In which the adventures of Bobby, the ‘woman warrior’, reach an exciting conclusion.
Bobby’s mind was in a whirl as the chaos unfolded around her. Whining bullets whipped through the trees. Hoarse yells and screams of pain rang out all around her. Every few moments the impact of shells exploding nearby shook the earth beneath her feet.
She stood frozen to the spot as a wave of grey and brown-clad warriors swept out of the trees, and sprinted towards her. A high-pitched spine-chilling yell from dozens of rebel throats filled her with terror. She saw out of the corner of her eyes some of her comrades turning to run.
Get a grip, Bobby, she thought.
“Steady, boys!” exclaimed the grizzled sergeant at the head of her platoon. “Fix bayonets and stand firm!”
Bobby watched in horror as blood spurted from the sergeant’s chest and he fell to the ground. Without his calming words a full scale panic spread, and soldiers began to flee, throwing down their rifles as they ran.
This ain’t the way it’s supposed to be, thought Bobby in horror. We was so proud marchin’ out to meet the enemy this morning. We was rested and confident. What in tarnation went wrong? There’s more of us, and we got plenty o’ food and clothes. Why, some o’ them rebs ain’t got no shoes! And them old guns they’s totin’! Prob’ly won’t even shoot straight!
Bobby was jerked back into awareness now that the rebel charge was only a matter of yards away. Only a few Union soldiers had stood fast. Bobby gripped her rifle tightly. It was too late to fire, but her bayonet was fixed and she was ready to sell her life dearly.
Her eyes fastened on a rebel soldier sprinting towards her. He was a big, burly individual with long scraggly hair and a thick brown beard, and his mouth was open and contorted as a fierce yell escaped his lips.
Bobby planted her legs firmly, crouching down and aiming her bayonet upwards at the center of his chest. At the last moment her opponent raised his musket in the air, and swung it at her head. She tried to duck its vicious arc, but the butt caught her above the temple just as her bayonet thrust upward. Her rifle was jerked out of her hand.
A mist enveloped her as she tumbled to the ground and lost consciousness. The rebel charge swept over her, and continued down the hill.
Consciousness returned to Bobby accompanied by a dull throbbing pain in the side of her head. She blinked several times to clear her vision, and struggled to her knees. All around her she could see bodies, some writhing in pain and some lying quite still.
In front of her lay the corpse of the bearded rebel soldier. Her bayonet had broken off, and was protruding from his chest. A brief glance convinced her that he was dead.
A wave of horror swept over her at the realization that she had killed a fellow human being, and she felt her body begin to shake uncontrollably. Suddenly she felt a hand on her shoulder, and looked up to see Sean’s anxious face staring down at her.
“Drink this!” he said, offering her a metal flask and guiding it to her mouth.
She swallowed, and immediately flinched as the burning liquor went down her throat. A warming sensation flowed through her limbs, and she noticed with surprise that her body was no longer shaking.
“Brandy,” confided Sean tersely. “Found it on the body of an officer.”
Bobby got painfully to her feet, and the two comrades wandered aimlessly down the hill.
“They whupped us,” declared Sean in a dull tone. “Them rebels sure are fierce fighters.”
Bobby nodded grimly. She tried to block out the moans and groans and pleas for water that assaulted her from all sides. She’d lost her canteen in the fight, and couldn’t help them.
They meandered on towards the creek.
“It’s runnin’ red!” commented Sean. “Sure it’s a terrible sight. I never want to see such a thing again!”
Bobby’s eyes were wandering along the bank. All of a sudden she caught sight of an inert form that looked vaguely familiar. She walked over to the corpse, and stared down. The pudgy face was still and lifeless. A bullet hole was drilled neatly through the forehead, and the lifeless eyes stared straight up into hers.
“Hiram,” she breathed.
A wave of relief was succeeded by a guilty surge of pity for the dead man.
“Never could stand that feller!” said Sean. “Oily creep!”
“But he didn’t deserve to die!” objected Bobby fiercely.
