Discovered: Female Soldiers At Gettysburg

Mary Virginia Wade – better known as “Jennie Wade” – was the only woman shot and killed at Gettysburg. Or so the story goes. But is it true? What if there were other female casualties at Gettysburg? Women in the direct line of battle fire? Not civilian “by-standers”?

At least five other women were shot at Gettysburg. They weren’t civilians. They were soldiers. This is what is known about them.

Some books and history events seem to give the impression that half the soldiers in Civil War armies were female. That’s not true, but serious historians should acknowledge the presence of female soldiers in the 1860’s armies. It was a very controversial and semi-dangerous step for a 19th Century woman to wear male clothing and masquerade as a man, but some did. Motivations varied; some women followed husbands or lovers into the army, others were seeking patriotic adventure, and many were taking an opportunity to make a “silent statement” and rebel against the traditional female role.

Details about female soldiers during the Civil War are not plentiful. Most kept their service secret, though some eventually revealed their adventures with the barest details. A couple of women wrote and published their accounts, usually implying a quasi-feminist statement.

Photography of a Civil War Regiment (LOC). Were there any unidentified female soldiers in this unit?

Photography of a Civil War Regiment (LOC). Were there any unidentified female soldiers in this unit?

There were five female soldiers who were “discovered” at Gettysburg. Likely, more women were hiding in the ranks – possibly even buried – without revealing their secret. Unfortunately, the information about these five is quite limited, and many unanswered questions remain. The known information about the two Union and three Confederate girls is a fascinating glimpse into a mysterious part of Gettysburg and the entire war.

One wounded Union soldier at Gettysburg was Mary Siezgle. According to a contemporary report from the era, she “originally went to the front and served as a nurse but decided to stay with her husband in a New York regiment. The only way for her to do so was to put on male clothes and do ‘her share of the fighting.’”[i]

The other “discovered” Union warrioress had served as a drummer “boy.” She refused to give her name, but admitted she was eighteen years old. Wounded and her feminine secret revealed by medical staff, this girl declared “they may do what they please with her, but she [would] never wear women’s clothes again.”[ii] After her injuries healed, she was quietly sent out of the army. The girl promptly re-enlisted, but was later found out again by accident.[iii]

A Rebel girl was revealed in a field hospital where she’d been carried with a serious wound. Her plight amused and astonished the male soldiers at the base hospital; one wrote to his parents about the incident. (The spelling is original.) “I must tel you we have got a female secesh here. She was wounded at Gettysburg but our doctors found her out. I have not seen her but the[y] say she is very good looking. The poor girl [h]as lost a leg. It [is] a great pity she did not stay home with her mother but she get good care and kind treatment. It [is] rather romantic to have a female soldier in the hospital and her only to have one leg and far a way from home but I hope she will soon get better and get home to her friends.”[iv] This un-named Rebel girl did recover and was quietly sent to her family in the South…without any recorded romantic escapades.

An artist's depiction of Pickett's Charge. At least two Southern women made the fatal march.

An artist’s depiction of Pickett’s Charge. At least two Southern women made the fatal march.

Another Confederate female soldier strode forward in Pickett’s Charge. She was mortally wounded near Emmitsburg Road and not taken to a field hospital. During the night of July 3rd, a private from New Jersey heard her agonized screams, but was unable and unauthorized to go her aid. Later, the Union soldier would declare that the cries were the most horrible sounds he had ever heard.[v]

While four female soldiers’ identities were discovered while they were alive, the third Confederate female soldier was not identified as a woman until after her death. Her body was found near the stonewall at The Angle by a Union burial detail. At the end of Union General William Hays’s Gettysburg report, he noted the burial of the Southern dead. One terse sentence records the female soldier: “Remarks: one female (private) in rebel uniform.”[vi] Nothing about her age, appearance, or the reactions of the men who found her.

Thus, Mary Virginia Wade was not the only woman shot or killed at Gettysburg. It is also possible she was not the only civilian to die during the battle either; though the evidence is not conclusive at this point, another Gettysburg civilian woman may have died during the battle days from complications of childbirth. For those wishing to have an accurate answer for “Jennie” Wade’s death, here’s a suggestion. “Mary Virginia Wade was the only known civilian woman killed by a military projectile during the Battle of Gettysburg.” That’s citable with historical facts!

The brief accounts of the five female soldiers at Gettysburg present more questions for historians to follow. Maybe – just maybe – more details will be discovered about those women or others still “undiscovered” in the 1863 ranks. Long overshadowed by Miss Wade, these five women were remarkable for their courage and patriotism. Whatever motivations brought them to the battlefield, they were brave and extraordinary in their commitments and beliefs.

 

[i] Eileen F. Conklin, Women at Gettysburg, 1863, Revisited (2013), Page 152.

[ii]DeAnne Blanton & Lauren M. Cook, They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War (2002), Page 57

[iii] Ibid, Page 114.

[iv] Ibid, Page 96.

[v] Ibid, Page 16.

[vi] Eileen F. Conklin, Women at Gettysburg, 1863, Revisited (2013), Pages 152, 451.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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4 Responses to Discovered: Female Soldiers At Gettysburg

  1. Bob Huddleston says:

    Somewhere I saw a comment there were more women soldiers in the Civil War than there were Black Confederates!

  2. Bob Huddleston says:

    A friend and I were talking one time about women soldiers. No question they existed but how did they avoid discovery? To use an obvious example, girls go potty in a very different and obvious manner than do boys.

    Then the friend had the answer: when he and I joined the military, we went off to basic/boot camp among strangers. For the past century or more soldiers are among strangers from their enlistment to their discharge (to say nothing of the medical exam done to new recruits).

    But in the Civil War, one went off with neighbors: everyone knew everyone else in the company, whether they wore blue or gray. Which means the women *were* known to their comrades from day 1. Which puts an entirely different light on who these women were and their relationship with their fellow soldiers, their neighbors and friends.

    • Will Hickox says:

      Avoiding detection may have been easier than we tend to assume. Lauren Cook Burgess in “An Uncommon Soldier” notes that people in the mid-19th-century would have just assumed that a person wearing male attire was male; they simply couldn’t imagine otherwise and wouldn’t have thought to check.

  3. Yes, recruiting from specific areas does raise the question, how many of those soldiers knew their comrade was a woman? It probably varied case by case.

    I think Will makes a good point mentioning that it was just so unexpected that most guys probably didn’t even think to question. Also, the young ages allowed in the ranks (legally as drummer boys, or when the recruiter “turned a blind eye” on the age or believed a lie) probably made it easier. The role of a shy, young man could’ve shielded some of the women from scrutiny. The loose-design of the basic uniform certainly worked to her advantage.

    As for the *ahem* physical challenges? That would’ve been difficult. I suspect each disguised soldier had her own way of over-coming, hiding, or persuading others to keep her secrets.

    To me, the most interesting case of a disguised female soldier is from the Napoleonic Era. At Waterloo (1815), a burial party found a female cavalry lieutenant on the field. A lieutenant? In the French Imperial Army? In a cavalry uniform which was either part armor or very form-fitting (depending on the unit)? That’s a real mystery to me!

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