I am pleased to share this interview with I Shall Be Near To You author, Erin Lindsay McCabe. Since finishing her historical novel last month, my head was buzzing with more questions about women in the Civil War who, disguised as men, lived and fought with husbands, lovers, husbands and brothers. I was seized by the need to know more, and the busy author graciously answered my questions--via e-mail-- with the copious details I craved.
Who were they? How did they do it? Why did they do it? Did they make a difference? McCabe told me everything I needed to know, and I thank her again for sharing her mastery of a little known slice of women's history. I still shake my head at the thought of it. Women, passing as men, in the thick of battle. Who knew?
1. Do you believe your novel is revealing lesser-known chapters of Civil War history? I can't believe many people, even Civil War buffs, know about these women signing on to the fight?
Most of the Civil War buffs I have encountered do know that women fought in the Civil War. When I visited a reenactment here in California as part of my research, it was made very clear to me that the regiments participating there were “equal opportunity” and I saw several female soldiers in the ranks. That said, most people I talk to are pretty surprised to learn that women fought, and they are even more surprised when they hear the numbers (250 documented, 400-1000 estimated). Their reaction is usually very much like mine, when I first learned of these women—disbelief, shock. Several readers have commented that they thought the premise for the book was implausible or even ridiculous, until they learned it was based on fact. It’s such a great and I feel like it’s important, especially for girls and women, to know just how fully women have been involved in all aspects of this nation’s history. One of my hopes in writing this novel was that it would serve as a tribute to the real women who enlisted, and help their stories gain more exposure. There are several fabulous history books that focus on women’s service in the Civil War, but I feel like this topic was ripe for fiction because we really have so few details about most of the women, and so little of it is in their own words.
Sarah Rosetta Wakeman
2. Rosetta disguised herself for love. Was that the motivation of most other women who took this drastic action? Rosetta Wakeman, a real woman who passed as a man and enlisted in a New York regiment, didn't seem to have that element in her life.
The real Rosetta didn’t have romantic love as a motivation to join up, but it’s very clear from her letters home that she did love her family very much. She frequently sent home small gifts for her siblings (a knife, a ring, a photo) and she asked about the farm in almost every letter. Her father was in debt and she sent quite a bit of the money she made home, so her main motivation seemed to be that she could earn better money and help her family more as a soldier. But she also says in one letter, “I like to be a soldier very much,” and in another “I have enjoyed my self the best since I have been gone away from home than I ever did before in my life. I have had plenty of money to spend and a good time asoldier[ing].” Maybe that was just a brave face she was putting on for her family, but I tend to think that she really enjoyed the freedom she had, living as a man. That said, most of the documented women who served did go with husbands, fiancés, lovers, or even brothers and fathers. So love was definitely a big motivator. But there are also women, like Sarah Emma Edmonds, who served because they were patriotic and wanted to fight for something they believed in, or Jennie Hodgers who wanted to experience the adventure of being a soldier. Basically women had every reason men did for enlisting.
3. Many soldiers on both sides came from farms. I can see how a hardy young woman like your Rosetta could fool people. Is that why you portrayed her as strong, capable and unafraid—so she could more easily pass as a man?
I really wanted to be true to the voice of the real Rosetta, which shines through in her letters. She comes across as being all of those qualities—strong, capable, and brave— but also tender. Many of the other women who fought earned promotions or were remembered as being courageous and tough, and I felt like, in order to do what they did, and pull it off for years (some all the way through pregnancy even!), these women had to be incredibly determined. So, yes those qualities make it easier to pass as a man, but I think these were people who were accustomed to hard physical labor and having to work for their own survival. Living on a farm must have been a big help in being more prepared to do the job of a soldier.
4. I presume physicals were not required to join up. How many of these women were detected during the war and what was the typical response?
The physical was often just a handshake, or a matter of having a potential soldier open up his mouth to check that he had enough teeth to tear open the cartridges to load his weapon. There was really no common or standard examination, and obviously it wasn’t very thorough. The fact that the army accepted children in the ranks (some drummer boys were as young as 9 or 10) and did not confirm the ages they were given by enlistees, made it easier for women to pass alongside teenage boys whose voices hadn’t changed and who didn’t need to shave. There was also no official protocol for what to do when a woman was discovered in the ranks. Some were imprisoned for, as Rosetta puts it in one of her letters, “not doing acCording to regulation.” Others were drummed out of the regiment and sent home. And some were allowed to stay. The men who learned after the war that some of their comrades had been women were almost universally supportive—they remembered their fellow soldiers for their actions and their gender just didn’t matter.
