Thursday, February 13, 2014

Sarah Rosetta Wakeman - A Brave Soldier of the American Civil War

Sarah Rosetta Wakeman
(AKA - Lyons Wakeman)

During the U.S. Civil War, when women were mere chattel and women’s rights was unheard of, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman (January 16, 1843 – June 19, 1864) had the guts to disguise herself as a man. The oldest of nine children, she left home to avoid family discord. To earn her own way and a decent living, she disguised herself as a man to secure a job as a boatman. Co-workers, all burly men, were talking about enlisting for the Union Army to fight in the U.S. Civil War. After all, there was good money to be made and Sarah needed to earn enough to secure a comfortable future. So, she enlisted on August 30, 1862 under the name of Lyons Wakeman. The enlistment papers completed at the time listed Wakeman as 21 years old, five feet tall, fair-skinned, and with blue eyes. She was assigned to the 153rd Regiment of the New York State Volunteers.

Her first assignment was guard duty in Alexandria, Virginia and Washington DC. While there, she took a big risk and wrote her first letter home to explain to her family why she had left home and that she had enlisted. Because she was now financially independent, and was saving her money, she included a small sum of money to soften the blow. Of course, she had to use her real name, and if anyone in the military intercepted it, she risked losing her job as a soldier. This she didn’t want to do because it was a great source of pride to her that she was considered a “good soldier” among her peers. She did not know at the time that her family never read any of her letters home and hid them away in an attic. So Sarah kept writing, and the letters kept piling up unopened.  

In 1864, her regiment was sent into active battle at Pleasant Hill, Louisiana. One of 11,000 soldiers, Sarah fought bravely. In her last letter home, she reported:

“Our army made an advance up the river to Pleasant Hill about 40 miles (64 km). There we had a fight. The first day of the fight our army got whip[ped] and we had to retreat back about 10 miles (16 km). The next day the fight was renewed and the firing took place about eight o'clock in the morning. There was a heavy Cannonading all day and a Sharp firing of infantry. I was not in the first day's fight, but the next day I had to face the enemy bullets with my regiment. I was under fire about four hours and laid on the field of battle all night. There was three wounded in my Co. and one killed. I feel thankful to God that he spared my life, and I pray to him that he will lead me safe through the field of battle and that I may return safe home…the dead lay sometimes in heaps and in rows… with distorted features, among mangled and dead horses, trampled in mud, and thrown in all conceivable sorts of places. You can distinctly hear, over the whole field, the hum and hissing of decomposition."

 The Battle of Pleasant Hill

Because the soldiers drank water contaminated by the bodies of rotting animals, like many of her comrades, Sarah contracted dysentery and died in a hospital in New Orleans. Sarah carried her secret identity as a man to her grave, for she was buried as “Lyons Wakeman.”

Sarah Wakeman's story has been immortalized in the novel, I Shall Be Near To You, by Erin Lindsay McCabe.

From the Back Cover

An extraordinary novel about a strong-willed woman who disguises herself as a man in order to fight beside her husband, inspired by the letters of a remarkable female soldier who fought in the Civil War. 

Rosetta doesn't want her new husband Jeremiah to enlist, but he joins up, hoping to make enough money that they'll be able to afford their own farm someday. Though she's always worked by her father’s side as the son he never had, now that Rosetta is a wife she's told her place is inside with the other women. But Rosetta decides her true place is with Jeremiah, no matter what that means, and to be with him she cuts off her hair, hems an old pair of his pants, and signs up as a Union soldier.

With the army desperate for recruits, Rosetta has no trouble volunteering, although she faces an incredulous husband. She drills with the men, proves she can be as good a soldier as anyone, and deals with the tension as her husband comes to grips with having a fighting wife. Rosetta's strong will clashes with Jeremiah's while their marraige is tested by broken conventions, constant danger, and war, and she fears discovery of her secret even as they fight for their future, and for their lives. 

Inspired by more than 250 documented accounts of the women who fought in the Civil War while disguised as men, I Shall Be Near To You is the intimate story, in Rosetta’s powerful and gorgeous voice, of the drama of marriage, one woman’s amazing exploits, and the tender love story that can unfold when two partners face life’s challenges side by side.

Book Review

This impressive novel, is the story of one woman’s bravery and gumption as she fights alongside men in one of the hardest fought civil wars in history. Author Erin Lindsay McCabe spent years researching the phenomenon of women disguised as men in order to fight a war.

The novel begins with Sarah Rosetta Wakefield's early family life and her motivation to leave her family to join the army. The duties she was assigned and the battles she fought are based on her own story, and that of other women, who secretly enlisted in the army.

In a poignant, authentic first person narrative, I could not help but to be drawn into the struggles and challenges Sarah so stoically faced. From first page to last, this was a gripping tale demonstrating the guts and glory and indescribably courage the few exemplary women demonstrated in order to be near their husbands or simply to seek to improve their circumstances for later in their lives.

"I Shall Be Near To You" is based on factual events, and is full of vibrancy and emotion. It is definitely a must read! Buy it for your mothers, wives, or daughters!


Sue Bursztynski said...

Fascinating! She wasn't the only one, though. There were a number of women who fought in the Civil War disguised as men (not to mention Harriet Tubman who went into battle, quite apart from her work on the Underground Railroad). I am a bit surprised that no one noticed even when she was dead. Or maybe they did, but respected her wishes. It was around the same time in the 1860s that Dr "James" Barry died after being an amazing head surgeon, saving lots of lives through insistence on cleanliness, pissed off Florence Nightingale for the filth of her hospital and after her death was discovered to be a woman - one who had given birth! So someone knew she was not a man. ;-)

Mrs. M said...

This story is fascinating, but I would have to disagree with this: "Sarah Wakeman's story has been immortalized in the novel, I Shall Be Near To You, by Erin Lindsay McCabe." Indeed, her story has not been immortalized, but rewritten to express a different reality. Although we can't be sure why Sarah Wakeman joined the Union Army, we can be sure it wasn't to join her husband since she was not married. I'm sure the author changed Wakeman to Wakefield because her book is fiction.