This inspiring anthology is the first to convey the rich experiences and contributions of women in the American military in their own words—from the Revolutionary War to the present wars in the Middle East.
Serving with the Union Army during the Civil War as a nurse, scout, spy, and soldier, Harriet Tubman tells what it was like to be the first American woman to lead a raid against an enemy, freeing some 750 slaves. Busting gender stereotypes, Josette Dermody Wingo enlisted as a gunner’s mate in the navy in World War II to teach sailors to fire Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns. Marine Barbara Dulinsky recalls serving under fire in Saigon during the Tet Offensive of 1968, and Brooke King describes the aftermath of her experiences outside the wire with the army in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In excerpts from their diaries, letters, oral histories, and pension depositions—as well as from published and unpublished memoirs—generations of women reveal why and how they chose to serve their country, often breaking with social norms, even at great personal peril.
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About the Author
Jerri Bell is a retired naval officer and the managing editor of O-Dark-Thirty, the literary journal of the Veterans Writing Project.
Tracy Crow is a former Marine Corps officer and the author of Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine (Nebraska, 2012) and On Point: A Guide to Writing the Military Story (Potomac Books, 2015).
Kayla Williams served in the U.S. Army for five years and is the author of Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army and Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War.
Read an Excerpt
It's My Country Too
Women's Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistan
By Jerri Bell, Tracy Crow
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
The American Revolution
"A Natural Priviledge"
In April 1775, Prudence Cummings Wright, a thirty-five-year-old mother of six from Pepperell, Massachusetts, recruited a group of thirty to forty local women to guard a bridge over the Nashua River. The women elected Wright unit captain. She chose Sarah Shattuck of Groton as her lieutenant. One night the women dressed in men's clothing, armed themselves, mustered at the bridge, and captured a suspected British courier mounted on horseback. They ordered him to dismount. Searched him. Found potentially incriminating papers. Placed him under guard overnight. In the morning, they delivered him and his documents to the nearest Committee of Safety.
Prudence Wright's Guard — an all-women's militia unit — exemplifies one of the many ways American women engaged in military activity during the American Revolution. Militia muster rolls and contemporary accounts show that women fought as irregulars in local militias and defended their homes on the frontier. They also served in the Continental Army — most in support and medical positions, some as regular uniformed troops.
Historians do not know exactly how many women — or men — fought in the American Revolution. One estimates that as many as twenty thousand women served in support roles in the Continental Army between 1775 and 1783. A few hundred may have fought in uniform. The largest number fought sporadically in local defensive combat operations.
In his general orders, George Washington called women attached to the Continental Army in support roles "Women of the Army." These women were not camp followers or prostitutes. Most soldiers in the Continental Army, whose pay was frequently in arrears and who often lacked adequate food and clothing, could not afford to hire prostitutes. Some of the women were officers' and soldiers' wives; others were refugees who sought food and safety with the Continental Army. These women — usually limited to no more than five per company — competed for available positions. They drew rations and pay for cooking, sewing, and laundry; they could also charge officers and soldiers for personal laundry at rates regulated by the Army. Male sergeants directed the women, expecting them to accompany the baggage train, keep off the wagons, do their assigned jobs, and refrain from unsavory conduct. The women were subject to military discipline. Some were court-martialed for desertion; others were punished or dismissed for disorderly conduct.
The Army also recruited women nurses. In 1777 the Army medical staff was authorized one matron (supervisor) and ten female nurses for every hundred wounded soldiers. Matrons received double the salary of a sergeant and drew a daily food ration. The Army never found enough women nurses to fill the available positions.
Some women disguised themselves and enlisted as regular soldiers. Commanders recorded the (usually nonpunitive) discharge of women who had entered the ranks dressed as men.
Women also carried water to cool artillery pieces so they did not explode. Sally St. Clare, a woman of color who served in men's attire as a gunner, became the first woman killed in action during the Battle of Savannah on December 29, 1778. Margaret Corbin replaced her husband at his gun when he was killed at the Battle of Fort Washington on November 16, 1776. She continued to fire her cannon with accuracy until British troops overran her position, captured her, and detained her as a prisoner of war. Three musket balls and grapeshot had damaged her jaw and nearly detached her arm. Because of her permanent and severe disability, sustained in the line of fire, Congress awarded her a military disability pension in 1779 and the Army assigned her to the Invalid Regiment at West Point. In 1926 her remains were reinterred with full military honors at West Point.
Contemporary civilian women such as African American poetess Phyllis Wheatley and playwright Mercy Otis Warren published literary work addressing the war and patriotic themes. Others, mostly elite white women whose husbands fought in the Revolution or helped create the new government, kept journals and wrote letters containing intimate details of their lives and their views of current events. But the stories of women who fought in or supported the Continental Army survived mainly in journal accounts written by men, brief entries in military records, pension depositions and awards, and oral histories collected early in the nineteenth century. Historians did not consider the experiences of common soldiers and women in support jobs important enough to preserve for the historical record. The military experiences of women of color, many of whom were illiterate, appear only as brief references in others' writing.
