Early Women Soldiers

American Revolutionary War (1775-1783)

During the American Revolutionary War, women served the U.S. Army in traditional roles as nurses, seamstresses and cooks for troops in camp. In the 18th and 19th centuries, garrisons depended on women to make Soldiers’ lives tolerable. Some found employment with officers’ families or as mess cooks. Women employed as laundresses, cooks, or nurses were subject to the Army’s rules of conduct. Though not in uniform, these women shared Soldiers’ hardships including inadequate housing and little compensation.

A few courageous women served in combat either alongside their husbands or disguised as men. During the attack on Fort Washington in 1776, standing alongside her husband John, Margaret Corbin handled ammunition for a cannon. When he was fatally wounded, she took his place at the cannon until she also was wounded. Congress authorized a pension for her in 1779.

Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley gained the nickname “Molly Pitcher” in 1778 by carrying water to men on the battlefield in Monmouth, N.J. She even replaced her husband, William Hays, when he collapsed at his cannon.

Women also served as spies during the Revolutionary War. The war was fought on farms and in the backyards of American families across the width and breadth of the colonies and along the frontier. Women took an active role in alerting American troops to enemy movement. Women carried messages, transported contraband, and generally functioned as spies for the cause.

Ann Simpson Davis was handpicked by Gen. George Washington to carry messages to his generals while the army was in eastern Pennsylvania. Ann, an accomplished horsewoman, slipped through areas occupied by the British Army unnoticed. She carried secret orders in sacks of grain and sometimes in her clothing to various mills around Philadelphia and Bucks Country. She received a letter of commendation for her services from Gen. Washington.

The Civil War (1861-1865) and After

Miss Clara Barton. Mathew Brady Collection (Army). Exact date unknown.

Miss Clara Barton. Mathew Brady Collection (Army). Exact Date Unknown.

Most women that had an active role in the war served in traditional roles. They took care of farms and families while encouraging and supporting the war effort. Women served Soldiers more directly as nurses, cooks, laundresses and clerks. They also became members of the United States Sanitary Commission, the Christian Commission, and many other support-type groups in numbers unprecedented up to that point in the nation’s history.

As regiments faced the reality of war, some women rallied Soldiers to fight, bearing the regimental colors on the march, or even participated in battle.

“Daughters of the Regiment,” as they were commonly referred to, were part of some Civil War units. This title probably originated to designate an honorary “guardian angel,” or nurse.

One of the best known of these “latter-day Joan of Arcs,” or “half-Soldier heroines” was Annie Etheridge of the 3rd Michigan Infantry Regiment. Through several bloody engagements, she maintained a reputation for bravery, stamina, modesty, patriotism, and kindness.

“At the battle of Fredericksburg,” one Maine recruit wrote in his journal, "[Annie] was binding the wounds of a man when a shell exploded nearby, tearing him terribly, and removing a large portion of the skirt of her dress."

“You may have read of her,” wrote another Soldier, in the wake of the battle of Chancellorsville later that Spring. “She is always to be seen riding her pony at the head of our Brigade on the march or in the fight. Gen. Berry used to say she had been under as heavy fire as himself.”

Clara Barton witnessed immense suffering on the battlefield as a nurse. She took care of the wounded, dead and dying from Antietam to Andersonville. After the war she lectured and worked on humanitarian causes and became the first president of the American Association of the Red Cross.

Until she was captured by Confederates in Chatanooga, Tenn., Dr. Mary E. Walker served as assistant surgeon with Gen. Burnside’s Union forces in 1862 and with an Ohio regiment in East Tennessee the following year. Imprisoned in Richmond, Va., as a spy, she was eventually released and returned to serve as a hospital surgeon at a women’s prisoner-of-war hospital in Louisville, Ky. After the war, President Andrew Johnson awarded her the Medal of Honor. Dr. Walker is the only female to have been awarded this highest honor.

Sally Tompkins ran a Confederate military hospital in Richmond, Va., during the war. Not only did her hospital take the most severe cases during the Civil War, but the staff achieved the best patient outcomes. She was the only woman to receive an officer’s commission (a captaincy) in the Confederate Army during the war. She returned her salary to the Confederate government, but kept the commission as it allowed her to issue orders and to draw supplies for the hospital from the Confederate commissary. Tompkins ran the hospital, made medical decisions, purchased supplies, nursed, cooked meals for the patients and kept records. Her hospital had the lowest death rate of any Confederate hospital – with only 73 deaths out of 1,333 admissions. Ahead of her time in many ways, historians believe that the low death rate was due to her emphasis on cleanliness and a proper diet.

Dr. Mary Walker, wearing Medal of Honor. Ca. 1866. Mathew Brady Collection (Army). Exact date unknown.

Dr. Mary Walker. Wearing Medal of Honor. Ca. 1866. Mathew Brady Collection (Army). Exact Date Unknown.

