Women in the English Civil War

Women in the English Civil War

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In 1625 Henrietta Maria married Charles I. As she was a Roman Catholic, this marriage was not very popular with the English people. The Puritans were particularly unhappy when they heard that the king had promised that Henrietta Maria would be allowed to practise her religion freely and would have the responsibility for the upbringing of their children until they reached the age of thirteen.

The couple had six children. Sophia of Bavaria met Henrietta Maria in 1641. She later recalled: "I was surprised to find that the Queen, who looked so fine in the Van Dyck painting, was a small woman... with long skinny arms and teeth like defence works projecting from her mouth."

In 1642 Henrietta Maria fled to Holland where she raised funds for the Royalist Army. She wrote to Charles I on 23rd February, 1643: "All day we unloaded our ammunition... The cannon balls whistled over me; and as you can imagine I did not like the music... I went on foot some distance from the village, and got shelter in a ditch. But before I could reach it the balls sang merrily over our heads and a sergeant was killed twenty paces from me. Under this shelter we remained two hours, the bullets flying over us, and sometimes covering us with earth... by land and sea I have been in some danger, but God has preserved me."

Lucy Hutchinson was married to John Hutchinson, a large landowner in Nottingham. During the English Civil War John was an officer in the Parliamentary Army, whereas Lucy worked as a nurse.

On the Restoration John Hutchinson was arrested as he had signed the death warrant of Charles I. He died in prison in 1664. Lucy Hutchinson wrote her account of the Civil War and a biography of her husband entitled, Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson, in about 1670, but it was too critical of the monarchy to be published in her lifetime. In her book she praised the Levellers: "These good-hearted people wanted justice for the poor as well as the mighty... for this they were nicknamed the Levellers... these men were just and honest."

(Source 2) In January 1644, Mary Springate heard that her husband, Sir William Springate, was suffering from camp fever. Although pregnant, Mary made the dangerous journey from London to Arundel.

It was about twelve at night when we arrived... Seeing me... he sprang up as if he would come out of his bed, saying, "Let me embrace you before I die. I am going to my God." He had been in bed for five days... The purple spots came out the day before... The fever was so violent and he so young and strong (he was 23), and his blood so hot they were forced to sit round the bed to keep him in. He died two days later.

(Source 4) Anne Fanshawe, a strong supporter of King Charles, lived in Oxford during the Civil War.

From the windows of our house I observed the sad spectacle of war... sometimes plague, sometimes sicknesses of other kind, by reason of so many people being packed together.

(Source 5) Lucy Hutchinson worked as a nurse looking after parliamentary soldiers during the Civil War. In her book on the war that she wrote in about 1670 she describes looking after soldiers during a battle in Nottingham.

In the encounter only five of our men were hurt... we dressed all their wounds with such success that they were all cured... Seeing three of the prisoners badly bleeding I dressed their wounds also... Captain Palmer came in and told me not to help the enemies of God. I replied, I had a duty to treat them as men, not as enemies.

(Source 7) Henrietta Maria, King Charles' wife, went to Holland to raise funds for the royalist army. On her journey back her ship was chased by four Parliamentary ships. On 23rd February, 1643, she wrote a letter to Charles about her experiences.

All day we unloaded our ammunition... by land and sea I have been in some danger, but God has preserved me.

(Source 8) On 5 September, 1643, Susan Owen wrote a letter to her husband John who was serving in the parliamentary army. The letter was intercepted and was published in a Royalist newspaper.

I fear I will never see you again... I am afraid the Cavaliers will kill you... If I miscarry, you shall answer for it.... There is none of our neighbours with you that has a wife... Pity me for God's sake and come home.

Question 1: Read the introduction and look at sources 1, 3 and 6. Select the painting that might not be an accurate representation of the individual concerned.

Question 2: Study source 5. Why was Captain Palmer angry with Lucy Hutchinson?

Question 3: Source 8 was written by the wife of a parliamentary soldier. However, it was published in a Royalist newspaper. Can you explain why?

Question 4: Study source 6. Why do you think the artist has painted the skulls piled up on a broken pedestal in the top right corner?

Question 5: Select information from these sources that help to explain the different reasons why so many people died during the Civil War.

A commentary on these questions can be found here

You can download this activity in a word document here

You can download the answers in a word document here

The remarkable female spies of the English Civil War

When you think of the English Civil War, chances are you think of men fighting men on bloody battlefields, Parliament butting heads with the King, and then finally chopping Charles I’s off. The history books tell the Civil War as a male story, with women playing supporting roles – as the wives, mothers and sisters of the brave men at the heart of the action. But bestselling historical novelist Tobsha Learner is here to tell us a different story – of the forgotten women who shaped victories and defeats, and risked their lives for the cause they believed in.

Meet the female spies of the English Civil War. From aristocrats to nurses to washerwomen, they were prevalent on both the King’s side (the Royalists) and the Parliamentarians. In the 17thcentury, as women were utterly dismissed as intellectual equals and therefore not considered capable of espionage, women made great spies. Without arousing suspicion, they could travel from a Royalist camp to a Parliamentarian stronghold and one political or social circle to another.

They were invisible witnesses to much political and military intrigue – whether in the stateroom, parlour, printing press, laundry room or, in some cases, bedroom – and therefore party to top-secret information. Such information was often carried by ladies-in-waiting or the wives of diplomats across the Channel to France, Holland and Spain. The King’s entrepreneurial wife, Queen Henrietta herself, formed her own spy ring. Other women were often employed to smuggle messages sewn into the covers of books.

Here are just some of the notable women from both sides worth celebrating…

The Countess of Carlisle, Lady Lucy Hay

Famously beautiful and ‘A Lady of the Royal Bedchamber’ Lady Lucy Hay started out as a beloved confidante of Queen Henrietta. But it was chequered friendship, swinging between devotion and envy.

Following her first husband’s death, Lucy briefly became the mistress of Royalist Henry Rich, but her next conquest was a Parliamentarian – Thomas Wentworth. Lucy Hay was his conduit. After Wentworth was betrayed by King Charles and perished, Lucy Hay switched sides for good and became the mistress of Parliamentarian leader John Pym.