“Neither did the rest o’ these boys,” said Sean, indicating the battlefield with a sweep of his hand.
My secret is safe for a while, thought Bobby, but I am terrible sorry it had to be protected at the cost of that poor feller’s life.
“Sean,” said Bobby one day, “I’m so sick ‘n tired of all the fellers raggin’ on me, sayin’ as I ain’t got no beard and how I walk like a girl!”
“Well, you do have a… funny way o’ walkin’,” replied Sean uncertainly. “I noticed that.”
“What do you mean?” asked Bobby fiercely.
“Look, watch me,” answered Bobby, rising to his feet. “Man’s gotta swagger like he’s mean and tough and ready to fight anyone as gets in his way!”
So saying, Sean sauntered across the clearing in a cocky, self-confident fashion, chin and chest thrust out defiantly.
Bobby suppressed a giggle as she watched her friend’s demonstration.
“I couldn’t never walk like that!” she protested.
“Sure you could!” insisted Sean as he turned and headed back towards her. “Just takes practice. Watch the other fellers! That’s what I did!” He paused, then continued: “Also you’d better learn how to spit!”
“Eeech!” exclaimed Bobby. “Spitting’s a foul habit!”
“All soldiers spit!” declared Sean. “That’s what they do. Watch me!”
Turning his head to one side, he directed a thin brown stream of saliva into a nearby bush.
Bobby’s face twisted into an expression of disgust.
“What in tarnation you chewin’ on to make your spit all dark like that?” she said in a horrified tone.
“Tobaccy,” answered Sean, shifting the wad into the corner of his mouth. “One o’ the guys give it me. Said it was high time I started.”
He reached his hand in his pocket, pulled out a grubby-looking plug of chewing tobacco and held it out to his companion.
“Here, try some,” he said genially. “It’s mighty good.”
“No, thanks,” replied Bobby hastily, feeling her stomach churn. Swaggrin’, that’s okay, but chewin’ ‘baccy…Listen, Sean, why don’t you show me that walk agin.”
“Sure,” said Sean warmly, “but this time you walk beside me, and copy what I do.”
By the end of the afternoon Bobby had learned to swagger after a fashion, and had mastered the art of projecting a stream of spit in whatever direction Sean indicated.
“Well done, Bobby,” said Sean. “You’s coming on nicely. Sure, we’ll make a man of you yet!”
“I certainly hope so,” replied Bobby carelessly.
Their eyes met, and they exchanged expressions of deep affection.
“I ain’t never had a friend like you before, Sean,” said Bobby in a tender voice.
She felt a strong desire to throw her arms around his neck and…
She restrained herself with a supreme effort.
“Must be time for chow,” she said in a forced voice.
Antietam, Maryland, 1862.
“So no-one suspected that you were a woman,” said the doctor.
Bobby shook her head.
“You probably noticed,” she replied, reddening as she spoke. “I ain’t quite growed into a woman yet. Ain’t got no curves or…” She paused as her hands hovered over her upper body. “Anyway,” she continued awkwardly. “I don’t look like no woman. Besides men see someone wearin’ pants, they reckon it’s another feller. Women always wears frocks, right? Once I started doin’ that crazy man-walk and spittin’ all over the place, they all quit joshin’ me, and I was everybody’s good buddy. Fact is,” she concluded wistfully, “I can’t hardly wait to get back to join ‘em.”
“So you like being a soldier then,” said the doctor.
“Sure do!” replied Bobby warmly. “This is the first time in my life I felt like I belonged someplace. Folks don’t mess wi’ me, jest accept me the way I am. I feel good havin’ comrades that’ll march alongside me and guard my back when we’s in a tight spot. I gets to rise at the crack o’ dawn, shoulder my pack and my rifle and march all day to places I ain’t never seen before. And to top it all, I’m servin’ my country when she needs me. What could be better ‘n that?”
She paused, a little tired after such a lengthy and impassioned declaration.
