a fascinating alternative narrative of a war that involved many women as active combatants. It has been estimated that at least 250 served in the Confederate army and another 400 in the Union armies. Countless others left no record.
All the Daring of the Soldier is an important contribution to civil war history, with its meticulous research and breadth of vision. Leonard culls details from diaries, letters, requests for pensions, contemporary newspaper accounts and even oral history. Most of the women who joined the ranks were working class, attracted by the pay, including Rosetta Wakeman, who had already worked as a man for several months before being lured by the $152 bounty money from the 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers. Aware of the role of other women soldiers, she wrote home, from Carroll Prison in the District of Columbia in 1863, about three female prisoners of war: "One of them was a major in the Union army and she went into battle with her men. When the Rebels' bullets were a-coming like a hail storm she rode her horse and gave orders to the men. Now she's in prison for not doing according to the regulations of war."
Women were usually only discovered when either taken ill or wounded. Otherwise, once they were in uniform and had performed in battle, spent long months marching and kept up with the other men, they attracted little attention. Yet one soldier wrote after he discovered that a comrade was female: "A single glance at her in her proper character leads me to wonder how I ever could have mistaken her for a man."
Leonard has unearthed delightful examples of women who failed at the first hurdle, being thrown out shortly after enlisting. Sarah Collins of Wisconsin cut her hair, wore men's clothes and enlisted with her brother when war broke out, but gave herself away by her "unmasculine manner of putting on her shoes and stockings". Another woman tried to put her trousers on over her head, and a third gave away her sex with her surprisingly refined table manners.
That many slipped easily into the ranks reminds us of how desperately able-bodied soldiers were needed and how cursory the medical examinations were. The appalling conditions forced most soldiers to sleep in their clothes for warmth, and large numbers of young boys enlisted for the cash and steady work. But a few women at least had lovers within the ranks who may have helped to protect their identities until it was too late.
Leonard quotes a source suggesting that at least six pregnant women soldiers went undiscovered until their babies were born, including one who went into labour while on picket duty and another who fought at the bloody battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. She was promoted for her valour there from corporal to sergeant, not long before she gave birth.
But there were equal numbers of women who flaunted their femininity to become political agents. Working on the assumption that women were harmless creatures, they displayed an array of crafty methods for gun-running and for ferrying military information across enemy lines. Hoop skirts were used as a hiding place for letters, coded messages, drugs, medicines and even rifles.
Predictably, after the war these women's exploits were remembered only as fictionalised, heroic tales. The female soldiers were either written out of official histories or forced to fight long campaigns to collect pensions. Many died in poverty, while others suffered from chronic mental illness.
Testament to the women's histories survived only in individual accounts and scattered through official records. Leonard has performed an astounding feat in pulling these sources together to create a vivid picture of these extraordinary characters. She pierces, too, the masculine legend of war.