And so she enacted her most famous moment of espionage. On 4thJanuary 1642 King Charles I entered Parliament illegally and demanded the arrest of John Pym. But Pym and his cohort were nowhere to be found – all thanks to Lucy Hay, who had already informed Pym of Charles’s intent, allowing him and his friends to escape. She saved Pym’s life and it was this failed attempt by the King to arrest Pym which directly led to the outbreak of the Civil War.

Lady Jane Whorwood

Jane was the daughter of the man who surveyed James I’s stables and she had intimate access to Charles I. Romantic letters between them suggest she was quite possibly his mistress, as well as operating as a secret messenger when Charles was imprisoned by Parliament,– getting messages to and from the King and his Royalist supporters.

She tried to help Charles escape twice, first going to astrologer William Lilly for horary advice and then for acid to corrode the bars of the King’s cell. She maintained close friendships with Parliamentarians and, without doubt, gleaned information from them to support the Royalist cause.

Elizabeth Atkins

Also known as ‘Parliamentarian Joan’, Elizabeth was a completely different style of spy. A staunch Parliamentarian, Elizabeth was active in the streets, taverns and markets as an informant. She was paid for her work by Parliament and discovered secret caches of weaponry ready to be smuggled to Royalist troops. One can imagine how harmless this stout, middle-aged, poorly dressed woman looked and how well she could eavesdrop and befriend to glean information.

Lady d’Aubigny

Lady d’Aubigny who, after becoming a young widow with two children under four, endeared herself to the King and undertook missions for the Royalists. These included smuggling instructions for a royal uprising in her hair…No doubt an ornate wig.

Cross-dressing women at the frontline of the English Civil War

Battle of Naseby, a decisive turning point in the English Civil War. Unknown artist.

A new study by a historian at the University of Southampton has uncovered accounts of women who dressed as men to take their place alongside soldiers during the English Civil War.

Professor of Early Modern History Mark Stoyle investigated claims that the rival armies of King Charles I and Parliament were frequently accompanied by women who dressed in men&rsquos clothing in order to go unnoticed near and on the battlefront.

Professor Stoyle said: &ldquoHistorians often claim that it was common for women to cross-dress during the Civil War, but in fact we know very little about this subject. Now I&rsquove unearthed some compelling pieces of evidence which allow us to explore the practice and what people thought about it at the time.&rdquo

The research project scrutinised hundreds of original manuscripts and printed works, revealing just a handful of fascinating cases. It shows that the reasons for cross-dressing were varied some women appear to have been motivated by a desire to fight for the cause alongside male soldiers, while others didn&rsquot want to be parted from their husbands and wore men&rsquos clothes so as to travel incognito.

Charles I&rsquos army in particular was accompanied by a number of female camp-followers made up of wives, unmarried partners (harshly referred to as &lsquowhores&rsquo) and prostitutes, some of whom may have dressed as men to be sexually alluring.

The earliest case in the study is mentioned in an anonymous letter written from Charles I&rsquos camp in July 1642. Later published in a pro-royalist news pamphlet, the letter describes a woman called Nan Ball who was &lsquotaken in mans cloathes, waiting upon her beloved Lieutenant&rsquo while in the king&rsquos army near York. A top level-investigation was launched, the lieutenant was sacked from his command and it was suggested that the woman should be shamed by whipping or pillory.

Intriguingly though, this harsh suggestion wasn&rsquot acted upon and eventually she was simply expelled from the camp after a letter from the king&rsquos young son begged for her reprieve.

We will probably never know for sure why this woman&rsquos punishment was downgraded after initial stern disapproval. However, at the time, the conduct of the royalist army was governed by formal &lsquoordinances of war&rsquo which stated that &lsquosuspicious and common women&rsquo should be turned away and any officer in their company relieved of his position. So it&rsquos possible that a strong line was initially taken to serve as a warning, while the intervention of the prince later gave the royalist military authorities an excuse to back down and conduct matters by the book.

A year later, in 1643, a draft proclamation was drawn up, setting out required standards of behaviour for Charles I&rsquos army. It included a hand-written memo in the margin from the king himself stating &lsquolett no woman presume to counterfeit her sex by wearing mans apparall under payne of the severest punishment&rsquo.

Professor Stoyle says the inclusion of this statement is fascinating: &ldquoThese words suggest the king believed female cross-dressing was quite widespread in his army and show a willingness on his part to take a much firmer line on the practice &ndash particularly in relation to prostitutes. Curiously though, when the proclamation was finally published it contained no reference to cross-dressing.&rdquo

Another example featured in the study reveals an encounter between the parliamentarian leader Oliver Cromwell, and the mistress of captured royalist Lord Henry Percy &ndash who was dressed in men&rsquos clothes to hide her identity. Cromwell appears to have been amused by this, getting the woman to sing to test his suspicions that the would-be man was a &lsquodamsel&rsquo.

Despite Cromwell&rsquos worldly-wise attitude and good humour, many parliamentarians would probably have regarded the discovery as proof of the royalists&rsquo immoral and unsoldierly behaviour.

However, the most detailed account of female cross-dressing during the Civil War comes from a pamphlet of 1645, which details the case of a young foot soldier who spent a year in the parliamentary garrison of Gloucester, but was eventually discovered to be a woman when visiting a tailor and ordering a petticoat and waistcoat &lsquofor my sister&rsquo.

The tailor was suspicious and informed the military authorities, who found that this &lsquoshe-soldier&rsquo had originally disguised herself in order to escape the royalists - and later to fight against them.

These examples, and others like them, provide tantalising glimpses of how some bold women chose to pull on the breeches as they navigated their way through a society turned upside down by war. The study, published in The Journal of the Historical Association, History, lifts the veil on female cross-dressing during the Civil War and on contemporary attitudes towards this hidden practice.


From the beginning of organized warfare until the end of the 19th century, European and American armies heavily depended on the services of camp followers. These services included delivery and preparation of provisions and transportation of supplies, which augmented the official military support structure. [2] Camp followers usually accompanied the baggage train and they often outnumbered the army itself, adding to its logistical problems. [3] Camp followers were both a support and drain on an army as they provided valuable services but also increased difficulties in logistics and security. Soldiers' wives washed, sewed, nursed and even acted as servants. However, camp followers needed to be fed, clothed, transported and guarded. They also had to be policed camp followers could be among the most determined scavengers and looters after battles and whilst on the march.

