Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Charged with Impersonating a Man

It is hard to know how many women disguised themselves as men and participated in the American Civil war. Most estimates put the number around 400, but that's just the best guess historians can derive from known discharge records and the records of women who applied for service pensions. Discharge records are unreliable, though, since women discovered and discharged from one company would often reenlist in another. Pension records are more accurate, since those presenting them were required to provide proof or service. However, there was a risk in revealing service when it was a criminal act to impersonate a man.

Of the hundreds who ignored the law, took on male roles in male attire, and stepped onto the battlefields, certain names are remembered better than others. Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman ever awarded the Medal of Honor, is the most famous of these women. Dr. Walker did not pretend to be a man, but was arrested on numerous occasions for "impersonating a man." She fought her way through medical school and believed that she should be allowed to dress as she pleased. The law disagreed, arrested, fined and imprisoned her, but they could not stop her acts of defiance. She was buried in her suit and vest with her medal pinned to her chest.

Dr. Walker was the exception. As a rule, women not only dressed in male clothing, they changed their names, pasted on beards, and did whatever it took to pass as male. Look at the histories of Loreta Janeta Velazquez, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, Sarah Emma Edmonds, Jennie Hodgers, or Pauline Cushman. Their photographs might make you wonder how they got away with posing as women. But the fact is that some women were never discovered, never drew attention to themselves, and never went back to living as a woman.

These unknown women are the inspiration for Nessa Donnelly. She is not the Irish beauty so often portrayed in the movies. Nessa was a skinny, flat chested girl with wild red curls, big ears, and crooked teeth. If you look at pictures of the Irish immigrants who flooded onto American shores between 1845 and 1852, you will find a lot of girls like Nessa. No one paid them much mind as they worked as maids, nurses, and seamstresses. It is unlikely that one would have drawn much attention if she disappeared in the waning days of the Civil War and was replaced by a skinny Irishman. She wouldn't have been the first or last to have risked being charged with impersonating a man...that is, if she ever gets caught.

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