Women in the Army

Battle of Fort Donelson, Tennessee

Battle of Fort Donelson, Tennessee, by Kurz and Allison, 1887.

She took part in the storming of Fort Donelson, Tennessee where she was slightly wounded in the wrist. Afterward, she served often in the picket line and distinguished herself by her courage, vigilance, and shrewdness. The boldness with which she exposed herself on every occasion, led to such a catastrophe as might have been expected. The Battle of Shiloh was an affair in which she figured with a cool bravery that kept her company steady in spite of the terrible fire which was decimating the ranks of the Federal Army. The pressure, however, was at last too great. Slowly driven towards the river, and fighting every inch of ground, the regiment in which she served seemed likely to be annihilated. They had just reached the shelter of the gunboats when a stray shell exploded directly in the faces of the front rank, and Miss Wellman was struck and thrown violently to the earth, but instantly sprang to her feet and was able to walk to the temporary hospital which had been established near the river bank.

Like Deborah Samson, her sex was discovered by the surgeon who dressed her wound. The wound was in the collarbone and was made by a fragment of shell. Although not a dangerous one it required immediate attention. When the surgeon desired her to remove her army jacket she demurred, and not being able to assign any good reason for her refusal, the surgeon coupling this with the modest blush which suffused her features when he made his requisition for the removal of her outside garment, immediately guessed the truth. With chivalrous delicacy he immediately dispatched her with a note to the wife of one of the Captains who was in the camp at the time, recommending the maiden soldier to her care, and begging that she would dress the wound in accordance with a prescription which he sent. Although Miss Wellman begged that her secret might not be disclosed and that she might be permitted to continue to serve in the ranks, it was judged best to communicate the fact to the commanding officer, who, though he admired the bravery and resolution of the maiden, judged best that she should serve in another capacity if at all, and having notified her parents and obtained their consent she was allowed to do service in the ambulance department.

She was furnished with a horse, side-saddle, saddle-bags, etc., and whenever a battle took place she would ride fearlessly to the front to assist the wounded. Many a poor wounded soldier was assisted off the field by her, and sometimes she would dismount from her horse, and, aiding the wounded man to climb into the saddle, would convey him to the hospital. She carried bandages and stimulants in her saddle-bags and did all she was able to relieve the sufferings of such as were too badly wounded to be removed.

During this service, she was often exposed to the enemy’s fire. She was with General Ulysses S. Grant in the Vicksburg campaign, and on one occasion; being attracted by a tremendous firing, rode rapidly forward, and missing her way found herself within one hundred yards of a battalion of the enemy, whose gray jackets could be seen through the smoke of their rapid firing. Wheeling her horse she galloped out of range, fortunately escaping the storm of bullets that flew about her.

She shared the hardships as well as the perils of the soldiers, and in the bivouac wrapped herself in her blanket and lay on the bare ground, with no other shelter but the sky, rising at the sound of reveille to partake with her comrades of the plain camp fare. All this she did cheerfully and with her whole heart. Her sympathy was not bounded by the wants and sufferings of the soldiers of the federal army but embraced in its boundless outpouring those of her countrymen who were then ranged against her as foes. Many a sick and suffering Southerner had cause to bless the kindness and devotion of this noble girl. Herein she showed herself a Christian woman and a practical example of the teachings of Him who said, –“Love your enemies.” Such deeds as hers shine amid the terrible passions and carnage of war with a heavenly radiance which time can never dim.

Either in the army or in close connection with it, a woman’s affectionate devotion was illustrated in all those relations of life in which she stands beside man. As a mother, as a wife, and as a sister, she brightly displayed this quality. The following instance of wifely devotion is related of a woman who came from the Red River of Louisiana with her husband, who was a Southern officer.

In the fall of 1863, during the bombardment of Charleston by the federal batteries, this young woman, being tenderly attached to her husband, who  as in one of the forts, begged the military authorities to allow her to join her husband and share the fearful dangers and hardships to which he was daily and nightly exposed. All representations of the difficulties, privations, and perils she would encounter failed to daunt her in her purpose. The importunities of the loving wife prevailed over military rules and even over the expostulations of her husband, and she was allowed to take her post beside the one whom she regarded with an affection amounting to idolatry. Sending her two children to the care of a maiden aunt some miles from the city, she was conveyed to her husband’s battery, a large earth-work outside of the city.

Here she remained for sixty days, during which the battery where she was, made one of the principal targets for the federal cannon. For weeks together she lay down in her clothes in the midst of the soldiers. The bursting of the shells and the sound of the federal hundred-pounders, with answering volleys from the fort, scarcely intermitted night or day. Sleep was for several days after her arrival out of the question. But at length, she became used to the cannonade and enjoyed intermittent slumbers, from which she was sometimes awakened by the explosion of a shell which had penetrated the roof of the fort and strewed the earth with dead and wounded.

Her only food was the wormy bread and half-cured pork which was served out to the soldiers, and her drink was brackish water from the ditch that surrounded the earth-work. The cannonading during the day was so furious that the fort was often almost reduced to ruins, but in the night the destruction was repaired. A fleet of gunboats joined the land batteries in bombarding the fort, and at last succeeded in making it no longer tenable. Guns had been dismounted, the bomb-proof had been destroyed, and the sides of the earth-work were full of breaches where the huge ten-inch balls had plowed their way.

During all these terrifying and dreadful scenes, our heroine stayed at her post of love and duty beside her husband. When the little garrison evacuated the fort at night and retired to the city, she was carried in an ambulance drawn by four of the soldiers in honor of her courage and devotion.

One of the most singular and romantic stories of the late war is that of two young women who enlisted at the same time and were engaged in active service for nearly a year without any discovery being made or even a suspicion excited as to their true sex.

Sarah Stover and Maria Seelye, for these, were the names of these heroines of real life, being homeless orphans, and finding it difficult to earn a subsistence on a small farm in Western Missouri, where they lived, determined to enlist as volunteers in the Federal Army. Accordingly, having donned male attire and proceeded to St. Louis early in 1863, they joined a company that was soon after ordered to proceed to the regiment, which was a part of the Army of the Potomac.

Within two weeks after their arrival at the scene of conflict in the East, the Battle of Chancellorsville was fought, the two girls participating init and seeing something of the horrors of the war in which they were engaged as soldiers. In one of the minor battles which occurred the following summer they were separated in the confusion of the fight, and upon calling the muster, Miss Stover, known in the regiment as Edward Malison, was found among the missing. Her comrade, after searching for her among the killed and wounded in vain, at last, ascertained that she had been taken prisoner and conveyed to Richmond, Virginia.

Miss Seelye, although she was well aware of the serious consequences which might follow, decided to adopt a bold plan in order to reach her friend whom she loved so devotedly, and who was now suffering captivity and perhaps wounds or disease. Through an old black woman, she obtained a woman’s dress and bonnet, and disguising herself in these garments, deserted at the first favorable opportunity. She reached Washington in safety and was successful in an application for a pass to Fortress Monroe, from which place she made her way after many difficulties to the lines of the Southern Army. By artful representations, she overcame the scruples of the officers and passed on her way to Richmond, where she soon arrived, and overcoming by her address and perseverance all obstacles, obtained admission to Libby Prison, representing that she was near of kin to one of the prisoners.

Her singular success in accomplishing her object was due doubtless to her intelligence, fine manners, and good looks, with great tact in using the opportunities within her reach.