From the middle of the 19th century on, the creation of organized and resourced transport, medical, ordnance and supply corps as an integral part of regular armies marked the end of reliance on camp followers in most European armies. However, in much of the world the concept of numerous civilian workers, family members and hangers-on accompanying armies survived into the 20th century, either for reasons of local culture or in the absence of formal support services. A notable example was the Mexican Revolution of 1910–1920, where female soldaderas filling traditional camp roles, carrying equipment and often acting as combatants were a marked feature of Zapatista, Villistas and Federal forces at all times. [4]

United States Edit

In the military history of the United States camp followers were important in servicing and supplying the army during the Revolutionary War. There were also camp followers on both the Union and Confederate sides of the American Civil War. [5] However, a major difference between the armies of the American Revolution and the Civil War was the presence of women and children. By the time of the Civil War, camps and campaigns included far fewer wives, children and other relatives of soldiers. Women still served as nurses in hospitals and in other limited support roles, but were not present in the same way in the earlier war. [5]

During the 19th century, members of Plains Indians who set up camp outside U.S. military forts or Indian agencies became known disparagingly as "loafers", or "loaf-around-the-fort Indians" or "hang-around-the-fort Indians". [6] They along with the Indian scouts were seen by settlers as appeasing and docile, in stark contrast with the fierce and capable warriors whom the soldiers had to fight.

Today's military operations in combat zones, such as the Iraq War that began with US invasion in 2003 or the Afghan War that began in 2001, feature extensive roles played by civilian contractors in providing logistic support for the armed forces. This has led journalists and historians to liken the phenomenon to that of camp followers. [7]

"Camp-follower" has also been used to describe the modern families of military personnel who accompany soldiers while traveling either during active military campaigns [ citation needed ] (more common in less-developed countries), or during peacetime military deployments (more common in developed countries), especially moving from military base to military base in a nomadic lifestyle (more common in developed countries).

Modern camp-follower children are now more often called military brats in several English-speaking countries. In the United States, Canada and Great Britain, the term refers specifically to the mobile children of career soldiers, who traditionally have been camp or base followers. [8] In the United States this practice of base-following, or camp-following, dates all the way back to the beginning of the Republic. [9]

Some work has also been done to document and describe military brat subcultures from other English speaking countries as well.

Mother Courage and Her Children, the 1939 play by Bertolt Brecht, focuses on the life of a family of camp followers during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648).

The Women Who Fought in the Civil War

Even though women weren’t legally allowed to fight in the Civil War, it is estimated that somewhere around 400 women disguised themselves as men and went to war, sometimes without anyone ever discovering their true identities.

Bonnie Tsui is the author of She Went to the Field: Women Soldiers in the Civil War, which tells the stories of some of these women. I spoke with the San Francisco-based writer about her research into the seldom-acknowledged participation of women in the Civil War.

Why weren’t women allowed to fight in the Civil War?

At the time, women weren’t perceived as equals by any stretch of the imagination. It was the Victorian era and women were mostly confined to the domestic sphere. Both the Union and Confederate armies actually forbade the enlistment of women. I think it was during the Revolutionary War that they established women as nurses because they needed help on the front when soldiers were injured. But women weren’t allowed to serve in combat. Of course, women did disguise themselves and enlist as men. There is evidence that they also did so during the Revolutionary War.

How did they do it?

Honestly, the lore is that the physical exams were not rigorous at all. If you had enough teeth in your head and could hold a musket, you were fine. The funny thing is, in this scenario, a lot of women didn’t seem any less manly than, for example, the teenage boys who were enlisting. At the time, I believe the Union had an official cutoff age of 18 for soldiers, but that was often flouted and people often lied. They had a lot of young guys and their voices hadn’t changed and their faces were smooth. The Confederacy never actually established an age requirement. So [women] bound their breasts if they had to, and just kind of layered on clothes, wore loose clothing, cut their hair short and rubbed dirt on their faces. They also kind of kept to themselves. The evidence that survived often describes them as aloof. Keeping to themselves certainly helped maintain the secret.

One of the best-documented female soldiers is Sarah Edmonds—her alias was Frank Thompson. She was a Union soldier and worked during the Civil War as a nurse. (© Bettmann / Corbis) Confederate spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow with her daughter, 1862 Nurse Anne Bell caring for federal soldiers (© CORBIS) A nurse extends her hand in a propaganda poster by Harrison Fisher titled “Have You Answered the Red Cross Christmas Roll Call?” (1918). (© Bettmann/CORBIS) Deborah Samson disguised as her alias Robert Shirtliffe (© Bettmann/Corbis) Dorothea Dix, superintendent of nurses for the Union during the Civil War, 1861-1865 (© CORBIS) Union soldier Kady Brownell, proclaimed "Heroine of Newbern" after risking her life for fellow soldiers during the Battle of Newbern in North Carolina (© Bettmann/Corbis)

When the women were found out, did it provoke an uproar?

Even in the cases where these women were found out as soldiers, there does not actually seem to be much uproar. More or less, they were just sent home. The situations in which they were found out were often medical conditions they were injured, or they got sick from dysentery or chronic diarrhea. Disease killed many more soldiers than bullets did. You’re sitting in camps among all these people who are in close quarters. There wasn’t a lot of knowledge then about bacterial infection and particularly in close quarters there wasn’t much chance to prevent it.

There is some documentation that shows that some soldiers that were discovered as women were briefly imprisoned. In the letter of one [female disguised as a male] prison guard, it said that there were three [other] women in the prison, one of whom was a major in the Union Army. She had gone to battle with her fellow men and was jailed because she was a woman. It’s really interesting hearing about her being a woman, disguised as a man, standing as a prison guard for a woman imprisoned for doing the same thing.

What was the motivation on the part of the women you studied? Did it seem pretty much the same as the men?

