A Woman at War
New York Times
June 30, 2014
On June 19, 1864, Pvt. Lyons Wakeman died of dysentery in the Marine U.S.A. General Hospital in New Orleans, after having marched 200 miles and seen combat at the Battle of Pleasant Hill, part of the Union’s Red River campaign in Louisiana. But it would be years before Wakeman’s real identity was revealed: Lyons Wakeman was born a woman, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman.
The only people who knew for certain the soldier’s true identity were the parents and eight siblings Lyons left behind. But even they decided to keep the soldier’s secret, and afterward spoke only of Lyons as their beloved brother.
How Rosetta – she went by her middle name – managed to conceal her identity during her final month in the hospital is still a mystery. Perhaps those caring for her knew, but simply decided to let Rosetta carry the secret she’d kept for the entire two years she’d served in the 153rd New York State Volunteers to her grave in the Chalmette National Cemetery near New Orleans, where she is buried under her alias.
When Rosetta first left home in rural upstate New York, in the summer of 1862, she found employment as a canal man, agreeing “to run 4 trips from Binghamton to Utica for 20$ in money,” according to her letters home. It was on her first trip ferrying coal that Rosetta “saw some soldiers” near Utica who encouraged her to enlist for three years, gaining her “100 and 52$ in money” plus $13 a month thereafter – a substantial raise from the wages she had been earning.
Much of the money that Rosetta earned she sent home to her parents, telling them, “All the money I send you I want you should spend it for the family in clothing or something to eat.” Since her father was in debt, at least some of Rosetta’s motivation for enlisting was probably to help support her family. But she also alludes to more personal reasons, saying, “I want to drop all old affray and I want you to do the same and when i come home we will be good friends as ever,” and later remarking, “I had got tired of stay[ing] in that neighborhood. I knew that I could help you more to leave home than to stay.”
What conflict she had with her family is unclear, but perhaps the answer lies in the independent spirit that shines through Rosetta’s letters, particularly when she writes, “I will dress as I have a mind to for all anyone else [cares], and if they don’t let me Alone they will be sorry for it.” She also reveals her hopes of having her own farm, “in Wisconsin. On the Prairie,” and her utter lack of fear of “rebel bullets.”
She does not seem the kind of young woman who would be happy in a traditionally feminine role, and indeed, over a year into her military service, she wrote, “I have enjoyed myself the best since I have been gone away from home than I ever did before in my life. I have had plenty of money to spend and a good time aSoldier[ing]. I find just as good friends among Strangers as I do at home.” She goes on to suggest that she might re-enlist for five years and $800. “I can do that if I am a mind to. What do you think about that?”
How Rosetta managed to serve without discovery is one of the great questions surrounding not just her, but all 250 known female Civil War soldiers. There are clues, however. She must have talked a good game when it came to engaging in typical male enterprises; she peppers many of her letters with questions about the family farm – even, in her last letter home, asking her father to “write all the particulars about that farm and let me know how much stock you have got to keep this summer and how many Calves you raise and how many hogs you have got.” Perhaps, too, as the eldest child, Rosetta had worked as her father’s farmhand and was no stranger to physical labor.
Rosetta must have been good at playing the part, too. She boasted how she could “drill as well as any man” and took up certain masculine mannerisms, telling her mother, “I use all the tobacco I want” and also admitting, “There is a good many temptations in the army. I got led away into this world So bad that I sinned a good deal.”
What exactly her sins were, she never mentions, though in a letter written on Jan. 20, 1864, a few day after her 21st birthday, she detailed a fistfight with another private in her company: “Mr. Stephen Wiley pitched on me and I give him three or four pretty good cracks and he put downstairs with him Self.” What caused the fight, Rosetta doesn’t say, but Wiley was court-martialed twice for drunkenness and once for theft during the fall of 1863, whereas Rosetta “never got to fighting but once.” Still, standing at only 5 feet tall, Rosetta, according to her own account, easily defended herself from Wiley, even though his records describe him as seven inches taller. She was an able soldier, performed her duties as required, and participated in combat bravely. Perhaps that was all the convincing she needed to do.
Interestingly, aside from her family, there were some soldiers who were aware of what Rosetta was doing. A year into her service, after having seen no one from home, she recounted how she “could hardly Stand it” when she learned that the 109th New York State Volunteers were stationed nearby. She obtained a pass to visit and “found Henry Austin and Perry Wilder. They knew me just as Soon as they see me. You better believe I had a good visit with them.” The two young men clearly recognized Rosetta, despite her disguise, and yet, when it was time for her to leave, they let her go and never told anyone of her true identity.
Many of the known female soldiers had help in keeping their secret: husbands, fiancés, family members. Even so, it seems certain that Rosetta and the other women performed their duties well and earned their fellow soldiers’ respect, enough so those same soldiers were willing to continue serving alongside them, and sometimes even testified in order to help the women earn veterans’ benefits.
Rosetta herself did not seem overly troubled by her deception. As part of her duties, she was a guard at Carroll Prison, where there were three female prisoners: “One of them was a Major in the union army and she went into battle with her men. When the Rebels bullets was acoming like a hail storm she rode her horse and gave orders to the men. Now She is in Prison for not doing aCcordingly to the regulation of war.” After this brief description, plus noting the two Confederate spies were “smart looking women and [have] good education,” Rosetta makes no further remarks.
Did she guard these women directly? If so, did she and the female soldier acknowledge each other? What did Rosetta think about the possibility that she, too, might be imprisoned? We’ll never know. Surely it must have been comforting to find another woman in the ranks, even if it was also distressing to know that imprisonment could be her own fate.
Likewise, Rosetta was not much concerned with the reasons for the war. Though she guarded “contraband,” slaves who had been captured or had escaped north and were considered spoils of war, she never mentions slavery directly. Even when she notes that the army had drafted “black men as well as White men,” she makes no judgment. She never even once mentions the idea of preserving the Union, though when she learns of the New York draft riots, she writes, “I would like to see some of them Copperheads come down here and get killed.” And she then blames officers for the war’s dragging on, stating “if they would knock down the officers’ pay to 13$ a month, this war would soon be settle.” But it seems Rosetta’s biggest concerns were getting her pay, helping her family, participating in battle and deciding what she would do after the war.
Regardless of what Rosetta might have done had she lived, it is safe to say that her parents, Harvey and Emily, both native New Yorkers and at least fifth-generation Americans, never anticipated that their eldest daughter would be living as a man and writing letters home from the front lines of the Union Army’s Red River campaign, where she “was under fire about 4 hours and laid on the field of battle all night.” What is obvious is that even if her choices had caused concern, her family loved and respected her enough to preserve her letters and keep her photograph safe and her memory alive for generations. Hopefully, they found a way to be proud of her, too.
Sources: Lauren Cook Burgess, ed., “An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, Alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864”; DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook, “They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War.”
Erin Lindsay McCabe is the author of the novel “I Shall Be Near to You,” about the life of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman