Saturday, January 28, 2012

A woman soldier in the Civil War

An Uncommon Soldier, Lauren Cook Burgess, ed.

The subtitle of this book is "The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864."  I first learned about Rosetta Wakeman from another book Lauren Cook has written, this one with Deanne Blanton.  They Fought Like Demons is an overview of women soldiers in the Civil War, and an important part of the authors' thesis is to document the reality of the women soldiers.  Blanton and Cook have identified at least 250 women who served in the Federal and Confederate armies, which is admittedly only a fragment of the total number of enlisted personnel.  But they make a convincing argument that there were undoubtedly more women serving, who have never been identified and who chose not to reveal their service.

One of the women soldiers highlighted in their book was Rosetta Wakeman, who served in the Union army for almost two years.  Like thousands of her fellow soldiers, she died of disease, not in battle.  She was buried among her comrades in a military cemetery outside New Orleans, under her male nom de guerre.  Though she spent almost two months in a military hospital before her death, no one apparently discovered that she was a woman, or else chose not to reveal it.  The rudimentary medical care available at the time, and the very brief medical exams for army recruits, posed few problems for women who wanted to serve.

In her introduction to Rosetta Wakeman's letters, and in her meticulous notes, Lauren Cook Burgess tries to give as much context as she can both to Wakeman's life and military career, within the context of the experiences of women soldiers and generally of military service in the Civil War.  Unfortunately, there is little information about Wakeman's life prior to her enlistment.  She grew up on a farm in New York State, the oldest of nine children.  When she was 19, she left home to work, under a man's name, on a canal boat.  A few weeks later she enlisted with the 153rd New York, probably at least in part for the $152 enlistment bonus.  Her regiment was first assigned to guard and picket duty around Washington.  In February 1864, they were sent to Louisiana, to join General Nathaniel Banks' ill-fated drive up the Red River, which ended in defeat and retreat.  The hardships of the campaign, with forced marches and bad water supplies, took a heavy toll on unacclimated northerners like the 153rd New York, and "Lyons" Wakeman was among those who died from chronic diarrhea (which with dysentery would kill nearly half a million soldiers during the war).

Wakeman's letters home are in many ways typical of other Civil War soldiers' letters (I've read quite a few, through my own research in school and then my work as an archivist).  There are frequent comments about the weather and the food and her officers, questions about the family left behind and about friends also serving.  Remarkably, Wakeman was able to get leave to visit a cousin and another friend in their regiments, neither of whom apparently told anyone about her. It is elements like these that make Wakeman's letters very atypical, and in fact the collection is unique, among only a handful of primary source documents from women soldiers serving in the field during the Civil War.

In a Foreward to the book, Dr. James McPherson, the dean of Civil War historians, notes that Lauren Cook Burgess is herself a Civil War re-enactor, who represented a soldier in the field.  In 1989, after she was "outed," the National Park Service tried to ban her from re-enactments, on the grounds that there were no women soldiers in the Civil War.  Burgess ended up taking the NPS to court, and the resulting publicity caught the attention of Ruth Goodier, a great-grandniece of Rosetta Wakeman, who offered Burgess copies of the letters.  From that came this book, and Burgess's later work with Deanne Blanton.

There are thousands of collections of Civil War soldiers' letters in archives and in private hand across the United States.  Each one documents an individual's experiences in America's great struggle, and each is a voice from the past.  In An Uncommon Soldier, Lauren Cook Burgess ensures that one unique soldier's voice will be heard, and by extension that of her sisters in arms.


  1. I've always enjoyed reading Civil War diaries, letters, etc. This volume sounds really interesting. I can't believe there were so many women who fought in the war - I don't think I would have made that choice. And what an interesting route these letters had to publication!

  2. The book They Fought Like Demons was such an eye-opener, it made me want to read more about the individual women & their experiences. I love reading Civil War diaries and letters as well - even when they are just mundane, day-to-day stuff, life in camp and so on.

  3. I had no idea! Would you agree that McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom is still the definitive one-volume history of the Civil War? It may be time to read that, if so. If not, then what would you recommend?

  4. I can't think of a better one, Fay. There is also his Ordeal by Fire, but that's more a textbook, which covers Reconstruction as well.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!