It absolutely did. I think by all accounts, the women seemed honestly to want to fight in the war for the same reasons as men, so that would range from patriotism, to supporting their respective causes, for adventure, to be able to leave home, and to earn money. Some of the personal writings that survive show that they were also running away from family lives that were really unsatisfying. You can imagine that perhaps they felt trapped at home or weren’t able to marry and felt that they were financial burdens to their families. If you profile the substantiated cases of these women, they were young and often poor and from farming families, and that is the exact profile of the typical male volunteer. If you think about that, girls growing up on a farm would have been accustomed to physical labor. Maybe they even would have worn boys’ clothing to do farm chores. But then there are also some cases in which women follow their husbands or a brother into battle, and so there are at least a couple of those cases in which female soldiers were on record of enlisting with their relative.

What duties did the women perform?

They did everything that men did. They worked as scouts, spies, prison guards, cooks, nurses and they fought in combat. One of the best-documented female soldiers is Sarah Edmonds—her alias was Frank Thompson. She was a Union soldier, and she worked for a long time during the war as a nurse. You often can’t really draw a delineation between “civilian workers” and battle, because these people had to be in battle, tending to soldiers. They were often on the field or nearby trying to get to the wounded, so you could argue that it was just as dangerous for them to work as nurses as to be actively shooting and emptying gunfire.

What is another one of your favorite stories from your research?

One of my favorite stories of the Civil War era is of Jennie Hodgers, and she fought as Albert Cashier. She enlisted in Illinois and she fought the entire Civil War without being discovered and ended up living out the rest of her life as a man for another fifty years. She even ended up receiving a military pension and living at the sailors’ and soldiers’ home in Illinois as a veteran. The staff at the home kept her secret for quite sometime, even after they discovered that she was a woman.

Even though it seems pretty outstanding that women were disguising themselves as men and going off to fight, it seems like actually they were accepted amongst their peers. This kind of loyalty to your fellow soldier in battle did in certain cases transcend gender. It’s pretty amazing there was a lot of respect.

About Jess Righthand

Jess Righthand is a former editorial intern at Smithsonian. She writes about music, theater, movies and the arts.

The story of the English Civil War massacre in a Nottinghamshire village and why it was covered up

Around 375 years ago, when England, Scotland, and Ireland found themselves engulfed in Civil War, a little known massacre took place in Nottinghamshire.

Just outside the city and along the River Trent in Rushcliffe, the village of Shelford played host to a Parliamentarian attack on a Royalist garrison in November, 1645.

Shelford Manor, on the site of the old Shelford Priory, was stormed when the garrison’s Royalist defender Philip Stanhope refused to surrender to forces led by Colonel John Hutchinson and Colonel-General Sydenham Poyntz.

What ensued was a brutal massacre of 160 Royalist soldiers, allegedly along with several women soldiers.

Now, a historian at the University of Nottingham has been digging into historical archives to find out exactly what happened and why these events have not endured in social memory.

Dr David Appleby, a history lecturer at the University of Nottingham, said: “The storming of Shelford Manor was as violent and nasty as any of the more famous battles of the British Civil Wars.

"Shelford lies just off the A52 on my way into work, so I’ve driven past it hundreds of times, completely unaware it was the site of a massacre. I wondered why I’d never heard of it, and why it wasn’t mentioned in the two main works on Civil War atrocities in England.

"Having reconstructed the event using all available archives and historical writings, I began to discover how and why both the Royalists and the Parliamentarians covered up the massacre. It begs the question how many more cover-ups of violent episodes were there during the Civil Wars?

"There were few recorded mentions of the Shelford massacre in the decades that followed the Civil War years and even fewer as the centuries passed.

"I believe that the frenzied nature of the attack was partly driven by anti-Catholic prejudice and partly by a desire for revenge.

"The Parliamentarians’ home communities – places such as Trent Bridge and Leicester - had suffered badly at the hands of these same Royalists only months earlier.

"The subsequent burying of the Shelford story is perhaps a reflection of both sides’ shame and embarrassment at the bloodshed and viciousness of the supposedly ‘civil’ Civil Wars.

“Given that Shelford is still a small, close-knit community, it is strange that even long-established families appear to possess no discernible folk memory of the most important event in the village’s history neither are there any local ghost stories or commemorative place-names to parallel those found in abundance at other civil-war sites.”

Dr Appleby&aposs research adds weight to the modern-day perception that the Civil Wars in England, Scotland and Ireland between 1642 and 1651 were far from civil.

They were a series of violent battles and political wrangling between Parliamentarians and Royalists (Cavaliers) over who should rule the country and how it should be governed.

In England and Wales alone, a bigger proportion of the population died in the Civil Wars than in the First World War.

In &aposFleshing out a massacre: the storming of Shelford House and social forgetting in Restoration England’, published in the Oxford University Press journal &aposHistorical Research&apos , Dr Appleby argues that the lack of historical writing on Shelford forms part of a cover-up.

Shelford Manor was a moated estate owned by Philip Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, a supporter of King Charles from the outbreak of the Civil War.

The cover-up, and the resulting social amnesia, stemmed partly from serious divisions within the Royalist ranks about the recruitment of foreigners and Catholics into the armies of England&aposs then King, Charles I.

Although the scale of the Shelford massacre was already known, no detailed historical investigation into the event has ever been carried out.

The most intriguing evidence from Dr Appleby is how social forgetting comes from the village of Shelford itself.

General Poyntz had intended to install a garrison in Shelford House after the storming, but during the night of November 3 the building was set alight.

It is claimed that the fire had been started deliberately by the villagers who, like so many communities, found living with a military garrison highly unpleasant.

The impulse to remove Shelford House from the landscape appears to have been matched by an equally strong desire to erase it from the communal memory.

The only evidence that the body of Royalist Philip Stanhope was laid to rest in Shelford parish church is a short mention on his mother’s memorial stone, likely due to Parliamentarians eventually being victorious in the conflict.

Shelford became the ideal target for Poyntz’s parliamentarian forces in his bid to get closer to the strategic target of Newark.

An assault on Shelford House would keep his troops occupied, with victory boosting their morale and provide parliament with a useful new stronghold.

