Uncommon Soldiers

Women have fought in combat for centuries, largely unheralded by history, despite the fact that it was not until January 2013 that the U.S. Pentagon officially permitted them to serve directly in battle. In the Civil War, disguised as men, “they fought like demons,” wrote a young man to his father about the Confederate women warriors in the 1864 Battle of Dallas in Georgia.

Frances Clayton disguised herself as “Frances Clalin” to fight in the Civil War. The estimated number of women who fought as men on both sides of America’s bloodiest conflict ranges from a documented 250 to more than 1,000 souls. No one is sure, because many of them died and were buried as men, taking the stories of their service to the grave.

“We only know about these women through letters from soldiers writing home—about finding a wounded woman on the battlefield or witnessing a woman giving birth in the ranks,” said Erin Lindsay McCabe M.F.A. ’10, whose novel I Shall Be Near to You (Crown Publishers, 2014) was inspired by a collection of letters written home by a woman soldier, one of only three whose letters have been found.

McCabe found An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, Alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862–1864, edited by Lauren Cook Burgess, while searching for a primary source for her final paper in an undergraduate U.S. women’s history course at U.C. Santa Cruz. “We didn’t cover this topic in class,” McCabe said.

Wakeman’s letters marked the beginning of a relationship across time that would haunt McCabe for a decade before she finally started writing about the fictional character she named Rosetta.

“It seemed like Rosetta came to me fully formed. Over the years, she occasionally popped into my head,” McCabe said. “And she just wouldn’t shut up.” Then one night as McCabe crawled into bed, she heard a voice. “It was Rosetta’s voice. I thought OK, this is special. If I don’t write this down, I’m going to regret it.’” So she got up and started writing the story.

Rosetta’s is a tale of young newlyweds with a humble dream caught up in the brutal forces of a national conflict. Already inclined to defy the antebellum standards of appropriate womanhood, Rosetta enlists in the Army to be with her husband, Jeremiah, who had joined the Union Army against her wishes. He saw it as the chance to make the money they needed for the farm they both longed for. And by disguising herself as a man, Rosetta, like the real mid-19th-century women who took this gamble, had a shot at the kind of freedom and compensation she could never have enjoyed in a dress.

Sarah Emma Edmonds ("Franklin Thompson")Indeed, some of the women who survived the war spent the rest of their lives living as men; some apparently had lived as men before enlisting. “But many went to war with husbands, lovers or other family members,” McCabe said. “They couldn’t bear to be separated from them; they thought they could tend to them if they were wounded. Some left behind children to fight beside their men.” More than a few of the documented women soldiers joined by themselves, made good friends, performed admirably and learned to drink, curse, brawl, spit, and use tobacco like the men they were able to observe close up.

And while they all had different reasons for volunteering, according to a source McCabe relied upon—They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War, by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook—women enlisted for some of the same reasons men did: patriotism, honor, glory and excitement. And they fought valiantly, serving at every level, some as majors.

Today, it’s difficult to imagine pulling off such a deception, but enlistment then was accomplished with little more than a handshake. Women who bound their breasts as Rosetta did, cut their hair and wore baggy clothes were not much different from the smooth-skinned adolescent boys who joined the ranks by the thousands in what is sometimes referred to as “The Boys’ War.” And as Blanton and Cook point out, the prevalent notion of Victorian womanhood simply blinded men to signs that would otherwise have been obvious.

With the dearth of compelling detail about the female soldier’s life and the reticent nature of surviving letters, it’s difficult to know how her experience was different from a man’s, McCabe said. “But that’s what makes this so ripe for fiction, because we just don’t know.” In fact, Wakeman’s letters weren’t much different from the letters written by male soldiers of the time. “She said she was willing to fight, unafraid of battle and excited, at first. Since there is so much about the experience that these women haven’t told us, I had a lot of freedom to imagine.”

And so McCabe vividly created Rosetta’s story, populating it with fully envisioned characters, along with hope, longing, friendship and violence. She takes us inside Rosetta’s head to see through her eyes the heroics and devastation of the Battle of Bull Run.

“The screams. That came right out of the letters,” McCabe said, noting that Civil War letter writers, in a time of uncensored correspondence from the battlefield, were still reluctant to describe what they saw and felt in combat. “Although one man’s letter home described hearing a wounded woman’s screams all through a long night on the battlefield as the most horrifying thing he had ever witnessed.”

Loreta Janeta Velazquez ("Harry T. Buford")In retrospect, McCabe realizes she might have been naive about the difficulty of writing the battle scenes. “It seems obvious now, of course,” she said. “It’s so hard to send characters you care about into that situation, knowing they aren’t all going to have great outcomes.” She acknowledged that she wept while writing these scenes.

In writing as honestly as she could about the personal experience of warfare through a woman’s eyes, McCabe said she never intended her novel to be anti-war, “although I hope it helps readers to think about the horrors of war, what it does to people and whether it’s really worth it,” she said. “In the case of America’s Civil War, we can say it was worth it because it ended something else that was horrible. But there was a really heavy cost.”

McCabe also wanted I Shall Be Near to You to be inspiring, “to serve as an example of women’s active involvement in every part of our country’s history,” she said.

She’s been surprised by the number of readers who have written to say how much they appreciated the story because it helped them to better understand the sacrifice and service of their ancestors who fought in the Civil War. “I really didn’t expect that,” she said.

McCabe used the beginnings of Rosetta’s story to apply for Saint Mary’s M.F.A. in creative writing program and finished writing it with the support and advice of her fellow writers in the program, and her professors and mentors Rosemary Graham and Marilyn Abildskov.

I Shall Be Near to You has received gratifying attention—“more than I ever dreamed,” McCabe said—with enthusiastic reviews from major publications and the likes of novelist Pat Conroy, best-selling author of The Prince of Tides and The Death of Santini, who said, “If you don’t like this book, you don’t like to read.”

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