At Ease: Good Service as Soldiers
Female Soldiers & The Civil War
Women were not recruited or allowed to enlist in Civil War regiments, and the overwhelming majority of women stayed on the homefront or refugeed away from the scenes of war. However, there were some women who disguised themselves as men and enlisted; some ran away from abusive homes, were motivated by patriotism, or wanted to stay close to protective male family members or friends. Today's email for Women's History Month takes a closer look at several of these female soldiers and a homefront woman who held an officer's commission.
Capt. Sally Tompkins
Cousins Mary and Molly (“Mollie”) Bell, Pulaski Co., Virginia
Albert Cashier (Jennie Hodgers), 95th Illinois Infantry Regt. (2 votes)
Sarah Edmonds (Franklin Thompson) - 2nd Michigan Infantry
We appreciated the honesty in the following comment: "Not to be dismissive or reductive, but female Civil War soldiers were an anomaly. Many more women fought the war at home, on the farm, in hospital wards, escaping slavery or accomplishing the quotidian duties of the epoch that never achieved notoriety. It's good that progressive attention is being devoted to this sort of undeveloped history. Women in uniform, even serving in combat, is a legitimate topic, for certain. But it's a minute part of the wider picture, still being assembled." That's very true, and thank you for pointing it out! We've featured homefront civilians and nurses in some of our previous At Ease emails and try to spotlight a variety of Civil War topics with ties to Central Virginia history.
"Frank Thompson" at Fredericksburg
Although some scholars doubt the accuracy of her accounts, Sarah Emma Edmonds claimed to be at many famous battles, including Fredericksburg in December 1862. She had disguised herself, enlisted with the 2nd Michigan Infantry, and eventually began a spy.
Hiding in Plain Sight at Chancellorsville
In 1862, two cousins—Mary and Mollie Bell—got angry that their uncle left his farm in southwest Virginia to fight for the Union, and the two girls decided to join the Confederate army. Twenty-two-year-old Mollie had to talk fifteen-year-old Mary into the adventure, but eventually, both girls disguised themselves and enlisted in a cavalry unit since they knew how to ride from their years of farm work. Later, they transferred to the infantry and fought in Jubal Early's command (exact regiment not identified at this time) in the Shenandoah Valley, at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Spotsylvania Court House, and possibly other battles. The girls chose one officer that they trusted and told him their identities so he could help them keep their disguise in camp and on the march. In late autumn 1864, their confidant was captured and shortly after, they were reported to headquarters to be women in disguise, prompting a swift arrest and departure for Castle Thunder prison in Richmond. While the Richmond press and gossips ran wild with speculation and accusations that the girls had been prostitutes, Mollie and Mary held to their claim that they had only enlisted for patriotic reasons. Their comrades in the army even spoke up for them, saying, they had "done good service as soldiers without at all exciting suspicions...as to their sex." In the end, the cousins were released, given their uniforms, banned from ever entering the Confederate army again, and told to go home.
The Captain's Hospital in Richmond
Sally Louisa Tompkins did not disguise herself to join the army, but she is said to be the only woman commissioned in the Confederate Army. Unmarried and in her late twenties when the war began, Sally opened a private hospital in Richmond, Virginia, responding to the call for medical aid following the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas). With Judge John Robertson's permission, she opened his home as a private hospital and in the following months when the Confederate military wanted all hospitals under their control, President Jefferson Davis recognized the successful work that Sally had accomplished at her hospital; he offered her a commission so that she could keep her hospital under the new regulations. Sally wrote that she "accepted the commission as Captain in the C.S.A. when it was offered. But, I would not allow my name to be placed upon the payroll of the army." Throughout the war, she continued to run her hospital and gained the reputation for having the most recoveries and lowest mortality of all the hospitals in the city. Soldiers begged to be sent to her care. Over the four years of the war, more than 1,300 soldiers entered Robertson Hospital and were under "Captain Sally's" care. During the Overland Campaign, wounded Confederate soldiers arrived at her hospital while Sally was battling the military authorities to keep her facility operational. She wrote: "I think the register of this Hospital will show as great success in its management of the sick and wounded as any other. Since the 1st of last June, we have had 337 patients and but 8 deaths. Many of them sent to us were…the wors[t] cases.” Sally kept her hospital open through the fall of Richmond in April 1865 and then negotiated with occupying Union troops to continue working until her last Confederate patient was well enough to travel.
Captain Sally Tompkins (no known image restrictions)
It's Been A Year...
Can you believe that we've been sharing At Ease emails for a year? We're skipping the question this week since CVBT staff is in the process of reimagining the At Ease program and emails! We definitely want to continue sharing this extra history with you and are looking at some new options to improve the experience. Stay tuned...
Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania.