With Trump trying to erase transgendered people from any public function in the United States, it’s worth remembering that among the many, many, many, many people in American history braver and greater than the Cheeto Mussolini were the transgendered soldiers of the Civil War.
Cross-dressing has roiled the ranks of armies at least as far back as Joan of Arc, the 15th century military genius who was burned at the stake for heresies that included wearing a man’s uniforms. Leonard’s own expertise is the Civil War, a time when the ranks were filled with hundreds of women who cut their hair, put on pants and took up arms on both sides of the War Between the States.
Researchers at the National Archives have found evidence that at least 250 women dressed as men to fight in the 1860s, some motivated by ideology, some by a taste for adventure and some by the need for a job. Most of those who survived presumably returned to their lives as women. But others continued to live as men after the war.
Albert Cashier was born Jennie Hodgers in Ireland, immigrated to the United States as a stowaway and, at 18, enlisted in the Illinois Infantry Regiment as a man. After the war, in which he fought in some 40 actions, Cashier continued to dress in trousers and, in the modern parlance, identify as a man. He worked as a farmer and handyman for decades and missed out an army pension after refusing to take a required physical exam, according to scholar Jason Cromwell, the author of “Transmen and FTMs: Identities, Bodies, Genders and Sexualities.”
Cashier’s anatomical secret only came out after he was injured in a 1911 car wreck and treated by doctors. He was committed to an insane asylum but when his story was reported in newspapers, his former army comrades rallied to ensure he was buried as a soldier and recognized on a monument at Vicksburg as one of the Illinois soldiers who fought there.
Sarah Rosetta Wakeman was driven by poverty to work as a male canal boatman and then sign up with a New York unit to fight for the Union Army. The teenage girl passed as a 21-year-old man named Lyon Wakeman and bagged a $154 signing bounty. Recruits were not always closely examined, Leonard said, particularly toward the end of the war when armies on both sides were desperate for “men” of any kind. Among boys barely past puberty, the smooth face of a female impostor could easily have passed without remark.
But hey, these soldiers totally destroyed the Union effort during the Civil War, right?