Thursday, July 21, 2011
The Civil War: When Women were Men
See that little fellow? That's Pvt. Albert DJ Cashier, of the 95th Illinois Infantry. He was enlisted from 1862 to 1865, fought in more than 40 battles and skirmishes (including Vicksburg and the Red River Campaign), and survived the Civil War without so much as a scratch. After the war he settled in Saunemin, Illinois and lived there for more than 40 years, working mostly as a repair man but having other odd jobs like church caretaker, gardener, and lamplighter. He received a veteran's pension every month beginning in 1890 and eventually moved to the Soldier's and Sailor's Home in Quincy, Illinois. He died in 1915. Sounds like a typical Civil War veteran, yada yada.
Except that Albert was different.
Albert was a trans man.
Yes, there was such thing as transgender back then. Yes, the young man pictured above is actually female. Ah, the Civil War. When men were men and women were...men. Albert Cashier was not the only female-bodied person to serve as a male soldier in the Civil War. There were hundreds of women-soldiers who served in both the Union and Confederate armies. But Albert was the only female-bodied soldier to serve his entire enlistment without being discovered, and the most well-documented transgender soldier to serve in the war.
Historians often group Albert with the women soldiers, but out of respect I put in him in the trans category because he lived his entire adult life as a man and preferred it that way. It was only two years before his death that his female identity was forced upon him, in rather tragic circumstances. He had been transferred to an insane asylum for dementia (he was in his seventies at the time), but to make matters worse he was forced to wear feminine attire and use his female name until the day he died. Fortunately, his former comrades were not bothered by his femaleness and wanted to protect their little friend, so they demanded he be buried in his uniform with full military honors, which he was. He now rests in a Saunemin cemetery with two headstones---his military one and a newer one with both his male and female names.
So who was Albert before he was Albert? Before his transition from female to male, Albert was a teenaged Irish immigrant from the Belfast area named Jennie Hodgers. Jennie was most likely a stowaway and, like many young Irishwomen, came to the United States alone. She may have landed in New York or Boston, and eventually ended up in Belvidere, Illinois. Not much is known about this time in her life because after her transition she purposefully told conflicting stories regarding her past. Hey, if I was trans and living in the 19th century with its crazy strict gender dichotomies, I would lie about myself, too. Anyway, sometime between her immigration and the start of the Civil War, Jennie became Albert, irreversibly. And in 1862, Albert became a soldier in the 95th Illinois, Company G.
Pvt. Cashier was the shortest man in his company at 5'3" and the lightest at 110 lbs. Ironically, these are the exact body proportions of the author of this blog. Moreover, he was shy and boyish, but no one was too bothered by this. None of the other soldiers suspected a distaff comrade among them, and much later were very shocked to learn that Little Albert, as they called him, was really a woman. He survived the war miraculously unharmed, and even skipped out on the field hospital when he was ill with dysentery (going to the hospital was the perfect way to be discovered). Albert was mustered out with the rest of his regiment in August of 1865 and they were given a heroes' welcome in Belvidere. He lived in four different Illinois towns before finally settling in Saunemin.
What can we learn from Albert Cashier? Not much, since he couldn't read or write. But we can learn much from his unusual life. He achieved a great deal for someone of his background. It's not every day that an illiterate, destitute immigrant girl can grow up to fight in our nation's bloodiest conflict and come out an esteemed veteran, then live for 40 more years with great mobility and independence and do things that were off-limits to women at the time, like vote, hold a bank account, and travel alone. His story is also an invaluable piece of queer history (a perspective that is woefully neglected), and he is a source of pride for the transgender and Irish-American communities. Most of all, he is one of the many hidden truths of our Civil War that don't make the textbooks or the NYT Best-seller list. But nothing could be more authentic than his experience and the experiences of the women-soldiers. In history, nothing is as it's recounted.