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Transgendered Soldiers of the Past

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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?

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  • Frank Wilhoit

    “…But hey, these soldiers totally destroyed the Union effort during the Civil War, right?”

    Well, we now see that the South did, in fact if not in form, win.

    • Yixing’s Fluffer

      William T Sherman / Kirsten Gillibrand 2020: If the GOP can keep trotting out the corpse of Reagan, why not?

      • Origami Isopod

        William T Sherman / Kirsten Gillibrand 2020

        Marching to the Sea!

  • Wapiti

    Very cool.

  • science_goy

    Minor correction – I believe the generally preferred adjective is “transgender,” not “transgendered.”

  • Sometime it hits me just how surreal the last year has been, and continues to be, with the ascension of the King of dimwits and trolls.

  • Dave

    “Transgendered” as opposed to “transgender” is often considered offensive and I’m surprised to see it on this blog.

    • Bri2k

      I had no idea about this and greatly appreciate being informed.

  • Bruce Vail

    The photo is not just a generic trans person from the Civil War but an image of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, a very remarkable person in her own right, She won the Medal of Honor. She deserves a post of her own

    • Just_Dropping_By

      It’s more accurate to say it’s not a photo of a “generic trans person from the Civil War” at all since, AFAICT, Walker didn’t claim to have been born the wrong sex or to have ever claimed she was anything other than a woman with a progressive view on women’s role in society. Indeed, what’s probably her single most famous statement, “I don’t wear men’s clothes, I wear my own clothes,” would seem to make that point quite concisely.

      • Bruce Vail

        Quite right.

        From my limited historical understanding, Dr. Walker asserted her right to define her own identity, sexually and otherwise, in all spheres of social interaction — and to Hell with the hindmost.

        She was awarded the Medal of Honor for her work to save the lives of Union soldiers in the Civil War. I’d say she deserves a bigger and better award.

  • Just_Dropping_By

    The Trump policy is discriminatory and wrong, but claiming that women who cross-dressed and publicly identified as men prior to the late 20th Century were transgender would seem to be a pretty egregious erasure of non-conformist, but otherwise cisgender, women, as there’s no indication in the article at least that any of the individuals involved thought they were born the wrong sex as compared to simply finding living publicly as a man to be liberating compared to following the gender norms of the time period.

    • Xer

      Agreed. It’s difficult to know the actual motives and identifications of the people involved. All we can know is that some people changed from dressing as women to dressing as men in order to fight in the Civil War (and this motivation may have been total or only partial). Some of those people continued to dress as men after the war, and some did not. I think you could make a decent bet that someone who maintained a male public identity after the war would identify as transgender if they were alive today, but I really wouldn’t want to make that leap for anyone who went back to dresses and corsets. Of course, who knows. Corsets and rampant misogyny might have made being a woman too unpleasant even for the most cisgendered gal – especially after getting a taste of life among the privileged sex.

      • Deborah Bender

        I think it’s worth pointing out that a few may have been transgender. It is likely that more passed as men in order to do things that only men were allowed to do, and to escape being treated as women. Some may have specifically preferred men’s clothing because it was less confining, and a few may have been transvestites for the reasons people are transvestites today.

        There are also attested cases, and at least one folk song, about passing women who joined the army to be with their sweethearts.

  • Captain Oblivious

    I’m not big on slippery-slope arguments, but in this case, if they succeed with this ban, they’ll go after homosexuals next, then women. Never forget that this sort of thinig is at root about the far-right’s emasculation fears.

  • jim48043

    To call women who disguised themselves to do things then restricted to men “transgender” is not up to Mr. Loomis’s usual standard.

  • Cheryl Washer

    The documentation as to whether woman soldiers were transgender or not is unclear — partially because we have so little documentation, partially because we don’t know what it meant to be transgender in 1860. What is clear is that there were numerous women (documented accounts at the Civil War Preservation Trust run as high as 500) who active participants in the Civil War. There were female soldiers on both sides — women were found in Confederate uniforms in the mass graves at Gettysburg.

    I participated as a private in some Civil War events and so had to study this topic for living histories at state and National Parks (Rangers let me present at Gettysburg and at Fort Washington). Based on my unacademic research, the most likely outcome is that some women were clearly inspired by patriotism, some were clearly trying to overcome the boundaries of the era’s definition of male/female. Whether the latter counted as transgender is a topic for future academics. A case can be clearly made that Albert Cashier was transgender — he presented as a man all of his adult life until he was made to wear women’s clothes at the Watertown State Hospital. It made him worse; hence his end after only a year in the asylum.

    What the stories of these people clearly states is that in order for humans to be the best they can be, strict gender roles involving behavior, work, clothing, etc. etc. is wrong. These limits prevent people from being their best selves.

  • Veleda_k

    We of course can’t know which if any of these soldiers were transgender, rather than women passing as men for practical reasons, but trans people have always been around, and a knee-jerk assumption that none of these people were trans would be wrongheaded.

    • NicknotNick

      In general, it’s extremely difficult to apply modern standards of sexual definitions, or even nuance, to the past, for the obvious reason that the evidence simply isn’t strong enough to support any argument at all. This reminds me very much of the debates about whether Abraham Lincoln or Emily Dickinson were gay — you can certainly collect evidence that, today, would be considered quite strong; but 180 years ago, wasn’t. The injection of theory doesn’t fix this, only complicates it extremely.

      And this isn’t even getting into the question of whether the modern definition of ‘transgender’ can be applied universally to the past — note that in this post+thread, we don’t even agree on what word should be used.

  • thebewilderness

    The post mortem transitioning of women serves to to erase both Lesbians and women in general. It is every bit as creepy as Mormons forcibly baptizing our relatives against our will.

    • Origami Isopod

      TERF harder.

      • thebewilderness

        Misogyny does not become you.

        • Origami Isopod

          LOL, don’t pull the “TERF is a slur” bullshit with me.

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