Civil War Surprises: We Didn’t Know She Was Pregnant
I probably confused the internet search engines this week when I typed “How to hide pregnancy.” No, dear reader, I am NOT having a baby anytime soon. Let me be clear about that! But I was thinking historically about some Civil War research notes I’d been reviewing and trying to understand how it was possible. How was it possible for a woman who had disguised herself as a soldier to be pregnant and no one around her realized it until…well, she went into labor and delivered a baby? While I struggle to think it was a complete surprise to the woman, it clearly surprised a lot of male soldiers in the same camp.
The best recorded incident of this surprising motherhood seems to have been in the Army of the Potomac in the spring of 1863.
Colonel Adrian Root from the 94th New York Infantry explained the details as he saw them to his mother:
“When I was last on duty as General Officer of the Day I came across a very singular case of illness out on the picket line…. A corporal of a New Jersey regiment who was on duty with the pickets complained of being unwell, but little notice was given his complaints at first. His pain and other symptoms of severe indisposition increased, becoming so evident that his officers had him carried to a nearby farmhouse. There the worthy corporal was safely delivered of a fine, fat little recruit for the…regiment!”[i]
Lieutenant Sam Partridge of the 13th New York Infantry wrote on April 10, 1863. It’s not quite clear if the last name “Blank” was really the soldier’s name or a way that Partridge protected her identity.
Last night Corporal Blank was reported sick, was sent to the hospital tent and examined by the surgeons, said examination causing a great commotion among the doctors and hospital attendants, and the report thereof causing[?] a general laugh among the officers.
In the course of the night Corporal Blank gave birth to a fine boy — genuine child of the Regiment. It’s about the gayest thing I’ve heard of yet. She enlisted as a man last August. The regiment came to the field early in September, and here amidst the ten thousand things which ought to have shown her sex, she’s preserved it undiscovered for seven months. Bully for her.
She’s got her discharge now anyhow.[ii]
Altus H. Jewell[iii] of the 77th New York wrote April 10, 1863, about the same incident and also claimed that the woman was from a New Jersey regiment: “It was as much surprising to the Company that she belonged to as it is to me or you. The Company had noticed that she always tented with one person, and many times when it was her turn to come on duty that her tent mate would take her place.”[iv]
While Sam Partridge emphasized that the woman had only been enlisted for seven months (is it possible that he was trying to imply she had not conceived while in the ranks?), other versions of the stories claimed that she had been with her regiment for more than a year and had fought during the Seven Days’ Battles and at Antietam and Fredericksburg.[v] One record says she had been wounded at Antietam. A colonel described her as “a young and good looking corporal” whose “courtesy and military bearing…struck the officers very favorably” as a “real soldierly, thoroughly military fellow.” “A corporal was promoted to sergeant for gallant conduct at the battle of Fredericksburg—since which time the sergeant has become the mother of a child… What use have we for women, if soldiers in the army can give birth to children?”[vi]
Quite a few soldiers mentioned the baby news in their letters, and overall, they seemed rather amused by the situation or spoke admiringly of the woman’s bravery. The news was the talk of the month for the army. Soldiers assured their parents that the story “is a true one.” One fellow pondered if this might be the answer to conscription: “it is not a bad move of the government if they can make the corporals bear children and serve as a soldier they may keep the stock up.”[vii]
But other soldiers took a moralistic view of the situation. Some officers commented that the woman was not married. Some—like good-hearted Lieutenant John V. Hadley—worried about the mother, writing to his fiancée on April 19, 1863: “The ‘lady soldier’ has been sent home to her folks. Her man remains in the Army. Sorry for the girl—forced to leave him at last & in much worse condition. I understand [a] contribution fund has been established in the Army to give her boy a military education. I hope it is so. I have a mite to cast for such a purpose.”[viii] (emphasis is original in Hadley’s letter)
An interesting letter quote surfaced from a document written by an officer in the 149th Pennsylvania on March 11, 1863. He told his father that a pregnant female soldier had been discovered and that the officers insisted on hearing her side of the story. “She swore it [fatherhood] on one of the Seargants[sp] of the Company who messed with her and they took $8.00 out of his monthly pay while he is in the service and that is to go to support her and her child.”[ix] If reported correctly, these officers forced a man to pay a form of child-support in a case of probable rape that resulted in pregnancy. The date on this letter introduces a mystery. First, is the date correct in the archives? If so, was there another pregnant woman discovered in the winter of 1863? Or is this about the New Jersey soldier who had a baby in mid-April? If it is about the New Jersey soldier, had some officers figured it out early? If so, why would they have let her stay on duty? At this time, I’m guessing this is another and separate circumstance. Both Hadley and Jewell implied that a male soldier was looking out for the New Jersey soldier/mother; but they also may have heard a rose-tinted version of the story and that must be considered, too.