5. After reading the journals and letters, what do these women say was more difficult--keeping up with the physical demands of marching and battle or the total lack of privacy? How did they cope with menstruation? Can't even imagine.
There is absolutely no discussion in either of the first-hand accounts I read about the practical, day-to-day realities of how they managed to keep up their disguises. I was so frustrated by that! Some of the women were remembered as using tobacco, drinking, and gambling—perhaps activities they took up in order to help maintain their disguise. I’m sure many of the women were helped by the fact that they were used to doing farm work or other physical labor. It also helped that standards of modesty were higher at the time—it was not at all uncommon for men to choose to use the bushes instead of the latrines, which were notoriously disgusting. One theory is that the poor nutrition and the long marches may have caused many women to stop menstruating entirely or that with so many wounded and dead on the battlefields, it might not have been to hard to dispose of soiled rags. But how they did it remains one of the big questions I have.
6. Anything in your research surprise you--how they fared in battle, for example? Where they fought? Any women part of the action in Gettysburg?
There are five women known to have served at Gettysburg, including two women who participated in Pickett’s charge (one was wounded severely and the other was discovered dead by Union burial crews). The women were pretty much everywhere—at major battles and plenty of smaller engagements too. Aside from my initial shock that women had served in such numbers and I had never known, I think the biggest surprise was learning that women had served while pregnant and had gone undiscovered until the moment they gave birth—it seems impossible, and yet, it happened! I was also surprised in general by the moments of humanity that the troops would demonstrate toward the other side—Union troops cheering for a Confederate soldier who went out on the field to give water to the wounded in the midst of a battle, for instance. That soldier could have easily been shot, but he wasn’t. There are lots of stories like that, where the two sides treated each other with kindness and humor, although sadly, none of that made it into the novel. There were also plenty of horrific details that I was surprised by that did make it into the book—like the soldier who carved keepsake rings out of bones he found on the battlefields. That’s something I could never have made up.
7. How were these women treated by their hometowns and communities when they returned?
There is even less information available about the female soldiers’ lives after they left the service than there is about their time in the army. The few women whose lives are documented after the war didn’t talk publicly about their experiences and only a few of them attempted to get military pensions, well after the war ended. Some of them were only identified as veterans in their obituaries. My sense is that most of the women didn’t talk about their experience much, and if they did, it was within the confines of their families, sharing their stories with their children. I think most of them probably just went back and immersed themselves in the work of daily living. I don’t know if it was because they didn’t want to talk about what they had done, or they felt they couldn’t. I imagine for many of them it would have been difficult after having been treated as equals—some of the women had even voted during their service—to go back to being unable vote, own property, or even have their own bank accounts. It seems like it must have been very galling to give up those kinds of freedoms, to give up being considered a full-fledged citizen. Some women didn’t want to give up that freedom, for whatever reason. At least two women continued living as men after the war, one being discovered only after she died (and known only by her male alias, Otto Schaffer), and the other, Jennie Hodgers, being discovered toward the end of her life.
8. I notice at your website there are photos of you at Antietam and Bull Run. How did those visits affect your writing? And your Playlist--how did that help you recreate the time?
The playlist was mostly about creating the right mood and tone for myself, although some of the music I listened to was music that the soldiers would have listened to and sung (The Battle Hymn of the Republic, for instance). But a lot of what is on the playlist is modern folk music, which I love because the songs are about deep emotional issues, but are sung in very simple, very beautiful, very earthy language. The kind of character that Rosetta is, and the soldiers who fought, so many of them were from agrarian backgrounds—I imagined they would filter their stories through what they had experienced of the land and nature and animals. That’s a huge part of why I ended up needing to go to the battlefields. By the time I visited them, I had written a complete draft of the novel, relying on battlefield maps to trace the route of my characters, and using field guides and historic photos to imagine the setting (and also memories of my first visit to Manassas in 1995). But I really felt like I needed to be in that physical space to really understand the landscape and what the soldiers might have seen and experienced and felt. I wanted to walk as much of the route the soldiers marched and find the places on the battlefield where key moments occur. Sitting in those places and knowing that hundreds of soldiers fought and died all around where I was walking was intense and emotional. Afterwards, I felt so much more confident working on those battle scenes, even though many of the revisions I made as a result of the trip were small details, really. The trip was probably most helpful in allowing me to feel like I had the authority to write those scenes. It was a huge challenge since I have no military experience whatsoever, but I so wanted to get the battles right and do justice to what the soldiers experienced. Hopefully I succeeded.