Creating Theatre Espresso's Interactive Play Secret Soldiers: Women Who Fought in the Civil War

As a writer of historical plays, I collect articles, books, and primary source documents. Some materials are used immediately; others will never see the light of day. Occasionally, these resources resurface years later. Such was the case with a thin book I purchased in the mid 1990s, An Uncommon Soldier by Lauren [Burgess] Cook (1994). The book contained a collection of letters written by Sarah Rosetta Wakeman to her family between 1862-1864.

Wakeman disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the Union Army under the alias Lyons Wakeman. After defending the Capitol and fighting in the ill-fated Red River Campaign, Wakeman died of dysentery in a military hospital in New Orleans. Her alias was entered into the hospital records, despite the fact that her condition would have prevented her from hiding her gender. Her letters home would have remained buried were they not discovered generations later by a family member who gave them to Cook. The letters were cross-referenced with military records by Senior Military Archivist DeAnne Blanton who confirmed that Sarah and Lyons Wakeman were the same person.

About three years ago a friend contacted me. His daughter was writing a paper about Sarah Emma Edmonds, who fought in the Union Army, and he wanted to know if I had heard of her. I found that same thin book and discovered a paragraph about Edmonds in the forward. After the war she wrote a somewhat exaggerated memoir of her role as a soldier, nurse, and spy. She deserted the army when she fell ill, afraid of discovery in a hospital. About twenty years later, she applied for a pension, and after a long ordeal her request was granted.

As the 150th anniversary of the Civil War was upon us, and I listened to contemporary debates about women fighting on the front lines “for the first time,” I wondered how many other women fought in the Union Army. Fortunately, Cook and Burgess had co-authored a comprehensive book on the topic, They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War (2003). According to Blanton 250 cases of women serving in uniform were documented by the U.S. military. She acknowledged that many women in uniform were never exposed, and the actual number of women soldiers was likely much higher.

Southern women who disguised themselves as Confederate soldiers were not included in military records. An enigmatic Cuban woman, Loreta Velazquez, fought across the battle lines from Edmonds at Bull Run. Like Edmonds, she recounted her adventures in a memoir. Velazquez boasted about her exploits, including seducing men and women to spy on the enemy, initially for the South and later for the North.

This was a story that needed to be told. At the National Archives I examined military records and interviewed Blanton. I was interested in why women chose to enlist. Their motivations included money, adventure, independence, escaping prostitution, and following a loved one into battle. I wondered how women hid their identities. Society’s respect for modesty and aversion to discussing a man’s effeminate qualities aided women in concealing their gender. Some women passed as under-age boys. Ill-fitting uniforms and medical examinations consisting of handshakes also helped women soldiers from being exposed. I was surprised by the vastly different treatment that women discovered in uniform received in the press, depending on their reason for enlisting. If a woman couldn’t bear to be apart from her husband, reporters tended to be kind. If she was moved by patriotism, the press could go either way. If she enlisted for money or adventure, she was branded a harlot.

Once I began writing the play, an interactive piece for K-12 students to see and react to, I needed to select a central character and a quandary for students to debate. Edmonds’ struggle for a pension seemed like a good choice; she deserted the army when she became ill, afraid that her identity would be discovered in a hospital. Velazquez was full of contradictions and endlessly fascinating. But I kept returning to Wakeman. Her letters moved me in their simplicity and sincerity. She repeatedly asked for stamps, a box of baked goods (like the other boys got), and forgiveness. She vacillated between hopes of returning home and being a soldier the rest of her life. The fact that hospital staff knew she was a woman, but entered her male alias into the records was intriguing. We decided to ask our audiences what they would do in that circumstance. In Theatre Espresso’s play, students struggle between their belief that Wakeman shouldn’t have to hide her identity and the ramifications of exposing her.

Author: Wendy Lement

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