“I’m glad that you’re content with your life,” said the doctor, “and that’s why I don’t intend to betray your secret. You deserve the chance to be happy. But I’ve been meaning to ask you how come your good friend, Sean, hasn’t been around looking for you?”
Bobby’s expression underwent a sudden and dramatic transformation. Her eyes went bleak and her lips tightened.
“Don’t ask me that!” she hissed. “I don’t want to talk about it!”
“I’m sorry,” said the doctor in surprise, “I didn’t realize…”
“Just leave me alone!” snapped Bobby angrily, turning her face to the wall.
Antietam, Maryland, a few days before
“They say we’ll have to fight agin tomorrow,” Sean declared, a sober expression on his face.
Bobby nodded silently, staring into the fire.
“Did you…did you ever wonder if you might get kilt,” asked Sean in his mixture of Irish brogue and American twang.
Bobby looked up.
“Did you?” she asked.
“This war’s a terrible thing,” he replied. “Seems like every day there’s a burial detail. If it ain’t a rebel bullet, it’s the fever or the runs takes someone. It’s so hard when you lose a comrade.”
Bobby nodded again.
“We seen things ain’t nobody should see, that’s for sure,” she said reflectively. “I won’t never fergit that first fight when I heerd them poor fellers amoanin’ and agroanin’. Still gives me nightmares sometimes. But I was awful glad when I found out you’d come through it safe and sound!”
She looked up into her friend’s eyes. Something indefinable passed between them.
“Me too!” said Sean. “I was terrible afraid you’d gotten kilt. Sure, and I don’t know what I’d have done if I’d lost you.”
Once more Bobby felt that powerful urge creep over her, the urge to throw her arms around him, and tell him her secret. She was torn inside, half of her wanting to show her deep feelings towards him, the other half determined to hold to her course and remain a soldier and a man.
“It’s getting’ late,” she said awkwardly. “We better git some sleep.”
Within moments the two young friends had rolled themselves in their blankets and lay on opposite sides of the fire, each contemplating what the morrow might bring.
“What’s the name o’ this place, Bobby?” asked Sean, wiping the sweat from his eyes with his shirtsleeve.
“Sarge says it’s called Antietam,” answered Bobby, squinting into the sun.
The two friends lay in the grass, rifles cradled in their arms. Stretched out on either side of them were their comrades in arms waiting with a mixture of trepidation and resignation for the command to advance.
“I reckon we’s gonna have to charge that rebel line over yonder,” said Mitch Eppley, a private from Ohio.
“That’d be plumb crazy!” exclaimed Charlie Fewster, his neighbor. “The Rebs are sittin’ snug in that sunken road. It’s perfect cover. We gonna be right out in the open. We’ll git creamed!”
“Since when did them generals give a hoot ‘bout that,” he sneered.
Bobby turned her head to peer at her neighbor to the left, a quiet young man from Michigan, called Duncan McLeod. She noticed with curiosity that he was carving something on a small piece of wood.
“What you doing, Dunc?” she murmured.
Duncan looked up and smiled shyly.
“I’m acarvin’ my name on this here chip,” he replied, “so’s if I get kilt in this battle the burial detail kin know who ‘tis. That way when they put me in the ground, they kin mebbe give me some kind o’ marker,” he replied.
“That’s a swell idea, Dunc,” said Bobby, “but don’t you worry. You ain’t gonna die today.”
“We all gots to die sometime, Bobby,” said Dunc earnestly, “but I ain’t afraid.”
“That’s good,” said Bobby, reaching out to touch him on the arm. “That’s real good!”
She fervently wished she could share Dunc’s acceptance of his fate, but in truth she was scared out of her wits. She wasn’t ready to die yet. Why, she hadn’t lived a fraction of her life yet!
At that moment the bugles sounded, and the waiting soldiers rose from the grass, formed ranks, and at a signal from an officer astride a white horse they surged forward toward the sunken road.
