Women in the Army

Battle of Chancellorsville, Kurz and Allen

Battle of Chancellorsville, Kurz and Allen

She found her friend just recovering from a wound in her arm. The secret of her sex was still undiscovered; and after her wound was entirely healed they prepared to attempt an escape which they had already planned. Miss Seelye contrived to smuggle into the prison a complete suit of female attire, in which, one night just as they were relieving the guard, she managed to slip past the cordon of sentries, and joining her friend at the place agreed upon, the two immediately set out for Raleigh, to which city Miss Seelye had obtained two passes, one for herself, the other for a lady friend. They traveled on foot, and after passing the lines struck boldly across the country in the direction of Norfolk. When morning dawned they concealed themselves in the woods and at night resumed their march.

On one occasion, just as they were emerging from a wood in the evening, they were discovered by a cavalryman. Their appearance excited his suspicions that they were spies, and he told them that he should have to take them to headquarters. But their lady-like manners and straightforward answers persuaded him that he was wrong, and he allowed them to proceed. Another time they narrowly escaped capture by two soldiers who suddenly entered the cabin of an old negro where they were passing the day.

After a tedious journey of a week, they reached the Federal pickets and finally were transported to Washington on the steamer. This was in the autumn of 1863; their term of service would expire in two months, but after great hesitation, they resolved to report themselves to the headquarters of their regiment as just escaped from Richmond. Accordingly, procuring suits of men’s attire, they again disguised their sex and proceeded to rejoin their regiment, which was encamped near Washington.

The desertion of Miss Seelye having been explained in this manner, she escaped its serious penalty, and both the girls were soon after regularly discharged from service. As we have already remarked, no suspicion was excited as to their sex, each shielding the other from discovery, and it was only after their discharge that they themselves revealed the secret.

The stories of women who have served as soldiers often disclose motives that would have little influence in impelling the other sex to enter the army. Love and devotion are among the most prominent of the moving causes of female enlistment. Sometimes a maiden, like Helen Goodridge, followed her lover to the war; sometimes a mother enlisted in the hospital department in order to nurse a wounded or sick husband or son. It was often some species of devotion, either to individuals or to her country, that led gentlewomen to march in the ranks and share the dangers and privations of army life. Such an instance as the following furnishes a singularly striking illustration of this unselfish love and devotion of which we are speaking.

While the hostile armies were fighting, in the summer of 1864, those desperate battles by which the issues of the war were ultimately decided, a small, slender soldier fighting in the ranks, in General Johnson’s division, was struck by a shell which tore away the left arm and stretched the young hero lifeless on the ground. A comrade in pity twisted a handkerchief around the wounded limb as an impromptu tourniquet, and thus having staunched the flowing blood, placed the slender form of the unfortunate soldier under a tree and passed on. Here half an hour after he was found by the ambulance men and brought to the hospital, where the surgeon discovered that the heroic heart, still faintly beating, animated the delicate frame of a woman.

Powerful stimulants were administered, and as soon as strength was restored the stump of the wounded limb was amputated near the shoulder. For a week the patient hovered between life and death. But her vitality triumphed in the struggle, and in a few days, with careful nursing, she was able to sit up and converse. One of those noblewomen, who emulated the example and the glory of Florence Nightingale in nursing and ministering to the sick and wounded in the army, won the maiden-soldier’s confidence, and into her ear, she breathed her story.

Civil War Guns

Civil War Guns

She and a brother aged eighteen had been left orphans two years before. They were in destitute circumstances and had no near relations. They both supported themselves by honest toil, and their lonely and friendless situation had drawn them together with a warmth of affection, that even between a brother and sister has been rarely felt. They were all in all to each other, and when, in the spring of 1864, her brother had been drafted into the army, she learned the name of the regiment to which he had been assigned, and unknown to him assumed male attire and joined the same regiment.

She sought out her brother, and in a private interview made herself known to him. Astonished and grieved at the step she had taken he begged her to withdraw from the army, which she could easily do by disclosing the fact of her true sex. She remained firm against all his affectionate entreaties, informing him that if he was wounded or taken sick she would be near to nurse him, and in case of such a disaster, she would reveal her secret and get a discharge so that she could attend constantly upon him. On the morning of the battle in which she had been wounded they had met for the last time, and, as they well knew the battle would be a bloody one, agreed that each one would notify the other of their respective safety in case they both survived. A note had reached her just after the battle, that her brother was safe, and she on her part had sent a message to him that she was alive and well, believing that she would recover, and not wishing to alarm him by telling the truth. Since that time she had heard nothing from him and begged with streaming eyes that the lady would inquire if he had been wounded in any of the recent severe battles. The lady hastened to procure the much-desired information. After diligent inquiries, she discovered that the brother had been shot dead in a battle that occurred the day following that in which his sister had been wounded.

The good lady, sadly afflicted by this intelligence, and fearing its effect upon the invalid, strove to assume a cheerful countenance as she approached the couch. A smile of almost painful sweetness shone on the face of the girl soldier when she first glanced at the serene face of the lady who kindly put her off in her penetrating inquiries, but could not avoid showing a trace of grief and anxiety over the sad message with which she was burdened.

The smile slowly faded from the girl’s face, her voice grew tremulous, her questions more searching and direct. The lady tried to commence to break the sad truth gently to her, but already the unfortunate maiden had comprehended the fact. Her face grew a shade paler, then flushed; she breathed with difficulty, they raised her up, a crimson stream gushed from her lips, and an instant after the strong heart of the true and loving sister was still forever.

William Fowler, 1877. Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated November 2019.

About the Author:  William Worthington Fowler was a diverse man with a number of careers including lawyer, stockbroker, politician, and author. This article was a chapter of his book Woman On The American Frontier: A Valuable And Authentic History originally published in 1877.  The text as it appears here; however, is not verbatim as it has been edited for clarity and ease of the modern reader.

Also See:

Heroines Across the Plains

Heroines in the Rocky Mountains

Heroines of the Southwest

Women in American History