Cross dressing in times of war is a concept that started as far back as Ancient Greece. Women have made use of it both as a means of protecting themselves as well as engaging in military action (women were not allowed to join the military in many countries for many years). This trend worked both ways with men dressing as women to avoid being drafted.
The American Civil War is the bloodiest battle in US history; it was fought between the United States of America in the North and the Confederate States of America in the South from 1861 to 1865. There were a number of reasons as to why the war started but the issue of slavery is perhaps the most significant. States in the South were angered by the North‚Äôs anti-slavery stance. There is not one definitive number but historians state that between 620,000 and 750,000 men lost their lives during the war.
Women were not legally allowed to fight in the Civil War; in spite of this approximately 400 women dressed as men and participated in the War. The requirements to enlist in the army of either the North or the South were pretty minimal ‚Äì they needed people to fight so they weren‚Äôt that rigorous with their tests. Women who wanted to enlist would just cut their hair short and wore loose clothing. Once they made it into the army they performed the same duties as men, they were spies, they fought in combat as well as being cooks and nurses.
One of the most well-known women soldiers of the War was Sarah Edmonds. Going by the name Frank Thompson she enlisted in Michigan in 1861. Over the course of the next year she would take part in a number of key battles including the Battle of Blackburn‚Äôs Ford, the First Battle of Bull Run and the three month long Peninsular Campaign. She was forced to leave the military when she contracted malaria ‚Äì she was afraid that her disguise would be discovered. ‚ÄòFrank Thompson‚Äô was accused of being a deserter so she could not return once she had recovered. She went on to write a book about her time in the military called Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. She also earned herself a government pension for her service to the military in 1886.
Sarah Edmond is one of many women who didn‚Äôt let their gender get in the way of them fighting for their cause and if you would like to read about more women I suggest reading She Went to the Field: Women Soldiers in the Civil War, by Bonnie Tsui.
Girl Museum Inc.