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.
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.
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.”
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.