The Parliamentarians surrounded the Royalist position on November 1, 1645 and two days later formally demanded that Philip Stanhope surrender the garrison to avoid bloodshed.

As an agreement was not reached, Parliamentarian forces gained access to Shelford House and the slaughter ensued.

According to Dr Appleby, it is estimated Stanhope died with the bulk of his garrison, around 160 men.

There is also a claim in a petition by the Earl of Chesterfield for financial aid, after two of his sons were killed, that several women and children in the garrison had also been murdered, but this was never mentioned in the few other sources.

To this day, the site remains largely unexcavated.

On it&aposs parish council website, Shelford - which has a population of around 700 as of 2011 - has its own historical trail.

A statement on the website reads: "The Stanhopes of Shelford were a prominent family within Nottinghamshire and played a major role as strong loyalists to King Charles IV during the Civil War.

With Nottingham held by the Parliamentarians and Newark resolutely for the King, Shelford was a natural obstacle to overcome and it was Colonel Philip Stanhope, the 8th son of the 1st Earl of Chesterfield, who was left fighting for the royal cause."


Mary Edwards Walker was born in the Town of Oswego, New York, on November 26, 1832, the daughter of Alvah (father) and Vesta (mother) Walker. She was the youngest of seven children: she had five sisters and one brother. Alvah and Vesta raised both their son and their daughters in a progressive manner that was revolutionary for the time. Their nontraditional parenting nurtured Mary's spirit of independence and sense of justice that she actively demonstrated throughout her life. While they were devoted Christians, the Walkers were "free thinkers" who raised their children to question the regulations and restrictions of various denominations. [5] The Walker parents also demonstrated non-traditional gender roles to their children regarding sharing work around the farm: Vesta often participated in heavy labor while Alvah took part in general household chores. [5] Walker worked on her family farm as a child. She did not wear women's clothing during farm labor because she considered it too restricting. Her mother reinforced her views that corsets and tight lacings were unhealthy. [6]

Her elementary education consisted of attendance at the local school that her parents had started. The Walkers were determined that their daughters be as well-educated as their son, so they founded the first free schoolhouse in Oswego in the late 1830s. [5] After finishing primary school, Mary and two of her older sisters attended Falley Seminary in Fulton, New York. [5] Falley was not only an institution of higher learning, but a place that emphasized modern social reform in gender roles, education, and hygiene. [5] Its ideologies and practices further cemented Mary's determination to defy traditional feminine standards on a principle of injustice. In her free time, Mary would pore over her father's medical texts on anatomy and physiology her interest in medicine is attributable to her exposure to medical literature at an early age. [5] As a young woman, she taught at a school in Minetto, New York, eventually earning enough money to pay her way through Syracuse Medical College, where she graduated with honors as a medical doctor in 1855, the only woman in her class. [5]

She married a fellow medical school student, Albert Miller, on November 16, 1855, shortly before she turned 23. [5] Walker wore a short skirt with trousers underneath, refused to include "obey" in her vows, and retained her last name, all characteristic of her obstinate nonconformity. [5] They set up a joint practice in Rome, New York. [7] The practice did not flourish, as female physicians were generally not trusted or respected at that time. [8] They later divorced, on account of Miller's infidelity. [9]

Walker briefly attended Bowen Collegiate Institute (later named Lenox College) in Hopkinton, Iowa, in 1860, until she was suspended for refusing to resign from the school's debating society, which until she joined had been all male.

Inspired by her parents' novel standard of dressing for health purposes, Walker was infamous for contesting traditional female wardrobe. In 1871, she wrote, "The greatest sorrows from which women suffer to-day are those physical, moral, and mental ones, that are caused by their unhygienic manner of dressing!" [9] She strongly opposed women's long skirts with numerous petticoats, not only for their discomfort and their inhibition to the wearer's mobility but for their collection and spread of dust and dirt. As a young woman, she began experimenting with various skirt-lengths and layers, all with men's trousers underneath. By 1861, her typical ensemble included trousers with suspenders under a knee-length dress with a tight waist and full skirt. [9]

While encouraged by her family, Walker's wardrobe choices were often met with criticism. Once, while a schoolteacher, she was assaulted on her way home by a neighboring farmer and a group of boys, who chased her and attacked her with eggs and other projectiles. [5] Female colleagues in medical school criticized her choices, and patients often gawked at her and teased her. She nevertheless persisted in her mission to reform women's dress. Her view that women's dress should "protect the person, and allow freedom of motion and circulation, and not make the wearer a slave to it" made her commitment to dress reform as great as her zeal for abolitionism. [10] She famously wrote to the women's journal, The Sibyl: A Review of the Tastes, Errors, and Fashions of Society, about her campaign against women's fashion, amongst other things, for its injuries to health, its expense, and its contribution to the dissolution of marriages. [5] Her literature contributed to the spread of her ideas and made her a popular figure amongst other feminists and female physicians.

In 1870, Walker was arrested in New Orleans and mocked by men because she was dressed as a man. The arresting officer Mullahy twisted her arm and asked her if she had ever had sex with a man. Walker was released from custody when she was recognized at Police Court.

Walker volunteered at the outbreak of American Civil War as a surgeon – first for the Army, but was rejected because she was a woman (despite having kept a private practice for many years). She was offered the role of a nurse but declined and chose to volunteer as a surgeon for the Union Army as a civilian. The U.S. Army had no female surgeons, and at first, she was allowed to practice only as a nurse. [3] During this period, she served at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas), July 21, 1861, and at the Patent Office Hospital in Washington, D.C. She worked as an unpaid field surgeon near the Union front lines, including at the Battle of Fredericksburg and in Chattanooga after the Battle of Chickamauga. [11] As a suffragist, she was happy to see women serving as soldiers, and alerted the press to the case of Frances Hook, in Ward 2 of the Chattanooga hospital, a woman who served in the Union forces disguised as a man. [12] Walker was the first female surgeon of the Union army. [11] She wore men's clothing during her work, claiming it to be easier for high demands of her work. [11]

In September 1862, Walker wrote to the War Department requesting employment as a spy, but her proposal was declined. [13] In September 1863, she was employed as a "Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian)" by the Army of the Cumberland, becoming the first female surgeon employed by the U.S. Army Surgeon. [14] Walker was later appointed assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry. During her service, she frequently crossed battle lines and treated civilians.

