Escaping an abusive father who always wanted a boy, Sarah Emma Edmonds disguised herself as ‘Franklin Thompson’ and found work as a traveling Bible salesman. An ardent Unionist, Edmonds enlisted after the outbreak of the War, and served at First and Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, Yorktown, Seven Pines, and Williamsburg as a nurse, spy, and courier. She spent most of the Peninsula Campaign on horseback carrying mail and orders to and from Richmond and contracted malaria while swimming her horse across the Chickahominy. In 1864 she published an account of her military service in the best-selling Nurse and Spy in the Union Army.

Born in Cuba and married to a Texan, Loreta Janeta Velazquez disguised herself as a man under the moniker ‘Lt. Harry T. Buford', raised a regiment of her own, and followed her husband into war after Texas seceded from the Union. She fought at First Manassas - on the opposite side of the river from Edmonds - and Ball’s Bluff and later, double-disguised as a woman, gathered intelligence in Richmond and D.C. for the Confederacy. Frequently sporting a false mustache in her role as a dashing Confederate officer, she smoked cigars and flirted with young ladies. She was captured and imprisoned twice, and was implicated in a plot to poison President Lincoln. After the War, she penned an account of her exploits entitled The Woman in Battle.

To save her family from financial hardship, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman disguised herself as a man and found work as a boatman on a coal barge. Shortly thereafter she joined the 153rd New York Infantry and signed up under the name ‘Lyons Wakeman.' She trained and served provost and guard duty in Alexandria and D.C. before being shipped to Louisiana where she stood side-by-side with men firing at lines of Confederates in the Red River Campaign. Wakeman did not survive the war, but poignant letters to her family did, and they have been compiled by Lauren Cook Burgess into the volume An Uncommon Soldier.

These soldiers were among an estimated 400 women who actively served in the Union and Confederate infantry, cavalry, and artillery during the Civil War. It seems incredible that these young ladies were able to muster alongside men, their gender completely undetected during their enlistment and throughout their service. Yet, it seems that their military ambitions where aided by a wartime 'don't ask, don't tell' policy. A young lady who changed her name, cut her hair and donned men's clothes could pass for a young man, and she would not be required to present identification since social security numbers and drivers licenses had not yet been invented, and most people did not even possess a birth certificate.

Moreover, as the war progressed, recruiters became more and more accepting of those who did not meet the physical standards required for battle. It is often said that the selection process narrowed down to two criteria - the recruit could fire a rifle and had four front teeth with which to tear open gunpowder cartridges. Actually, the recruitment process could be circumvented altogether by simply falling in with a regiment during battle when any extra help was not likely to be turned down.

Wakeman died of dysentery after fighting in the Battle of Pleasant Hill during the Red River Campaign. She was buried in Chalmette National Cemetery in Louisiana. After the War, Edmonds published her memoirs, worked for the U.S. Christian Commission, married a carpenter and had two sons. Velazquez likewise published her memoirs after the War and got into a big fight with Confederate General Jubal A. Early who said the tale was hogwash - even though many of the details of her story were corroborated by eyewitnesses and newspaper accounts. PBS made a documentary video about Velazquez, and she has a Facebook fan page.

History courtesy of and many thanks to Deanne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook, They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War.

Pictured at the top: Sarah Emma Edmonds as ‘Franklin Thompson’, Loreta Janeta Velazquez as Lt. Harry T. Buford, and Sarah Rosetta Wakeman as 'Lyons Wakeman.'