Bobby tightened her clammy grip around her rifle, and peered forward through the drifting smoke of the battlefield. At first she could see no sign of the enemy, but then she began to pick out some heads and some rifle muzzles outlined above the rim of the sunken road. Her heart missed a beat, and she glanced sideways to reassure herself that Sean was still by her side. There he was striding steadily forward, whistling a jaunty Irish tune. He smiled at her, and she felt better.
They had advanced to within thirty yards of the Confederate line when all of a sudden a sharp command rapped out and hundreds of guns let fly a withering volley. Bobby ducked her head instinctively and surged forward, her rifle at the ready. She glimpsed from the corner of her eye bodies tumbling around her, but she kept moving as the bullets whistled by.
She was almost to the rim of the road when the bugles sounded again signaling retreat, and she turned and ran back across the open field dodging the fallen bodies and the flying bullets until she saw Sean and Eppley standing together by a ragged line of their comrades.
“Where’s Dunc?” she asked with foreboding.
“I saw the poor beggar fall up there by the road,” said Sean grimly.
There was no time for regrets as the line reformed, and the bugles sounded for a second assault. This time Bobby found herself alongside young Tommy Wilde, a drummer boy, who was pounding out a stirring rhythm to try to lift the hearts of the attacking soldiers. This time a handful of soldiers made it to the rebel line through the hail of bullets, and grappled hand to hand for a few moments before being thrown back by a superior weight of numbers. Once again the Union lines retreated.
Bobby found Sean again at the other side of the field.
“Lord have mercy!” exclaimed the Irishman. “I swear they’ll slaughter us all before the day’s out. I saw Eppley take a bullet out there, and Nichols and Hans Schmidt. This is madness!”
Bobby could not speak. She was stunned and reeling from the clamor of battle and the horrors she had witnessed, so she could only nod her head in agreement.
A third assault was made with the same result. The Confederate troops in their protected position picked off the advancing Union soldiers at will, halting their progress fifty yards short of the road.
As her comrades gathered, Bobby looked around, noticing a catastrophic thinning of the ranks. The field was now littered with heaps of the dead and dying. This must surely end now, she thought. They surely cannot expect us to attack again!
To her dismay the bugles sounded again, and the weary dispirited soldiers mustered what strength remained and set out across the field a fourth time.
Bobby glanced down, searching for any sign that she might have been hit, but she could see nothing. It’s a miracle, she thought. Why have I been spared?
She was striding forward with renewed energy, a few steps behind Drummer Wilde, when she heard a cry of pain close by, and turned her head to see Sean sink to the ground, clutching his chest.
She paused, and dropped to one knee alongside him. His face was white, and he grimaced with pain. His breath came in short, sharp gasps.
“Go on, Bobby,” he gasped. “I’m done for,”
“I’ll not leave you, Sean,” she protested.
“You must,” he croaked. “’Tis your duty.”
“I’ll not desert a friend,” insisted Bobby, cradling his head in her lap. She was focused entirely on her suffering comrade. The battle raged around her unheeded.
Blood was oozing from a gaping hole in his chest. She tore off her jacket, and tried to staunch the flow, but she knew it was useless. His lips were turning blue and his eyes were glazing over. All at once she felt his hand tighten on her arm.
“I knew,” he whispered. “I knew… but I’d never tell…You…my friend…my girl…friend.”
Bobby was startled by this sudden revelation and instinctively asked:
“How long did you…?”
“Right from the start,” gasped Sean. “But I niver…”
A faint smile crept over his face, and then all the light went out of his eyes.
Tears poured from Bobby’s eyes as she leaned over, and kissed him tenderly on the forehead.
“Sean…Sean,” she murmured softly, “my brother… my…”
The sentence was never completed for at that moment a shell exploded nearby. She felt a searing pain in her side, and mercifully she lost consciousness.
Antietam, Maryland, a week later.
The nurse came into the room, and walked across to Bobby’s bed.
