Facial Hair Friday: Women Soldiers in the U.S. Civil War

It’s Facial Hair Friday, and we’re taking a look at women who fought as soldiers during the U.S. Civil War! Today’s post comes from Rachel Bartgis, conservator technician at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Lt. Harry J. Buford, aka Loreta Janeta Velázquez. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

While some female soldiers such as Loreta Janeta Velázquez wore fake moustaches, the majority of the hundreds of documented women who enlisted as soldiers in the American Civil War didn’t go to such theatrical lengths. Close quarters and rough campaigns made sustaining such elaborate disguises difficult, and a smooth-faced soldier was hardly an oddity when so many recruits were teenagers. A captain who testified during a court martial in 1862 said of soldier Helen Lambert (who went by Walter Harold) even said, “We have a hundred boys in the regiment who would be taken for a girl as soon as he.”

One of the better-documented female soldiers of the war is Sarah Emma Edmonds Seelye. Born in New Brunswick (now part of Canada) in 1841, Seeley disguised herself as a man with her mother’s help to escape an abusive marriage, and moved to the United States in the 1850s. 

When the Civil War broke out, she enlisted in Company F of the 2nd Michigan Infantry in 1861, under the name Franklin Flint Thompson. According to her memoir, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army: Comprising the Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-Fields, she served as a nurse and spy during the war for two years and deserted after receiving a severe injury that would have revealed her gender at the hospital. She worked in Washington, DC, as a female nurse at a hospital run by the United States Christian Commission for the remainder of the war.

Sarah Emma Edmonds Seelye (left) and dressed as Frank Thompson (right). (State Archives of Michigan)

After the war, she published her memoir in 1865 and married Linus. H. Seelye in 1867. In 1882 she applied for a government pension due to “her failing health, and the fact that her husband has no income except from his daily labor… she and her family are in indigent circumstances.” 

Sarah Emma Edmonds Seelye pension application, 1882. (National Archives Identifier 306649)

The National Archives holds Seelye’s pension application and the supporting documentation of her fellow soldiers who testified that Seelye and Frank Thompson were the same person, and that Thompson was a dutiful soldier. One of Seelye’s comrades, John Deitz, wrote in a letter to the War Department:

But I pray that Congress will receive my testimony in [sic] behalf of my comrade Franklin Thompson. I did not know till now that he was a woman.

For the time above mentioned I can certify that his association conduct and conversation with us was a credit to him either male or female. As I can remember now he was very inteligent [sic] for his age seemed to be accustomed to good society. He would choose his associates with discretion, and brave to the last degree[.] We all sympathised with him because he was delicate. 

The Committee on Invalid Pensions granted Seelye a $12 a month pension for her military service several years later. Eventually she was able to have the charge of desertion dropped and receive an honorable discharge. 

In 1897, Seelye became one of two women admitted to the Grand Army of the Republic, the organization for Civil War Union Army veterans. She died in 1898 and was buried in the GAR’s section of Washington Cemetery in Houston; she was later reburied in 1901 with full military honors.

Read more about in the Prologue article “Women Soldiers of the Civil War.”

March is Women’s History Month. Visit the National Archive website for related resources and virtual programming.

One thought on “Facial Hair Friday: Women Soldiers in the U.S. Civil War

  1. Another interesting story associated with Fort Gibson National Cemetery is that of Private Thomas, found on a bitterly cold morning in January of 1870, lying across a grave in the cemetery frozen to death.
    Vivia Thomas was the daughter of a wealthy Boston family. She met and fell in love with a handsome young lieutenant at a ball following the Civil War. After several months of courtship they announced their engagement, but shortly before the wedding, he left, leaving only a note that he desired to go West in search of adventure. Broken-hearted and bitter over the abandonment, Thomas went in search of her lover. She learned that he had been stationed at Fort Gibson, in
    Indian Territory. With the confusion of being jilted, she set off on a long rough journey. During the several months of her trip she decidedly felt it unsafe for a woman to travel alone, Vivia cut off all of her long, flowing hair and started dressing in men’s clothing. At first her motive had simply been to disguise herself for protection while traveling through rough country, but the disguise proved so successful that she decided to use it to get close to the young officer by enlisting in the Army at Fort Gibson. The disguise worked, as the former fiance did not recognize her. Avoiding detection, she carefully watched
    from a distance, her former love, as he left out of the fort every
    evening. The young officer had taken up with a Cherokee who lived a short distance from the fort and he visited her each evening. On many occasions, Vivia followed him, carefully hiding in the shadows,each time growing more bitter. One cold winter evening in late December 1869, on his return to the fort from his Cherokee love, Vivia lay in wait of ambush behind an outcropping of stone. When he rode by on his horse, she
    shot him with her rifle, hitting him in the chest knocking him from his horse dead. The next morning, his body was discovered by a passerby and brought to the fort. The soldiers at the fort assumed that he had been killed by Indians. When she realized what she had done she became deeply grieved. Every night she went to the young man’s grave where she wept
    uncontrollably, and would pray for hours for forgiveness. Then, one night, young Private Thomas, grief stricken and broken-earted, froze to death on a grass-less mound of dirt that lay between her and her recently interred love. When she was found she was taken to the fort’s infirmary. As the doctor tried to discover the cause of death, an unusual discovery
    was made; Private Thomas was a woman.
    Regardless, the story of this young woman touched the commanding officers at the fort. Rather then condemning her actions, they were so impressed with her courage in
    coming alone to the frontier and carrying out a successful disguise that they awarded her a place of honor for burial in the Fort Gibson National Cemetery Circle of Honor, which was set aside for soldiers who had distinguished themselves in service. Among the graves here is one stone that seems out of place. It simply reads “Vivia Thomas, January 7,
    1870”.

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