Writers and historians romanticized and distorted some stories of women's service. They combined accounts of women who served with gun crews into the legend of "Molly Pitcher," reshaping the story to conform to a socially acceptable women's role — carrying water to the gun crews to drink. Other stories may have been fabricated altogether. No documentation supports the existence of Lucy Brewer, who supposedly dressed as a man to enlist with the Marines on USS Constitution as "George Baker" to fight during the War of 1812.
To date, only two accounts written by women who served in or with the Continental Army have surfaced. Susanna Osborn, widow of a veteran, describes in a pension deposition how she followed her husband into the Continental Army in a support role (she received the pension). Deborah Sampson Gannett, who enlisted in the Continental Army dressed as a man, left a memoir, the text of a public address she delivered twenty years after her service, and a few pages of a diary she kept on the lecture circuit.
Sarah Osborn (1745–1854)
Sarah Matthews Osborn married blacksmith Aaron Osborn in Albany, New York, in January 1780. He reenlisted as a commissary guard in the Continental Army, and she agreed to accompany him to war only after his commanding officer assured her that her husband would be "first on the Commissary Guard" and that she could ride in a wagon and on horseback — a privilege usually denied to women who accompanied the soldiers. In 1837 she applied for Osborn's widow's pension even though he had abandoned her and she had remarried. She dictated the deposition to a clerk, describing her experiences with the Continental Army at West Point and Yorktown. She noted that the wives of a lieutenant and a sergeant also accompanied their husbands, and that an African American woman named Letta also supported the unit. The excerpt below is taken from her deposition.
West Point (1780–1781)
While at West Point, deponent lived at Lieutenant Foot's, who kept a boarding house. Deponent was employed in washing and serving for the soldiers. Her said husband was employed about the camp. She well recollects the uproar occasioned when word came that a British officer had been taken as a spy. She understood at the time that Maj. André was bro't up on the opposite side of the river and kept there till he was executed. On the returning of the bargemen who assisted Arnold to escape deponent recollects seeing two of them, one by the name of Montecu, the other by the name of Clarke. That they said Arnold told them to hang up their dinners for he had to be at Stoney Point in so many minutes, and when he got there he hoisted his pocket handkerchief and his sword and said "Row on, boys," and that they soon arrived in Haverstraw Bay and found the British ship. That Arnold jumped on board and they were all invited and they went aboard and had their choice to go or stay. And some chose to stay and some to go and did accordingly.
When the army were about to leave West Point and go south they crossed over the river to Robinsons Farms and remained there for a length of time to induce the belief ... that they were going to take up quarters there, whereas they recrossed the river in the night time into the Jerseys and travelled all night in a direct course for Philadelphia. Deponent was part of the time on horse back and part of the time in a wagon. In their march for Philadelphia they were under command of Generals Washington and [James] Clinton.... They continued their march to Philadelphia, deponent on horse back through the streets, and arrived at a place towards the Schuylkill where the British had burnt some houses, where they encamped for the afternoon and night. Being out of bread deponent was employed in baking the afternoon and evening. Deponent recollects no females but Sergeant Lamberson's and Lt. Forman's wives, and a colored woman by the name of Letta. The ladies, who came round, urged deponent to stay, but her said husband said "No, he could not leave her behind." Accordingly next day they continued their march from day to day till they arrived at Baltimore where deponent and her said husband and the forces under command of Gen. Clinton, Capt. Gregg and several other officers ... embarked on board a vessel and sailed down the Chesapeake. There were several vessels along and deponent was in the foremost. Gen. Washington was not in the vessel with deponent and she does not know where he was till he arrived at Yorktown where she again saw him. He might have embarked at another place, but deponent is confident she embarked at Baltimore and that Gen. Clinton was in the same vessel with her. Some of the troops went down by land. They continued sail until they had got up the St. James River as far as the tide would carry them, about twelve miles from the mouth, and then landed, and the tide being spent, they had a fine time catching sea lobsters which they ate. They however marched immediately for a place called Williamsburg ... deponent alternately on horse back and on foot. There arrived, they remained two days till the army all came in by land and then marched for Yorktown, or Little York as it was then called.
The Battle of Yorktown (1781)
The York troops were posted at the right. The Connecticut troops next and the French to the left. In about one day or less than a day they reached the place of encampments about one mile from Yorktown. Deponent was on foot, and the other females above named.... [Her] attention was arrested by the appearance of a large plain between them and Yorktown and an entrenchment thrown up. She also saw a number of dead Negroes lying round their encampment whom she understood the British had driven out of the town and left to starve or were first starved and then thrown out. Deponent took her stand just back of the American tents ... about a mile from the town and busied herself washing, mending and cooking for the soldiers, in which she was assisted by the other females; some men washed their own clothing. She heard the roar of the artillery for a number of days, and the last night the Americans threw up entrenchments. It was a misty, foggy night, rather wet but not rainy.... Deponent's said husband was there throwing up entrenchments and deponent cooked and carried in beef and bread, and coffee (in a gallon pot) to the soldiers in the entrenchment.
