An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864
By Sarah Rosetta Wakeman
Edited by Lauren Cook Burgess (Editor)
Foreword by James M. McPherson
Oxford University Press, 1996
Very thin book, so a very quick read, but a fascinating one. Almost worth picking up for the introduction alone, which provides lots of fascinating background on the 400 or so (known) women who dressed up as men and fought in the Civil War. I especially appreciated the social commentary on how exactly these women could hope to get away with it — cursory physical exams, badly fitting uniforms, dependence on clothing to indicate gender (“if it wears pants, it’s male”), presence of lots of young boys in the Army whose voices haven’t changed yet and weren’t shaving, and of course, the extreme modesty of the society at the time, which didn’t make it at all unusual for a young soldier to choose to bathe alone and shy away from using the public latrines.
The funniest moment for me was the description of the soldier who wrote home to say that his sergeant, who had been sharing a tent with his Captain had had a child. (Paraphrasing a bit…) “What need have we of women, when we soldiers can have children of our own?” How much that was tongue in cheek and how much sheer willful obtuseness isn’t clear from the introduction.
My 2012 self declares that he must have been joking, but Lauren Cook Burgess believes that he may actually have just been expressing the extreme denial so many Army men had (“no woman could possibly handle this”) that protected these women from discovery.
Recommended for folks who enjoy reading Civil War history, but who want a break from the usual tales of women suffering on the home front while battles were won on the war front.