As in the Revolutionary War, women sometimes disguised themselves and enlisted to fight. It was relatively easy for them to pass through the recruiter’s station, since few questions were asked – as long as one looked the part. Women bound their breasts when necessary, padded the waists of their trousers, and cut their hair short.

A former slave, Cathay Williams, served in a somewhat similar capacity. Swept up by the Union XIII Corps in Jefferson City, Mo., on the way to Vicksburg, Miss., she became a cook and laundress. She ended up in the household of Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan in 1864. After the Civil War, Williams made her way back to the Midwest, where as “William Cathay” she disguised herself as a man and enlisted in Company A, 38th U.S. Infantry. There she served for two years until she became ill and was discovered by a post physician. She was discharged at Fort Bayard, N.M., on Oct. 14, 1868.

As in previous wars, women served as military spies and espionage agents during the course of the Civil War. Harriet Tubman is well known for her work on the Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War. Fewer people know, however, that Tubman organized and led a group of scouts (freed black slaves) under the direction of Gen. Rufus Saxton in the Beaufort, S.C., area in 1863. The scouts, many of whom were river pilots and who knew the area intimately, made repeated trips up the rivers and into the swamps and marshes to obtain information about Confederate troop strength and defenses. They also surveyed plantations and towns, looking for slaves they could enlist in the Union Army. Using information obtained by Tubman and her scouts, Col. James Montgomery, who commanded the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers (a black unit), conducted a series of river raids to acquire supplies and to destroy enemy torpedoes, railroads, bridges commissaries, cotton, and plantation homes.

World War I (1917-1918) and Interwar Years

When the U.S. government declared war on Germany in the spring of 1917, Congress passed the Selective Service Act requiring the registration of all males between the ages of 20 and 30 (later changed to 18 and 45). On June 5, 1917, over 9.5 million men signed up for the “great national lottery.” By war’s end over 24 million men had registered for the draft. Over 4.8 million served in the armed forces and nearly 2 million were deployed to the western front in France.

Women quickly felt the impact of the nation’s decision to go to war. When roughly 16 percent of the male work force trooped off to battle, the call went out to women to fill the vacancies in shops, factories and offices across the country. Eventually 20 percent or more of all workers in the wartime manufacture of electrical machinery, airplanes and food were women. At the same time they came to dominate formerly masculine jobs as clerical workers, telephone operators, typists and stenographers. Such skills, along with nursing, would be needed both on the home front and at the fighting front in the “War to End All Wars.”

The National Service School was organized by the Women’s Naval Service in 1916 to train women for duties in time of war and national disaster. The Army, Navy and the Marine Corps cooperated to train thousands of women for national service. Women were taught food conservation, military calisthenics and drill, land telegraphy or telephone operating, how to manufacture surgical dressings and bandages, signal work and many other skills.

More than 35,000 American women served in the military during World War I. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps were the first to actively solicit women to help fill the gap in male recruits and to free up combat troops for service. Thousands applied for the 300 or so positions as Marine Corps Yeoman, while another 11,000 women answered the Navy’s call to become “Yeomanettes.” They ultimately occupied a wide variety of noncombat duty positions, from radio electricians and draftsmen to secretaries, accountants, telephone operators and more.

Over half of the women who served in the United States armed forces in World War I – roughly 21,000 in all – belonged to the Army Nurse Corps, and performed heroic service in camp and station hospitals at home and abroad. Like their Civil War and Spanish American War predecessors, they found themselves on many occasions working close to or at the front. They lived in bunkers and makeshift tents with few comforts. Women experienced all the horror of sustained artillery barrages and the debilitating effects of mustard gas while taking care of Soldiers and civilians alike.

The Army Signal Corps recruited and trained at least 230 telephone operators – the “Hello Girls” - for duty overseas. The Signal Corps women traveled and lived under Army orders from the date of their acceptance until their termination from service. Their travel orders and per diem allowance orders read “same as Army nurses in Army regulations.” They were required to purchase uniforms designed by the Army, with Army insignia and buttons.

When the war ended and the telephone operators were no longer needed, the Army unceremoniously hustled the women home and refused to grant them official discharges, claiming that they had never officially been “in” the service. The women believed differently, however, and for years pressured Congress to recognize their services. Finally, after considerable Congressional debate, the Signal Corps telephone operators of World War I were granted military status in 1979, years after the majority of them had passed away.

At various times during the war, the Quartermaster Corps sent women secretaries and clerks overseas under contract. These women were always clearly civilian workers; there was never any confusion regarding their status. A Memorandum to the Quartermaster General dated August 1918 lists by name and address fifteen stenographers who went to Europe under contract. Other memos describe the necessary qualifications the women had to meet, their job responsibilities, their salaries, and the quarters assigned to them in Europe. Later memos list the names of additional women sent overseas and the division or branch to which they were assigned.