On one occasion when deponent was thus employed carrying in provisions she met Gen. Washington, who asked her if she "was not afraid of the cannonballs."
She replied, "No, the bullets would not cheat the gallows — that it would not do for the men to fight and starve too."
They dug entrenchments nearer and nearer to Yorktown every night or two till the last. While digging, the enemy fired very heavy till about nine o clock next morning, then stopped, and the drums from the enemy beat excessively. ...
The drums continued beating, and all at once the officers hurra'd and swung their hats, and deponent asked them, "What is the matter now?"
One of them replied, "Are not you soldier enough to know what it means?"
Deponent replied, "No."
They then replied, "The British have surrendered."
Deponent, having provisions ready, carried the same down to the entrenchments that morning and four of the soldiers whom she was in the habit of cooking for ate their breakfasts. Deponent stood on one side of the room and the American officers upon the other side, when the British officers came out of the town and rode up to the American officers.... And the British officers rode right on before the army who marched out beating and playing a melancholy tune, their drums covered with black handkerchiefs and their fifes with black ribbands tied around them, into an old field, and there grounded their arms and then returned into town again to await their destiny.
Deponent recollects seeing a great many American officers some on horse back and some on foot but can not call them all by name — Washington, LaFayette, and Clinton were among the number. The British general at the head of the army was a large portly man, full face, and the tears rolled down his cheeks as he passed along. She does not recollect his name. But it was not Cornwallis. She saw the latter afterwards and noticed his being a man of diminutive appearance and having cross eyes....
Deponent and her husband spent certainly more than three years in the service.
Deborah Sampson Gannett (1760–1827)
Deborah Sampson Gannett, the first American woman to tell the story of her military service to a public audience, disguised herself in men's clothing in 1782 to enlist in the Continental Army under the name Robert Shurtlieff. She was wounded in combat later that year. In 1783 doctors discovered her sex when she caught a fever. She was discharged from the Army but successfully petitioned Congress for a military pension.
The vocabulary Gannett used in her diary suggests that she was literate and well-read. Aspiring to make her story appeal to wealthy, educated readers, she chose an ambitious but inexperienced male journalist, Herman Mann, to co-write her memoir in 1797. Mann included a number of factual inaccuracies, and he seems to have taken entire sections from a popular contemporary memoir of British soldier Hannah Snell. Gannett was said not to have been entirely pleased with it.
In 1802, again working with Mann, she revised her memoir into a lecture and became the first American woman to appear on the public lecture circuit. In uniform, she recited the speech from memory. Afterward, when someone was available to call the commands, she demonstrated her skill at rifle drill.
Gannett's lecture, from which the excerpt below is taken, avoids most of the outright falsifications in the memoir. Laden with high diction, sophisticated vocabulary, and exaggerated sentiment, it would have appealed to wealthy, educated men of the time. In alluding to Greek and Roman classics when describing her experiences, Gannett claims that her military service was as noble and valuable as a man's. She apologizes profusely for violating social conventions governing women's behavior; she wanted to reintegrate into postwar society. But a close read of the lecture suggests that she did not regret having fought for her country. She even compares men's control over women to the tyranny of the Crown over the Colonies.
The solicitations of a number of worthy characters and friends, too persuasive and congenial with my own disposition to be answered with indifference, or to be rejected, have induced me thus to advance and bow submissive to an audience, simply and concisely to rehearse a tale of truth ... a tale — the truth of which I was ready to say, but which, perhaps, others have already said for me, ought to expel me from the enjoyment of society, from the acknowledgement of my own sex, and from the endearing friendship of the other. But this, I venture to pronounce, would be saying too much: For as I should thus not respect myself, should be entitled to none from others.
I indeed recollect it as a foible, an error and presumption, into which, perhaps, I have too inadvertently and precipitately run; but which I now retrospect with anguish and amazement.... And yet I must frankly confess, I recollect it with a kind of satisfaction, which no one can better conceive and enjoy than him, who, recollecting the good intentions of a bad deed, lives to see and to correct any indecorum of his life....
But most of all, my mind became agitated with the enquiry — why a nation, separated from us by an ocean more than three thousand miles in extent, should endeavor to enforce on us plans of subjugation, the most unnatural in themselves, unjust, inhuman, in their operations, and unpractised even by the uncivilized savages of the wilderness? Perhaps nothing but the critical juncture of the times could have excused such a philosophical disquisition of politics in woman....
Confirmed by this time in the justness of a defensive war on the one side, from the most aggravated one on the other — my mind ripened with my strength; and while our beds and our roses were sprinkled with the blood of indiscriminate youth, beauty, innocence, and decrepit old age, I only seemed to want the license to become one of the severest avengers of the wrong....
Excerpted from It's My Country Too by Jerri Bell, Tracy Crow. Copyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
Foreword by Kayla Williams,
1. The American Revolution,
2. The Civil War,
3. The Spanish-American War,
4. World War I,
5. World War II,
6. Unconventional Operations, Espionage, and the Cold War,
7. Women's Integration and the Korean War,
8. The Vietnam War,
9. Gender Wars,
10. Desert Storm,
11. Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom,