This post contributed by Elizabeth Nosari, Nau Project Archivist at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. Her work involves processing the John L. Nau III Civil War History Collection, which includes correspondence, diaries, photographs, military records, currency, and printed materials relating to the American Civil War (1861–65).
Popular notions of women during the Civil War center on self-sacrificing nurses, romantic spies, or brave ladies maintaining the home front in the absence of their men. This conventional picture of gender roles does not tell the entire story, however. Men were not the only ones to march off to war. Women bore arms and charged into battle, too.
Minnesotan Frances Louisa Clayton (sometimes spelled Clalin; born ca. 1830) was purported to have disguised herself as a man under the alias Jack Williams in order to enlist and fight in the United States army during the Civil War, at a time when women were barred from service.1 Some historians question the veracity of accounts of Clayton’s military service.2 However, her story would not have been as rare an occurrence as one might think. In They Fought Like Demons (2002), historians DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook note they had discovered evidence of some 250 women soldiers who adopted male personas in order to fight in the Civil War. Moreover, Blanton and Cook expect there are hundreds more women whose stories have gone undocumented as lower literacy rates as well as the private nature of their soldierly subterfuge meant they were less likely to write letters or diaries detailing their experiences than their male counterparts.3 “Unless women were discovered as such … or unless they publicly confessed or privately told their tale of wartime service, the record of their military career is lost to us today.”4 As the authors acknowledge, Black women, in particular, are underrepresented in this history due to the fact that biographical stories of Black soldiers serving in the United States Colored Troops largely went uncovered by the mid-nineteenth century’s racist and white-centered mass media. What is certain, however, is that “more women took to the field during [the Civil War] than in any previous military affair [in the United States’ history].”5
What we know of Clayton comes from newspaper reports and men’s eyewitness accounts. Interviews with Clayton and witnesses featured in many newspapers when her story broke in 1863. One witness’s account lauds her service: “She stood guard, went on picket duty, in rain or storm, and fought on the field with the rest and was considered a good fighting man.”6 However, only sparse details about Clayton’s military service are documented as “most reporters found the story of the faithful wife more appealing than the details of Clayton’s life as a soldier.”7 Reports say she enlisted alongside her husband, John, in a U.S. Missouri regiment in the fall of 1861.8 She fought in eighteen battles between 1861 and 1863.9 These included the Battle of Fort Donelson in Tennessee (February 11–16, 1862), in which she was wounded. During the Battle of Stones River (December 31, 1862–January 2, 1863), Clayton reported having witnessed her husband’s death “just a few feet in front of her. When the call came to fix bayonets, [she] stepped over his body and charged.”10 Clayton was discharged in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1863.11