A History of Crossdressing Soldiers

Think women haven't been in combat situations already? Meet the women who dressed like men to fight in the Civil War.

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It was discovered only in 1913 that Albert D.J. Cashier (left), a Civil War veteran, was a woman. Frances Clayton (center and right), who served in the Missouri artillery, disguised as a man. (via National Archives)

The military ban on women in combat is coming to an end. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the overturning of a 1994 Pentagon rule that restricts women from artillery, armor, and infantry jobs.

This country has had a storied history of women fighting for the country, despite various forces dissuading them from doing so. As of last year, for example, more than 800 women have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan (where about 20,000 women have served) despite the combat ban. But the story is older than that, as old as the country even. A woman by the name of Margaret Cochranfought in the Revolutionary War, and hundreds of women disguised themselves as men just to take up arms in the Civil War.

According to the National Archives, as many as 400 women fought during the Civil War while concealing their gender. Mary Livermore of the U.S. Sanitary Commission wrote in 1888:

    Some one has stated the number of women soldiers known to the service as little less than four hundred. I cannot vouch for the correctness of this estimate, but I am convinced that a larger number of women disguised themselves and enlisted in the service, for one cause or other, than was dreamed of. Entrenched in secrecy, and regarded as men, they were sometimes revealed as women, by accident or casualty. Some startling histories of these military women were current in the gossip of army life.

Let's meet some of these women who, in a sense, paved the way for today's ban reversal. Here are four women who fought, compiled from Larry G. Eggleston's Women in the Civil War.

  1. Loretta Janeta Velazquez was a total badass. Born to a rich Cuban aristocrat, Velazquez's wealth played a key role in her fighting for the Confederate army. When her husband, William, went off to war in 1861, Velazquez wanted so badly to be with him that she offered to fight beside him incognito. William wouldn't hear it, and went off to war without her. Not content with life alone, Velazquez decided to use her wealth to finance and equip an infantry battalion, which she would bring to her husband to command. She cut her hair, tanned her skin, and went by the name Lt. Harry T. Buford. She went on to fight in various battles, including Bull Run and Shiloh, but her gender was twice discovered and she was discharged. So, naturally, she became a spy, with disguises in both the male and female variety.
  2. It must have been hard to hide your gender while serving in the war. Take it from Lizzie Compton, who enlisted at the age of 14. Her gender was discovered seven different times. But each time, she packed up her things and moved on to another regimen. Compton was wounded twice during her service, the first time by a piece of shrapnel as she charged up a hill at Antietam.
  3. Louisa Hoffman has the distinction of serving for both the Union and Confederate armies. When the war first started, she left her home in New York to enlist (as a man, of course) in the 1st Virginia Confederate Cavalry. But, after fighting at both battles of Bull Run, she had a change of heart, and headed up north to Ohio.
  4. Mary Seaberry was said to wear a disguise and have a manner that "never gave anyone in her regiment even the slightest hint that she was not a man." Unfortunately for her, after being admitted into a hospital with a fever, there was no way she could hide her true identity. She was discharged "on the basis of sexual incompatibility."
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Ben Terris is a staff reporter for National Journal.

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