On April 12, 1861, at Fort Sumter S.C. the first shot in the Civil War was fired. On that date in 2011 the Sesquicentennial (150 year) Commemoration of that shot began in earnest throughout the eastern and southeastern portion of the United States. Unfortunately, if you live in the western half of the United States there will be little fan-fare commemorating the great battles that preserved this Nation at a cost of 628,000 American lives.
One of the first women to answer the call was Sarah Wakeman. Sarah Rosetta Wakeman was born in Afton, NY on her parent's struggling dairy farm. She was the first of nine children. With little or nothing to look forward to, at age 19 Sarah left home looking for work. She quickly learned that by disguising herself a man, she could make more money.
She was soon hired as a boatman on a coal barge. On her first trip up river she met several soldiers who told her she could receive $152.00 as a signing bonus and $13.00 a month in pay.
Army recruiters assumed she was a man and asked her to enlist. She used the name Lyons Wakeman and claimed to be 21 years old. She was accepted into the 153rd New York Regiment of Volunteers on August 30, 1862. The Regiment was sent to Washington D.C. in October 1862. Their mission was to defend the Nation’s Capital against Rebel advances.
In February 1864 her unit was sent to Louisiana to take part in the Red River Campaign. She first experienced battle up close in April 1864 in the Battle of Pleasant Hill. Of this battle Sarah wrote “”Sometimes the deceased soldiers were lying in heaps and rows…along with mangled and dead horses all over the place, you can distinctly hear the entire field humming and hissing with decomposition."
Near the end of the campaign, drinking water became scarce. Sarah with her fellow soldiers drank from the streams that were poisoned by the rotting flesh of dead animals.
Contamination and infection were not understood at that time.
The Union Soldiers were stricken by chronic diarrhea and died by the thousands.
Sarah was among those afflicted.
Sarah was admitted to the Regimental Hospital on May 3, 1864. As her condition worsened she was transferred to a Federal Hospital in New Orleans where she died June 19, 1864. If the nurses and doctors there discovered her true gender, they didn’t report it. She was buried as a soldier at the Chalmette National Cemetery in New Orleans. Her headstone read, “PVT. Lyons Wakeman.”
Even though it was forbidden by the Union and Confederacy to enlist women, it is believed somewhere between 400 and 1000 women served in the Civil War on both sides, much in the same manner as Sarah.
With closely clipped hair and male aliases and a desire to earn money, for patriotism, love of adventure or many other reasons these women distinguished themselves “Above and Beyond the Call!”
Little is known about the number of women such as Sarah who have stepped forward in times of national need such as WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam. Up until that time women were restricted to non-combat positions. Assignment to a combat position would not occur until after the attack on the Twin Towers in New York City and the United States declared a state of war with Iraq.
As more women entered the military, they assumed greater rolls in Army and Marine Corps combat operations, Some began flying combat strikes in Air Force fighters, others became helicopter or transport pilots. The Navy saw increased numbers of women assuming combat rolls aboard ship.
As in the case of Sarah Wakeman, every American woman who has served her country has a story to tell. Unfortunately, many of those stories will never be told as the part played by women has frequently taken a back seat. As a show of honor to Sarah and all the women who have stepped forward to serve this great nation since Sarah’s time, and like Sarah, many have paid the ultimate price, let us always honor them and never forget what they have done.