Thank you, veterans!

At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the fourth year of the Great War, the guns finally fell silent. Initially the day was celebrated as Armistice Day. And eventually it came to be called Veterans Day, a day to honor not only the dough-boys who went to France in 1917 but all American veterans. Today I think of the women among those veterans. The nurses on the Western Front in 1917 and 1918 who suffered burned hands from the remnants of poison gas clinging to the clothes of injured soldiers as these nurses sought to tend to such awful wounds.

Ms Florence Watson flying a P-51 fighter

The 1,074 pilots of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) who flew more than 60 million miles, ferrying every type of military aircraft from the manufacturers to forward air bases during the Second World War and who waited until 1977 to be officially recognized as having veteran status and given the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009 by President Obama.

The President honors WASP flyers

 And over 700 women, at least 250 wearing Confederate grey and at least 450 wearing Union blue, who struggled in America’s Civil War.

A distinguished soldier's grave

The tombstone, a plain silver-grey granite, has in front of it, an American flag & a little round ‘Grand Army of the Republic’ marker indicating the grave of a Civil war veteran. This veteran’s grave in the tiny town of Saunemin, Illinois tells in simple words, an amazing story:

Albert D. J. Cashier

Co. ‘G’ 95th Illinois Infantry

Civil War

Born

Jennie Hodgers in Clogher Head, Ireland

1843—–1915

 The 95th Illinois Infantry was organized at Rockford, Illinois and mustered into Federal service on September 4, 1862. An infantry regiment numbered over 1,000 officers and men at full strength, but disease, disabilities, and battle casualties reduced these numbers very rapidly. The 95th Illinois was mustered out on August 17, 1865 at Galveston, Texas. During the course of the war, the regiment suffered 7 officers and 77 enlisted men killed in action or dead of wounds and 1 officer and 204 enlisted men who died of disease, for a total of 289 fatalities. Over 100 others suffered permanently disabling wounds.

 Cashier was the shortest soldier in the 95th Illinois. In one of the few existing photographs of Cashier taken during the war, a very careful observer can faintly detect the outline of breasts under the uniform. But an observer has to be looking for it. In 1862 the military was not. Hodgers was born in Clogher Head, Ireland around Christmas day, 1843, the child of Sallie and Patrick Hodgers. How and when the family moved to the United States is not clear. By 1862, Hodgers was living in Belvedere, Illinois. At 19, Jennie was eager to serve. Dressed in men’s clothing, the short, slim Hodgers stepped into the recruiting office and volunteered for military service. Reading and writing were not required of volunteers and so after marking an “X” on the enlistment papers and passing a cursory pre-induction physical examination, merely a quick look at the eyes and ears with no undressing or stripping to the waist, Jennie Hodgers transformed into Albert D. J. Cashier. Later, he said, “Lots of boys enlisted under the wrong name, so did I. The country needed men, and I wanted excitement.”

 Rodney Davis, from Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, knew all about the exceptional story of Albert Cashier. In a strange twist of fate he discovered that his own great-grandfather was the commanding non-commissioned officer to Albert Cashier. “C. W. Ives was Cashier’s first sergeant so they got to know each other rather well. Albert managed to survive the war without arousing undue suspicion as to his gender identity. Accounts by comrades indicate that the other soldiers just assumed he was small and somewhat shy. One wrote: ‘He was of very retiring disposition and did not take part in any of the games. He would sit around and watch, but would not take part. He had very small hands and feet. He was the smallest man in the company.’”

Between September of 1862 and August of 1865, the 95th Illinois traveled over 9,000 miles, as part of the Army of the Tennessee under Ulysses S. Grant, later under William Tecumseh Sherman and yet later under O. O Howard. The regiment took part in the bloody siege at Vicksburg, the Red River Campaign, and the fierce combat at Guntown, Mississippi where they suffered heavy casualties. Cashier took part in more than 40 skirmishes and battles. While on a skirmishing expedition during the Vicksburg campaign, Albert Cashier was captured by rebels. He was fearless. He seized a gun from a guard, knocked the man down and made it back to the Union lines unharmed.

 Cashier served with the regiment through the war until August, 1865, when all the soldiers were mustered out. When the 95th Illinois were finally discharged, they were welcomed home as heroes and honored at a public reception. Each man then went his own way and Albert, a quiet bachelor, finally settled down in Saunemin in 1869. There he held a variety of jobs over the next 40 years: janitor of the church, farm hand, town lamplighter, handyman — no one ever the wiser. He voted in the presidential elections before Illinois gave women the right to vote and before the 19th Amendment became a part of the U. S. Constitution in 1920, five years after his death.

 

Cashier in uniform

In November 1910, Cashier was hit by a car and broke his leg. A physician discovered his secret in the hospital, but agreed to remain quiet. On May 5, 1911, Cashier was moved to the Soldier and Sailors home in Quincy, Illinois. He lived there until his mind deteriorated and he became confused and noisy. He was deemed insane and moved to the Watertown State Hospital in March 1913. Attendants there discovered his sex when they attempted to give him a bath. He was placed in the women’s ward and forced to wear skirts. It was so devastating to him that he would pin the skirt together between the legs to make them look like pants. When he did that, the outfit was awkward and he fell. An injury from the fall resulted in an infection. That was the cause of the death.