The unnamed woman from New Jersey was not the only female soldier to stay in the army while pregnant. A few other mothers were discovered in both blue and gray uniforms and written about. Lucy Thompson Gauss enlisted with her husband in the 18th North Carolina Infantry and served from August 1861 until December 1862 when she headed home at the end of her pregnancy.[x] A few Confederate prisoners delivered babies: one at Rock Island Prison in April 1864 and one at Johnson’s Island Prison in December 1864.[xi] On February 28, 1865, a black woman disguised and enlisted in the 29th Connecticut Infantry (Colored) gave birth to a baby; a sergeant in the same regiment noted “it rained hard all day and now she is in the hospital.”[xii]
In the Union’s Army of the Cumberland on April 17, 1863, a sergeant “always attended to his various duties with promptitude and care—and nothing out of the way was discovered of him until…he gave birth to a large boy.”[xiii] However, the Western Theater army did not seem to welcome the baby news as cheerily as the Army of the Potomac. General William S. Rosecrans fired off an angry telegram to the XX Army Corps. “The Medical Director reports that an Orderlie[sp] Sergent[sp] in Brig Gen Johnsons Division was to day delivered of a baby—which is violation of all military law and of the army regulations. No such case has been known since the days of Jupiter. You will apply a proper punishment in the case, and a remedy to prevent a repetition of the act.”[xiv] Exactly what he meant by punishment and prevention isn’t quite clear.
So how were these few women hiding their “big surprises”? A few thoughts come to mind.
First, their comrades were not expecting it (pun slightly intended). Just like male soldiers were not suspecting to find females disguised and in the ranks beside them, they wouldn’t have been looking for hints of pregnancy because it was socially unexpected for a woman to even be in uniform. One of the discovered female prisoners who had a baby was called “a portly young fellow.” Comrades would think “results of eating lots of rations,” not “is that a baby bump?”
Second, loose and layered clothing of a uniform could have helped a woman hide her pregnancy in the last months. Especially for the New Jersey soldier/mother, a winter coat would have been invaluable.
Third, pretty much everyone in the Civil War armies was sick at one time or another. So if the expecting soldier was ill or making frequent trips to the latrines, it’s not likely anyone would have paid too much extra attention.
Fourth, there weren’t pregnancy tests in the 1860s and it may have been a while before the woman realized she was pregnant. In normal, home settings of the mid-19th Century, a woman might begin to suspect a pregnancy within a few weeks or a couple months after conception, but—depending on her early symptoms—she usually didn’t feel certain until she started to feel the baby moving (usually 4 or 5 months into her pregnancy). Many of the 19th Century ideas about conception or about pregnancy resulting from abuse or rape were simply biologically incorrect, adding layers of misinformation to the situation. I wonder how much these women knew about conception and pregnancy and when they realized they were going to have a baby.
Fifth, modern medicine recognizes a condition called Cryptic Pregnancy, which is basically when a woman truly has no idea that she is pregnant until near the end of her term or when she actually goes into labor.[xv] While this situation is rare, it should be briefly considered in these Civil War accounts. The women were already under a lot of stress to keep their secrets just as soldiers, and this stress may have already affected them physically in multiple ways, making it more difficult or even less likely to self-detect a pregnancy.