On April 10, 1864, she was captured by Confederate troops, and arrested as a spy, just after she finished helping a Confederate doctor perform an amputation. She was sent to Castle Thunder in Richmond, Virginia, and remained there until August 12, 1864, when she was released as part of a prisoner exchange. [15] While she was imprisoned, she refused to wear the clothes provided her, said to be more "becoming of her sex". Walker was exchanged for a Confederate surgeon from Tennessee on August 12, 1864. [4]

She went on to serve as supervisor of a female prison in Louisville, Kentucky, and as the head of an orphanage in Tennessee. [14]

After the war, Walker was awarded a disability pension for partial muscular atrophy suffered while she was imprisoned by the enemy. She was given $8.50 a month, beginning June 13, 1865, but in 1899 that amount was raised to $20 per month. [16]

She became a writer and lecturer, supporting such issues as health care, temperance, women's rights, and dress reform for women. She was frequently arrested for wearing men's clothing, and insisted on her right to wear clothing that she thought appropriate. [17] She wrote two books that discussed women's rights and dress. She replied to criticism of her attire: "I don't wear men's clothes, I wear my own clothes." [18]

Walker was a member of the central woman's suffrage Bureau in Washington, and solicited funds to endow a chair for a female professor at Howard University medical school. [4] She attempted to register to vote in 1871, but was turned away. The initial stance of the movement, following her lead, was to claim that women already had the right to vote, and Congress needed only to enact enabling legislation. After a number of fruitless years advocating this position, the movement promoted the adoption of a constitutional amendment. This was diametrically opposed to her position, and she fell out of favor with the movement. She continued to attend suffrage conventions and distribute her own literature, but was virtually ignored by the rest of the movement. Her penchant for wearing masculine clothing, including a top hat, only exacerbated the situation. [ clarification needed ] [14] She received a more favorable reception in England than in the United States. [19]

In 1907, Walker published "Crowning Constitutional Argument", in which she argued that some States, as well as the federal Constitution, had already granted women the right to vote. She testified on women's suffrage before committees of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1912 and 1914.

After a long illness, Walker died at home on February 21, 1919, at the age of eighty-six. [20] She was buried at Rural Cemetery in Oswego, New York, in a plain funeral, with an American flag draped over her casket, and wearing a black suit instead of a dress. [21] Her death in 1919 came one year before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guaranteed women the right to vote. [14]

Medal of Honor Edit

After the war, Walker sought a retroactive brevet or commission to validate her service. President Andrew Johnson directed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to study the legality of the issue, and he solicited an opinion from the Army's Judge Advocate General, who determined that there was no precedent for commissioning a female, but that a "commendatory acknowledgment" could be issued in lieu of the commission. This led Johnson to personally award the Medal of Honor as an alternative. Thus, Walker was not formally recommended for the Medal of Honor, and this unusual process may also explain why authorities overlooked her ineligibility, ironically on the grounds of lacking a commission. [22]

In 1916, the U.S. Congress created a pension act for Medal of Honor recipients, and in doing so created separate Army and Navy Medal of Honor Rolls. The Army was directed to review eligibility of prior recipients in a separate bill not related to the pension rolls, but which had been requested by the Army in order to retroactively police undesirable awards. The undesirable awards resulted from the lack of regulations on the medal the Army had published no regulations until 1897, and the law had very few requirements, meaning that recipients could earn a medal for virtually any reason, resulting in nearly 900 awards for enlistment extensions not in combat. The Army's Medal of Honor Board deliberated from 1916 to 1917, and struck 911 names from the Army Medal of Honor Roll, including those of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker and William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody. Both were considered ineligible for the Army Medal of Honor because 1862, 1863, and 1904 laws strictly required recipients to be officers or enlisted members. In Walker's case, she was a civilian contract surgeon and was not a commissioned officer. Nevertheless, the Medal of Honor Board perhaps discriminated against Walker because it declined to revoke the Medal of at least two other contract surgeons who were equally ineligible. One of these was Major General Leonard Wood, a former Chief of Staff of the Army who was a civilian contract surgeon in the same status as Walker when he was recommended for the award. This was known to the Medal of Honor Board, as board president General Nelson Miles had twice recommended Wood's medal and knew that he was ineligible. The disenrolled recipients were not ordered to return their medals per a recommendation from the Army Judge Advocate General, who noted that Congress did not grant the Army the jurisdiction to enforce this provision of the statute, rendering both the repossession and criminal penalties inoperative. [23]

Although several sources attribute President Jimmy Carter with restoring Walker's medal posthumously in 1977, this is probably incorrect, since the action was taken well below the Secretary of the Army, at the level of the Army's Assistant Secretary for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, which was acting on a recommendation from the Board for Correction of Military Records. In fact, both the Ford and Carter Administrations opposed the restoration the Carter White House reacted with confusion to the announcement of the Board's decision. [24] A recent historical work documented that the Board for Correction probably exceeded its authority in making a unilateral restoration of the medal, since the Board is merely a delegation of the authority of the Secretary of the Army, and thus cannot contradict a standing law much less a law that expressly required the revocation of Walker's medal. Therefore, the decision was controversial because it raised separation of powers issues the Board's mandate was only to correct errors or injustices within its authority, not act against the authority of public law. This very point was illustrated by the awarding of Garlin Conner's Medal of Honor in early 2018, which also originated from the Board for Correction, but instead went through the President and required a statutory waiver from Congress—seen to be a requirement because the Board lacked the authority to contravene a public law and the associated statutes of limitations. [25]

Walker felt that she had been awarded the Medal of Honor because she had gone into enemy territory to care for the suffering inhabitants, when no man had the courage to do so, for fear of being imprisoned. [4]

Attribution and citation Edit

Rank and organization: Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian), U.S. Army. Places and dates: Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861 Patent Office Hospital, Washington, D.C., October 1861 Chattanooga, Tennessee, following Battle of Chickamauga, September 1863 Prisoner of War, April 10, 1864 – August 12, 1864, Richmond, Virginia Battle of Atlanta, September 1864. Entered service at: Louisville, Kentucky. Born: 26 November 1832, Oswego County, New York.

