At first glance, you probably wouldn’t expect women to have played any combat roles during the Civil War. In actual fact, there were scores of women who got around the laws of the day by cutting off their hair, creating aliases and joining the army. Between 400-750 women are known to have fought on both sides of the conflict. This only counts the ones who were discovered by army doctors or openly admitted to it after the war.
Women are known to have fought in almost every major conflict from the First Battle of Bull Run all the way to the surrender at Appomattox Court House. They were harder to detect than you might think. This is because many soldiers didn’t receive training before hand, so there was no way to detect any possible physical differences. They also had to wear heavy uniforms that hid body shapes and sizes, and the lack of facial hair could easily be waved aside by claiming they were young men or boys. If they were discovered, they were usually discharged without further punishment, but there were a few exceptions to this.
Many of the surviving soldiers would write memoirs describing their time on the battlefield. One of the most famous memoirs comes from Loreta Janeta Velazquez, a Cuban-born Texan who joined the Confederate army at the age of 19 in 1861. She disguised herself as a man named Harry T. Buford, raised a regiment of volunteers in Arkansas and joined her husband in Florida.
After her husband’s death, she went up to Virginia and fought at the First Battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. She then went on and became a spy for about a year. She rejoined the army in 1862 and would fight at Fort Donelson and Shiloh before being discovered. She would later return to espionage work for the rest of the war. She published her memoirs in 1876 and is believed to have died in 1897.
On the Union side, one of the most famous examples was Sarah Rosetta Wakeman of New York. She left home disguised as a man in 1862 though why she was already disguised is lost to history. She enlisted in the 153rd New York Infantry Regiment as Private Lyons Wakeman. Her regiment served provost and guard duty in Virginia and the District of Columbia for two years before finally being called into action during the Red River Campaign of early 1864. She saw battle at Pleasant Hill, Louisiana, on April 9. She managed to beat back Confederate advances six times before the regiment was forced to retreat.
They reached Alexandria in early May, and Wakeman reported to the regimental hospital there with chronic diarrhea. She never recovered and died on June 19, 1864, in a New Orleans hospital. Her true sex was never discovered during the war, and she is still buried as Lyons Wakeman at Chalmette National Cemetery even after the truth has become known to historians.