This post has focused on disguised female soldiers’ pregnancy and births from the perspective of male writers and the surprise they expressed at the situation. So far, these women’s stories are only known through what men wrote about them. While I’m thankful that we have records and the men’s outraged, amused, or sympathetic responses, I wish we had sources sharing the women’s side of their stories. They surely had their own moments of surprise.
Perhaps for those disguised female soldiers who had enlisted to stay with husbands or lovers, it was a somewhat pleasant surprise to know they were pregnant. Perhaps there was annoyance or frustration to figure out their situation—that was not an uncommon reaction, even for civilian women on the homefront. For others, pregnancy may have been the result of coercion or other horrible circumstances. I wonder when these female soldiers first realized they were with child, and what that moment must have been like. What motivated them to continue to stay in the army at that point? I think about them knowing they would give birth—a difficult physical experience to begin with and one that would decisively reveal their gender secret. Then, they had no idea how officers or doctors would react. Even if her husband or romantic partner knew she was pregnant and looked out for her, she was still alone in an army of men during a uniquely female moment: motherhood.
And what must it have been like to hold that baby for the first time? What feelings did she experience in that moment after nine months of carrying that little one—sometimes even in battle? We don’t know. But I venture to guess she may have been surprised by how pain and fears melted for a moment and feelings of love and joy conquered when she saw her baby for that first time.
L. Maria Child, The Mother’s Book (1846). Accessed via Google Books.
Lynn V. Kennedy, Born Southern: Childbirth, Motherhood, and Social Networks in the Old South. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).
Kim Murphy, I Had Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War. (Coachlight Press, LLC., 2013).
[i] DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook, They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War (New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 2002), page 103.
[ii] Bound Volumes, Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania National Military Park, Volume 146-05: Samuel S. Partridge, April 10, 1863.
[iii] Letters of A. H. Jewell: https://sparedshared17.wordpress.com/2018/09/02/1863-asa-alyus-h-jewel-to-asa-b-jewell/
[iv] DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook, They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War (New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 2002), page 54.
[v] Ibid., pages 13-15.
[vi] Ibid., page 15.
[vii] Ibid., page 104.
[viii] James I. Robertson, Jr. and Jane Hadley Comer, “An Indiana Soldier in Love and War: The Civil War Letters of John V. Hadley”, published in Indiana Magazine of History, Vol. 59, No. 3. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963). Page 238. Accessed through Jstor.
[ix] DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook, They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War (New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 2002), page 104.
[x] Ibid., page 31.
[xi] Ibid., page 84.
[xii] Ibid., page 105.
[xiii] Ibid., page 72.
[xiv] Ibid., page 105.
[xv] American Pregnancy Association: What is a Cryptic Pregnancy? https://americanpregnancy.org/getting-pregnant/what-is-a-cryptic-pregnancy/
2 Responses to Civil War Surprises: We Didn’t Know She Was Pregnant
Well, being 7.5 months pregnant at the moment, I can’t imagine how these women hid their condition. I’m huge and no amount of layers or baggy clothes changes that at this point, but every woman’s body is different and every pregnancy story is different. I’ve heard of women, namely athletes, who hardly show at all until their third trimester. The stress and exertion of war and combat training can also cause irregular or delayed menstrual cycles, which may explain why women wouldn’t know they were pregnant until much later – if their cycle was the only indicator.
As for the last, emotional quality to their story and experience, only a mother would know the levels of such joy and euphoria of holding their baby for the first time. Something I look forward to, despite the dread of labor. I’ll try to put it into words this summer ?
Thank you so much for posting this. Rowman and Littlefield published my book Unexpected Bravery on the topic of women in the civil war. It is a fascinating topic. There was an unidentified woman killed at Antietam who was pregnant and in uniform. Thank you again!!!