Where as it appears from official reports that Dr. Mary E. Walker, a graduate of medicine, "has rendered valuable service to the Government, and her efforts have been earnest and untiring in a variety of ways," and that she was assigned to duty and served as an assistant surgeon in charge of female prisoners at Louisville, Kentucky, upon the recommendation of Major-Generals Sherman and Thomas, and faithfully served as contract surgeon in the service of the United States, and has devoted herself with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospitals, to the detriment of her own health, and has also endured hardships as a prisoner of war four months in a Southern prison while acting as contract surgeon and Whereas by reason of her not being a commissioned officer in the military service, a brevet or honorary rank cannot, under existing laws, be conferred upon her and Whereas in the opinion of the President an honorable recognition of her services and sufferings should be made.

It is ordered, That a testimonial thereof shall be hereby made and given to the said Dr. Mary E. Walker, and that the usual medal of honor for meritorious services be given her. [26]

National Women's Hall of Fame Edit

Walker was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2000.

In 1982, the U.S. Postal Service issued a twenty-cent stamp in her honor, commemorating the anniversary of her birth. [28] [29]

The medical facilities at SUNY Oswego are named in her honor (Mary Walker Health Center). On the same grounds a plaque explains her importance in the Oswego community.

There is a United States Army Reserve center named for her in Walker, Michigan. [30]

The Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, D.C., is named in honor of Walker and the poet Walt Whitman, who was a nurse in D.C. during the Civil War. [31]

The Mary Walker Clinic at Fort Irwin National Training Center in California is named in honor of Walker. [32]

The Mary E. Walker House is a thirty-bed transitional residence run by the Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Service & Education Center for homeless women veterans. [33] [34]

In May 2012, a 900-pound bronze statue honoring Walker was unveiled in front of the Oswego, New York Town Hall. [35]

The Warrior Women of the English Civil War

In the past the role of women in the English Civil Wars, as with most history, has been severely overlooked. The assumption that men did the bulk of work while their wives and daughters were confined to the drudgery of domestic chores is known to be false while the recent controversy over the ‘Viking warrior woman’ burial discovered in Birka, Sweden has shown how evidence can upend our traditional view of the past as being binary and highly gendered.

All too often, our expectations of early modern women conform to the portrayals of the time, when the passive suffering of women was – as Antonia Fraser’s The Weaker Vessel points out – ‘colourfully, even gleefully, described by both sides in the usual propagandist style’ and yet ‘the women who lived through the period of the Civil Wars were far from passive’.

Yet over the past few decades, our understanding of the way women were involved in, shaped the direction of, and were affected by the wars of the 1640s and ‘50s has changed considerably. Even though historians are limited by records and accounts from the time, which are often either produced and/or aimed at men, understanding of the breadth and depth of women’s experiences and voices during the conflict is undergoing a revolution of its own.

This International Women’s Day, it’s important that we look at how – contrary to popular notions of their meek passivity – women played many roles in the English Civil Wars…

They were strident petitioners: Elizabeth Lilburne, the wife of polemicist and pamphleteer John Lilburne, not only petitioned Parliament into threatening retaliatory executions if her captive husband was executed by the Royalists, but she carried the news from London to the Royalist court in exile in Oxford while pregnant. And the Civil War Petitions project has already done considerable work on the records left by widows seeking compensation or pensions from both Parliament and the restored monarchy of Charles II.

They took part in fighting: there were countless women who played an enormous role in the defence of their homes and communities, from the strident Dissenter Dorothy Hazard who lead a group of women to barricade breaches in the walls of Bristol during the Royalist assault in 1643, to Lady Brilliana Harley’s defence of Brampton Bryan Castle during a three-month siege by Royalist troops and Lady Mary Bankes’ defiance of Parliamentarians besieging Corfe Castle. And even when they didn’t fight, the mere suggestion of taking on a martial role could be beyond the pale – much to the horror of supporter and opponent alike, in letters to her husband Queen Henrietta Maria styled herself the ‘She-Generalissimo’ during her march from Bridlington with reinforcements and supplies for King Charles at Oxford. While she did not take part in any battles on the way, the very idea of a woman leading a military unit was dangerously radical.

They were spies: Nadine Akkerman’s Invisible Agents details how women did more than merely infiltrate the allegedly-male world of the spy, it appears they dominated it. They worked as intelligencers, spies, and couriers, from the publisher and nurse Elizabeth Alkin – nicknamed ‘Parliament Joan’ – to Susan Hyde, the sister of the Earl of Clarendon.

And in the rush to correct assumptions, the vital importance of women to keeping families together during the chaos of the wars must not be forgotten. As detailed in Lucy Moore’s Lady Fanshawe’s Receipt Book, the wife of a Royalist diplomat, Ann Fanshaw, played a crucial role seeking preferment and passage for her husband, visiting him in prison, nursing him when he fell sick, and raising the money needed to fill the gap left by the loss of their income and estates.

Yet despite their superhuman efforts in the face of terrible adversity and depredations, strong women or those who took on men’s roles were often perceived as a fundamental threat to the social order.

In his analysis of how widows of prominent Parliamentarian officers used language and a burgeoning press to drum up support for their cause, in ‘To condole with me on the Commonwealth’s loss’: the widows and orphans of Parliament’s military commanders Andrew Hopper describes how one can easily gauge their success by the furious response it provoked from the enemy: ‘Royalist pamphleteers pointed to a threat to the gender order, depicting the wives of parliamentarian commanders as domineering, adulterous and conspiratorial, a set of hypocritical puritans on the make, who were unnatural and unwomanly in their political assertiveness’.

As we’ve covered before, when women attempted to intervene in the political process they were often mocked and even attacked. When Leveller leaders John Lilburne, Richard Overton, William Walwyn, and Thomas Prince were sent to prison in 1649, hundreds of the movement’s female adherents descended on Westminster to petition for their release – but not even being driven off by pistol-wielding troops could stop them and they returned several times. Women’s activism produced an almost-inevitable backlash with pamphlets such as the anonymously authored ‘The Parliament of Women’ in 1646 and 1647’s ‘The Parliament of Ladies’ lampooning what many saw as women’s unearned and unwanted entry into the political sphere.

