March 18, 2008
To celebrate Women’s History Month, Pajamadeen recently visited the Women’s Civil War Museum in Bardstown, Kentucky. The only museum in the country that focuses specifically on the role of women during the Civil War, it opened in 1999 in the c. 1840 Wright Talbott House at 310 E. Broadway. While some exhibits depict the roles that women played as factory workers, farmers, homemakers and nurses, others show women in less traditional roles as spies and, most notably, as soldiers in disguise on the battle lines. Murals painted on the walls convey a sense of the drama and hardship of the war. Period dresses, shoes and other accoutrements from the era demonstrate what the women wore.
While a popular Civil War-era saying was: “Better a soldier’s widow than a coward’s wife,” some women took it a step further. Flying in the face of Victorian conventions and the traditional view of females as frail, passive and subordinate, they enlisted in the army. About 250 women are thought to have served in the Confederate army disguised as men, with about 400 women serving in a similar manner in the Union army. Frances Clayton was one such female, serving in Missouri artillery and cavalry units. She’s seen below in her military garb.
Sometimes, the female soldiers weren’t even American. Consider the case of Sarah Edmonds. Canadian by birth, she enlisted as a private in the Second Michigan Infantry as Franklin Thompson in 1861, in Detroit. Sher fought in the bloody battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg and First Manassas and is one of only a few women known to have served for the duration of the Civil War (or, as people in the South sometimes still call it, “that recent unpleasantry”). After the war, she married a Canadian mechanic, L. H. Seelye, and had three children. She received a government pension for her military service in 1886. That same year, she received a letter from the Secretary of War which acknowledged her as “a female soldier” who had rendered “faithful service in the ranks.” Seelye died in Texas in 1898.
There were many others: Mary Scaberry (Charles Freeman), a private in the Fifty-Second Ohio Infantry, enlisted in Summer 1862 at age 17 but, by November, was admitted to a Lebanon, KY hospital with a fever. Transferred to a Louisville hospital, where she was outed, Scaberry was discharged for “sexual incompatibility.” Albert D. J. Cashier of Illinois (Jennie Irene Hodgers) served four years, receiving a military pension and spending her final days in a a soldiers’ home, only to be outed at death. Florina Budwin and her husband served side-by-side in the Union Army. Loreta Velazquez (Lt. Harry Buford), Satronia Smith Hunt of Iowa, Madame Collier of East Tennessee and many others left home and hearth to serve. Velazquez wrote: “Fear was a word I did not know the meaning of.”
Ironically, the U.S. Army tried to deny that women had served as soldiers at all. When Ida Tarbell of The American Magazine wrote to Adjutant General F. C. Ainsworth in 1909 asking if there were records of woman who served in the Civil War, he denied this, writing that “no official record has been found in the War Department showing specifically that any woman was ever enlisted in the military service of the United States as a member of any organization of the Regular or Volunteer Army at any time during the period of the civil war. It is possible, however, that there may have been a few instances of women having served as soldiers for a short time without their sex having been detected, but no record of such cases is known to exist in the official files.”
Other attractions along “Museum Row” include the Civil War Museum of the Western Theater. Established in 1996, it’s the fourth largest Civil War museum in the country, and the only one dedicated to the war’s Western Theater. The 8,500 square-foot museum is in what was originally Bardstown’s icehouse and waterworks. Pioneer Village contains log cabins built in Nelson County, KY from about 1776 to 1820, while the War Memorial of Mid America honors those who fought in every war from the Revolutionary War through Operation Desert Storm. The Wildlife Museum showcases North American wildlife as well as exhibits of fossils, minerals and shells from around the world.
Learn more about the museum complex at their website. Bardstown, in Central Kentucky, is about 40 miles southeast of Louisville. The museum is open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. EST from March through mid-December. Phone (502) 349-0291 for reservations.
Read more women’s history.
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