 When the asylum discovered a woman’s body in those trousers, the U.S. Pension Bureau launched a fraud investigation. It seemed impossible that a frail little woman drawing a veteran’s pension could actually have fought throughout the Civil War. Fortunately, several former comrades successfully rallied to Cashier’s defense and he retained his benefits.

 Professor Davis says his great-grandfather was one of several former comrades who successfully rallied to Cashier’s defense later in life. The status as a Union Army veteran, to them, trumped gender identity. Cashier demonstrated that he was as good as they were, as brave as they were, as effective a soldier. A woman’s body in those clothes was obviously worthy of remark, but not anything that made them turn away. Cashier had been in service from the beginning to the end. He stuck it out.

 Cashier died on October 10, 1915. In the end, Cashier did get rid of that dreaded skirt. Cashier’s comrades made sure that he was buried in the soldier’s uniform which he had neatly kept for years, and that he received a proper military funeral, honor guard, rifle salute and taps. His tombstone was inscribed “Albert D. J. Cashier, Co. G, 95 Ill. Infantry” It took W. J. Singleton, executor of Cashier’s estate, nine years to track Cashier’s identity back to Jennie Hodgers. None of the would-be heirs proved convincing, and the estate of $418.46 [worth over $8600 today] was deposited in the Adams County, Illinois, treasury. In the 1970s, a second tombstone, inscribed with both of his names, was placed beside his first.

 Ms. Deanne Blanton, co-author of They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War, observed that a private in the Union Army made $13 a month, easily double what a woman would make as a laundress, a seamstress or a house maid. At that time, women could not vote. Most depended on men to survive. In return, women were to devote their time and talents entirely to husbands, children and their extended families. Once women were cross-dressed and in the military, earning more money and spending their money as they saw fit, they greatly enjoyed the freedom that came with being perceived as a man. The women who went to war, who disguised themselves as men and carried a gun, were overwhelmingly working-class women, immigrant women, poor women, both urban women and farm workers. Hodgers was part of this group, an immigrant from Ireland, who couldn’t read or write.

 The women soldiers easily concealed their gender in order to fulfill their desire to fight. Two Union soldiers under General Philip Sheridan’s command, one a teamster and the other a private in a cavalry regiment, became drunk and fell into a river during a scuffle. The soldiers who rescued the pair discovered, in the process of resuscitating them, that both were women. Sheridan personally interviewed the two and later described the woman teamster as coarse and the “she-dragoon” as rather attractive, even with her unfeminine suntan. He did not state their real names, aliases, or regiments.

 For the most part, women were recognized after they had received serious wounds or died. Mary Galloway was wounded in the chest during the Battle of Antietam. Clara Barton, attending to the wound, discovered the gender of the soft-faced “boy” and coaxed her into revealing her true identity and going home after recuperation. One anonymous woman wearing the uniform of a Confederate private was found dead on the Gettysburg battlefield. It is likely she died participating in Pickett’s fateful charge on July 3rd. In 1934, a grave site found on the outskirts of Shiloh National Military Park revealed the bones of nine Union soldiers. One of the skeletons, with a minie-ball in the bony remains, was female. The identities of these two dead women are lost to posterity.

 Another whom we do know about was Sarah Emma Edmonds (1841?–September 5, 1898), a Canadian-born woman who lived to be about 56 or 57 and is known for serving with the Union Army. She was born in New Brunswick, Canada, and left home after her abusive father attempted to force her to marry a man she did not love. She worked for a time in New Brunswick selling Bibles but still afraid of being found by her father, she fled to the United States in 1856 where she settled in Flint, Michigan.

 During the Civil War, she enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Infantry, disguised as a man named Franklin (“Frank”) Thompson. He first served as a male nurse, participating in several campaigns, including the First Battle of Bull Run. As Frank Thompson, he also served as a spy, occasionally disguising himself as an African American or a woman, or sometimes both. At one point, she disguised herself as an Irish peddler named Bridget O’Shea.

Sarah Edmonds, Union soldier

 

The military career of Frank Thompson came to an end when he contracted malaria. Unable to go to the military hospital because he would be revealed as a woman, Frank “left” the army and checked into a private hospital, intending to return to military life once recuperated. (He didn’t think of his leaving as desertion).When she was better, however, she saw posters listing Frank Thompson as a deserter. Rather than return to the army as a man, she decided to serve as a female nurse at a Washington, D.C. hospital for wounded soldiers run by the Sanitary Commission.

 After the war under the pen name “S. E. Edmonds” she wrote Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. It was a huge success, selling in excess of 175,000 copies. In 1867, she married a Mr L. H. Seelye, a Canadian carpenter with whom she had three children; one of them she named Fredrich Seelye. In 1886 she received a U S government pension of $12 a month, rewarding her military service. Edmonds died on September 5, 1898.

 This day is to honor you–all of you veterans.

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Comments

  • Joseph Badal  On November 11, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    What a great post. Thank you, and thanks to all veterans. They are the everyday heroes I like to read and write about. Brava!

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