“The doctor said that you could get up, and move around for a few minutes if you felt able,” she said in a kind voice. “He says there are no signs of infection, and you are healing fast.”
Bobby did not answer, did not even look up at the nurse.
“Your friend is dead, isn’t he?” asked the nurse.
Bobby nodded silently.
“I am so sorry for your loss,” said the nurse. “This is a terrible war. I have seen many young men die on both sides. I have held their hands, and tried to give them comfort in their final moments. It is so hard, but I’ve tried to ease their suffering.”
“What’s your name?” asked Bobby.
A warm smile passed over the nurse’s care-lined face.
“My name is Clara Barton,” she answered.
“You know my secret,” said Bobby. “My real name’s Roberta. You should report me. Women ain’t allowed to fight.”
“You chose your path,” replied Clara, “as I chose mine. They told me that a woman had no business near a battlefield, but I wanted so desperately to care for the wounded that I paid them no heed. I’ve followed the Union army these past months with a wagon-load of medical supplies, and I plan to continue my work just as long as they’ll let me. As far as I‘m concerned, you’re pursuing your chosen course just as I am. I’ll not betray a brave woman warrior!”
Bobby felt a sudden warmth flow through her as she heard Clara’s words.
“I’m mighty grateful,” she mumbled awkwardly.
“You know that you’re not the only woman fighting alongside the men-folk in this war, don’t you?” continued Clara Barton. “There’s dozens on both sides that’re as brave and determined as you. They get wounded or sick and are found out, and the authorities send them away, and they just turn right around and enlist in disguise in another regiment. I know of one woman who’s enlisted three times! Why, even Mr. Lincoln knows of these brave women! He cannot authorize them to be soldiers, but he’ll not stop them either. This is a life and death struggle to save the Union. Service and sacrifice is required of us all.”
“You’re quite a speaker, ma’am,” said Bobby wryly. “Wisht I could tell my feelings the way you just done!”
“I’m sorry,” declared Clara sheepishly. “My friends all tell me that I do go on so!”
“No, ma’am,” protested Bobby. “I didn’t mean it that way. Your words make me feel good. Like a preacher I used to hear back home. Kinda lifts me up.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” said Clara. “You must have loved your friend very much, Bobby.”
A tear formed in Bobby’s eye.
“I niver had a friend like him before,” she said with a tremble in her voice. “He watched out for me, took care o’ me. I loved him like a brother. “She paused. “Maybe like even more ‘n a brother. Sometimes I had strong feelings for him that I ain’t niver had for no-one before. I ain’t had much love in my life. But I couldn’t show my feelings fer him, cos I was pretendin’ to be a man. Turns out he knew I was a girl all along. He told me so when he was dyin’ in my arms out on the field…”
Her voice choked, and Clara reached out to take her hand.
“It’s terribly hard when we lose a loved one,” she said gently, “but we can hold them forever in our hearts and remember the good times we shared with them. Now listen, Bobby, the doctor took a great risk keeping you here in this room away from the other patients. He did it to protect your secret. You owe him a debt. I hope you’re grateful to him.”
“I sure am,” said Bobby fervently.
“I know you’re anxious to return to your comrades,” continued Clara. “Neither the doctor or I will stand in your way. Indeed we’ll help you in any way we can. But let me propose an alternative to you. I am always in need of assistance in my work as a nurse on the battlefield. It’s exhausting, and dangerous too! Only the other day, I was tending a wounded man on the field when a bullet passed through the sleeve of my dress and killed him. But it is most valuable and important work. It is about saving lives rather than destroying them. It is about comforting and relieving the suffering. The doctor and I could use our influence to get you transferred to duty as a medical orderly. You could join me, and I could teach you the skills of nursing. When this war is over, nurses will be needed to care for the sick. You could find work, I’m sure.”
“I don’t know as I’d ever want to be a nurse,” said Bobby dubiously. “Nurses are always women. But men’re in charge in this world. Women like you, Miss Barton, are mighty rare. Don’t know as I’d ever want to be a woman. I’m kinda used to bein’ a man!”
