Time Capsule: Soldiering On

Time Capsule: Soldiering On

Ancestors in their own words.


Nov. 24, 1862

My Dear Father and mother and sister and brothers, one in all,

I received your letter on Sunday the 23. I was very glad to hear from you and learn that you were all well. I am well and enjoy good health. Our Regiment is in Camp at Alexandria, Va. We have had no fighting yet. We have to guard the City and stand on picket. I stood on my post all last night … When I got done [with] work I went on the canal to work. I agreed to run 4 trips from Birmingham to Utica for 20$ in money, but this load of coal was going to Canajoharie, Montgomery Co.

When I got there I saw some soldiers. They wanted me to enlist and so I did. I got 100 and 52$ in money. I enlisted for 3 years or soon [as] discharged…

I want you should keep all my things for me for I believe that God will spare my life and that I shall see you all again face to face before I die …

Good-by for the present.

Civil War soldiers frequently wrote letters home and kept diaries. Surviving missives might be in the collections of families, libraries or archives. This letter is unusual because it was written by Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, a young woman from Afton, NY, masquerading as Pvt. Lyons Wakeman.

Although hundreds of women were known to have disguised themselves as men to serve in the Civil War (and other wars), it’s rare that a collection of a female soldier’s letters has survived. Wakeman’s letters give us the typical experiences of a Civil War soldier from the unique perspective of a woman. Sadly, she didn’t survive the war.

Books about women who served as soldiers include An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864 by Lauren Cook Burgess (Oxford University Press), from which this letter was abstracted. Also look for Richard Hall’s Patriots in Disguise: Women Warriors of the Civil War (Marlowe & Co.).

Because women served in secrecy, always fearful they’d be discovered, finding evidence of a female ancestor who served might prove difficult. Turn to family stories as a stepping stone.

Women also served in other capacities during the Civil War: as nurses, camp followers, cooks and even spies.

To learn more about women who served in more-traditional roles, consult Virginia Purdy and Robert Gruber’s American Women and the US Armed Forces: A Guide to Records of Military Agencies in the National Archives Relating to Women (National Archives and Records Administration), available at many libraries.


From the May 2011 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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