Probably one of the most striking expressions of the fear of role reversal were the stories of the ‘female soldier’.

The idea of a woman dressing up as a man in order to participate in warfare was not a new one in the English Civil War, but for those who lived during it, the idea both outraged and titillated in equal measure. For some it was symbolic of ‘the world turned upside down’ an example of the apparent reordering of society in the chaos of conflict and the confusion of new ideas that accompanied this prolonged civil war. There is a sense in some of the ballads and pamphlets that these stories should serve as a warning of just how radically the wars upset societal and gender roles, and women who displayed ‘manly’ qualities such as Mary Firth – also known as ‘Moll Cutpurse’ – fired the popular imagination.

Cross-dressing as a man was key to Firth’s infamy and, as several of the plays of William Shakespeare attest, the idea of assuming another gender fascinated people in 17th Century England. But just how widespread was it?

It’s difficult to differentiate between fact and fiction, particularly when dealing with the scurrilous and often wholly invented pamphlets and newsbooks of the time, but historian Mark Stoyle has found a handful of definite cases of cross-dressing female soldiers: wives, unmarried partners, would-be female soldiers and even prostitutes motivated by a desire to fight or to remain close to their partners.

All too often, historians have to rely on contemporary ballads such as ‘The Gallant She-Souldier’ of 1655 or the 1645 pamphlet that described a young soldier who spent a year in the Parliamentary garrison of Gloucester, but cases include a report from July 1642 of a young girl disguising herself to be near her lover, while Major-General Poyntz of the New Model Army reported capturing a female corporal among Royalist prisoners in November 1645. An anonymous letter from 1642 describes a woman named Nan Ball who served in the King’s army near York so she could be close to her beloved, a similar ploy to that of Anne Dymocke from Lincolnshire who, in 1655, disguised herself as a man in order to remain with her lover, John Evison. And, intriguingly, on a draft 1643 proclamation setting out the required standards of behaviour for the Royalist army, King Charles made a note that “lett no woman presume to counterfeit her sex by wearing mans apparall under payne of the severest punishment”, though no mention of this was contained in the final publication. Professor Stoyle says Charles’ words suggest the king at least believed that female cross-dressing was quite widespread in his army.

While these are just a small number of examples, as Stoyle suggests they may point to a much bigger, and undiscovered, culture of women becoming soldiers. In The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe, Rudolf M. Dekker and Lotte C. van de Pol show that women crossdressing as men in order to become soldiers and sailors may have been far more widespread than was supposed, with 22 cases of female soldiers in the Netherlands alone, and asserts that in the early modern era ‘passing oneself off as a man was a real and viable option for women who had fallen into hard times and were struggling to overcome their difficult circumstances’ and that it was a tradition that was strongest by far in the Netherlands, England andGermany.

Nor are reports of crossdressing female soldiers restricted to the English Civil War. The late 17th Century was another period of tension and civil strife in the British Isles, following the ‘Glorious Revolution’ and taking of the English crown by the Dutch Prince of Orange and, possibly drawing on popular memories of stories from earlier in the century, a ballad entitled ‘The Female Warrior’ and set to the tune of ‘I Am A Jovial Batchelor’ related how a woman donned men’s clothing and became an ensign (a junior officer who held a company or regiment’s flag) and was only discovered when she was unable to hide her pregnancy. The Bodleian Library’s ballads database suggests it comes from around 1695, just a couple of years after the end of the first Jacobite Rebellion. Interestingly, rather than portraying her crossdressing as described in the text, the artist of the woodcut decided to show her in a long flowing dress – if only for modesty’s sake…

While stories of warrior women donning men’s clothing to charge into battle spark the imagination, the central role women played in 1640s and ‘50s should not be overlooked or underestimated. Whether in disguise or in the open, female bravery was a force to be reckoned with during the chaos of the civil wars.

Want to be a warrior woman in a 17th Century army? Don a redcoat and march into battle with us – the modern Earl of Manchester’s Regiment is Foote is a gender blind reenactment group with female soldiers in all roles, from officers to civilians, and both on and off the battlefield. It’s an ideal hobby for individuals, couples and families, and you can join up now or give it a go for as little as £10 – plus all your kit is provided!

Mourning Dress

Death touched the hundreds of thousands of families during the Civil War, and the women put on mourning attire according to their stage of grief.

Mourning Costumes, 1861, Courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Edition

The period of mourning varied according to the relationship with the deceased. A widow was expected to wear deep mourning for at least one year. This included bombazine (dull, lusterless black) fabric, widow’s cap, black cuffs and collars, and black crepe. Black petticoats, stockings and parasols were also required. During the second stage of mourning (from twelve months to eighteen months after the death), the widow could trade silk or wool for the bombazine and add jet black jewelry and ribbons to her attire. The third stage of mourning commenced at eighteen months after the death, and allowed the half-mourning colors of grey, purple, mauve, lavender, or black and grey in her dress.

A daughter’s rules for a parent’s death were less stringent. She needed to only were black for six months, then two months of half-mourning colors. Corsets, hoops, and mourning dress were integral to women during the Civil War, and can be found in the characters of Wedded to War.

(For photographs of women's fashions worn in the Civil War, visit my Civil War Women's Fashion Pinterest board here.)

And if you're into historical fiction, check out Wedded to War and my other Civil War novels. What other elements of historical fashion fascinate you?

Sources 1. Stamper, Anita A. and Jill Condra. Clothing through American history: the Civil War through the Gilded Age, 1861-1899. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2010. Page 109.

2. Leisch, Juanita. Who Wore What? Women’s Wear 1861-1865. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1995. Page 70.

3. Rutberg, B. Mary Lincoln’s Dressmaker. New York: Walker and Company, 1995. Pg 40.

5. Hoffman, Frank, and William Bailey. Fashion and Merchandising Fads. New York: Routledge, 1994. Page 115.

Watch the video: The English Civil War SONG. Slimy Stuarts. Horrible Histories (June 2022).


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