“Even if you choose to keep your male identity, you can still work with me,” said Clara. “There are plenty of men working as orderlies in hospitals. And you can drive the team on my wagon.”
“Alright, ma’am,” said Bobby at last. “I’ll do some serious thinkin’ ‘bout what you said. You sure are mighty persuasive!”
A pleasant tinkle of laughter escaped from Clara Barton’s lips.
“I’ll come and see you again this afternoon, Bobby,” she said with a smile, and she turned and left the room.
Left alone with her thoughts, Bobby considered Clara Barton’s proposal carefully. Maybe it is time to make a change in my life, she said to herself. Turn to savin’ men instead o’ killin’ them. I joined the army with Sean, and now he’s gone. Is it time to move on, time to look for fresh adventure?
All at once her friend’s kind handsome face came into her mind, and a warm feeling crept over her.
“I know you’ll always be with me, darling Sean,” she whispered, “but right now I’m in sore need o’ yer advice. What shall I do, my dear friend? Shall I go back to the ranks or shall I join Clara and help care for all those poor fallen comrades of ours? Tell me please: what shall I do?”
Then all at once a smile crept over her face, and she knew what she would tell Clara Barton that afternoon.
There are more than one hundred well-documented cases of women who served in the two rival armies of the American Civil war. Historians suspect that there were many more instances, almost certainly numbering in the hundreds, perhaps even in the thousands. The fact that almost all of them enlisted disguised as men makes it difficult to be sure of the exact total.
It was not difficult for a determined woman in these circumstances to remain undetected. Uniforms were baggy and shapeless, and beardless teenage boys abounded in service on both sides so that an absence of facial hair went unremarked. Prudish Victorian attitudes to public bathing and the unsanitary condition of the communal military latrines prompted both women and men to wash and follow the calls of nature in private. Soldiers in those days rarely bathed or changed clothes, even sleeping in their uniforms, further reducing the risk of detection. Women would also alter their voices and way of walking, and would adopt male habits such as swearing or spitting in order to deflect suspicion.
Usually women soldiers were found out if they were wounded or became sick, at which point they would be dismissed from their regiment. In many cases they would simply re-enlist in a different unit. One woman, Lizzie Compton is said to have enlisted seven times during the conflict! In contrast, another, Jennie Hodges, enlisted at the age of eighteen, served through the entire conflict unscathed and undetected, and resumed civilian life as a man. Her gender went undetected until her death in 1913!
Women enlisted for a number of reasons. Some were fiercely patriotic as revealed in this letter by a women serving under a male alias:
“My Dear Brother, I wish to say that in reply to your recent letter that I volunteered in the army because I wished to have a part in the defense of my country’s flag. I think I love my country as well as you do, and by sufficient drilling I think I may learn to shoot as straight as you can and if my health continues good I may be of equal service as that of yourself.”
Others sought to escape the drudgery of their weary domestic existence in search of excitement and adventure. Others were fleeing abuse or abandonment by spouses or parents, and still others, poor and with few prospects, were attracted by the comparatively generous pay on offer.
Another woman warrior tellingly wrote:
“I could only thank God that I was free and could go forward and serve, and I was not obliged to stay home and weep.”
The women served with great courage, and their secrets were often protected by their male comrades, one of whom respectfully remarked: “They fought like demons!”
The character in my story, Roberta or “Bobby’, is a composite of such women warriors and is wholly fictitious as are all the other characters she encounters save one. Clara Barton was a school teacher with no formal medical training who set out to serve as a nurse at numerous battlefields during the war. She tended and cared for wounded soldiers of both sides, and brought them much-needed comfort and relief. She was known as ‘The Angel of the Battlefield’, and went on to found and preside over the American Red Cross after the war was over.
In my story I have tried to get inside the mind of one such woman warrior, and to portray her struggle to find an identity and a place in the midst of the most terrible and costly of all American wars. I hope I have succeeded.