Historian to present program on women disguised as men in Civil War

May 19, 2017

The idea of women in combat is a controversial subject, but women have long been able to serve their country in some aspect.

Not as far back as the Civil War, however.

Barbara Duder served her country in the U.S. Army, and had as her highest rank Sergeant E-5.

But she is also a living historian and a Civil War re-enactor with D Co. 3rd Iowa Cavalry Reenactors, Inc.

She’s done extensive research on the role of women in the Civil War; a war in which women had to disguise themselves as men if they wanted to fight.

Duder will present a talk on how women pulled off the ruse at the Fort Madison Public Library Monday at 7 p.m.

The title of the program is “No Man’s Land – Between the Lines: How the American Civil War shaped the Medical NCO and reshaped the role of Women.”

The first part of her presentation is about Hospital Stewards of the Civil War and the women who contributed in a men-only field. Then she talks about women soldiers in general.

No women allowed

It went without saying back in the 1800s and before that only men served in the military, in combat or at a desk job. Women couldn’t vote. Women couldn’t own property.

But, Duder said, things were also different compared to now in ways that helped those who wanted to fight for the Union or Confederate armies.

“There was no physical,” Duder said.

You just had to be in reasonable good health.

Dexterity was a plus.

“Can you bite open the paper that holds the powder that loads the rifle?” Duder said of one of the skills needed.

There were no barracks, of course, but at sometime come nightfall, you had to change out of your uniform, right?

“In Victorian times,” Duder said, “men didn’t undress in front of each other. If an individual joined the army, they were assumed to be a man.”

As such, there was no thought as there has been in modern times as to whether tasks requiring physical strength should be different for women.

“The women just did it,” Duder said, of whatever task was involved.

Women joined for patriotism, to run away from home or for the wages: $13 a month compared to usually nothing. What little a woman may have made from other work went to her husband, or father if she was single.

North vs. South

Besides the differing views on slavery between the two sides, there were also differing views when a soldier’s true gender was revealed.

“To the confederates it didn’t matter. A good soldier is a good soldier,” Duder said.

If an army for the North discovered you were a woman, “the Union would discharge you for ‘sexual incompatibility,’” Dudger said.

There were exceptions on both sides of course, as Union soldiers wouldn’t always report their fellow soldier.

“Usually they weren’t found out until they were wounded,” Duder said.

One woman – Jane Perkins of the Confederate army – was taken prisoner while in uniform but had braided her long hair, which went down her back.

“She was listed as a private,” Duder said, “but she was an artillery officer.”

Another woman, Dr. Mary Walker, never disguised herself. She was a contract surgeon for the Union army and a Medal of Honor recipient.

As a prisoner, she was exchanged ‘man’ for man “because she was not treated as a woman,” Duder said.

Duder said a good estimate is that there were 450-700 females who disguised themselves as men.

Parks departments would open up a mass grave and discover skeletons with a female pelvis.


For the program Monday night at the library – she’s condensing the two three-hour programs into an hour and 15 minutes – Duder portrays Brady Patrick Imes, a composite of the many women she researched who served as hospital stewards.

“Pharmacist, Assistant Surgeon, Hospital Administration, Supply, and Supervisor are just a few of the responsibilities of the Hospital Steward,” Duder said.

“From the battle torn front lines to the massive hospitals and everywhere in between, the Hospital Steward was there, but unlike the surgeons; much of his story has been lost to history.”

For more on the story, attend the program. You can also go to her Facebook page, Barbara Duder.