Listen to the story I did for NPR HERE.
Albert D.J. Cashier was the shortest soldier in the 95th Illinois Infantry. In one of the few existing photographs of Cashier during the Civil War, you can faintly detect the outline of breasts under his uniform.
But that’s if you’re looking for it. And the military apparently was not. “They didn’t conduct physical exams in those days, the way the military does now,” says Rodney Davis, a retired professor of history at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. “What they were looking for was warm bodies.”
Jennie Hodgers, masquerading as Cashier, marched thousands of miles during the war. She was at the Siege of Vicksburg and the surrender of Mobile. Her regiment took part in more than 40 skirmishes and battles.
“Albert Cashier seems to have been in [the war] from the beginning to the end,” Davis says. “She stuck it out.”
Davis’ own great-grandfather was Cashier’s commanding officer and one of several former comrades who rallied to Hodgers’ defense when officials considered taking away her veteran’s pension for identity fraud. To her fellow soldiers, Davis says, her status as a Union Army veteran trumped her identity as a woman.
“She demonstrated that she was as good as they were,” Davis says. “She was as brave as they were, as effective a soldier. For her to be a woman was obviously worthy of remark, but it’s not anything that seems to have made them turn away from her.”
Why Live As A Man?
After her secret was discovered, Hodgers told different stories to different people about why she had chosen to live as a man. She reportedly told one newspaper that lots of people had enlisted under fake names, and she did, too. “The country needed men, and I wanted excitement,” she said.
But to get another idea of why Hodgers may have subjected herself to the rigors of war, it helps to know a little about the U.S. job market in 1861.
“A private in the Union Army made $13 a month, which was easily double what a woman would make as a laundress or a seamstress or even a maid,” says Deanne Blanton, co-author of They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War. Blanton has documented hundreds of cases of women who masqueraded as men during the war. She says many joined for both patriotic and economic reasons.
“But once they were in the pants and earning more money and spending their money,” Blanton says, “they seemed to greatly enjoy the freedom that came with being perceived as a man.”
At the time of the Civil War, women couldn’t vote. They mostly depended on men to survive. In return, they were supposed to devote their time and talents entirely to husbands, children and their extended families. That was the Victorian ideal.
That ideal was mostly aimed at middle- and upper-class women. Blanton says they’re not the ones who went off to war.
“The women who went to war,” she says, “who disguised themselves as men and carried a gun, were overwhelmingly working-class women, immigrant women, poor women, urban women and yeoman farm girls.”
Hodgers was an immigrant from Clogherhead, Ireland, who couldn’t read or write. At the end of the war, she had to make some tough decisions about her identity.
If she continued as Albert Cashier, it was more likely she would find work, keep the friends she had made during the war and be part of a respected community of Civil War veterans.
“She can have a bank account. She can vote in elections -– and she did, by the way,” Blanton says. “Or, if she goes back and puts on a dress and tells everyone that she’s Jennie, she has just lost her entire life.”
Hodgers decided to continue her life as a man. A few years after the war, Cashier made his way to Saunemin, Ill. He worked many jobs, including a stint as a farmhand and the town lamplighter. He ended up living in a little house that is now sitting in pieces in a desolate storage building.
Town Reluctantly Celebrates Veteran
Saunemin is a pretty sleepy place: just a grain elevator, a few other businesses and The Tap — the only restaurant and bar along the main strip.
Jim Schulz lives on a farm outside of Saunemin. He and his wife, Dina, have heard the talk around town. Dina says some residents believe that embracing the story of Jennie Hodgers will help bring tourists to town. “Other people, I think, frankly, would rather everybody not know we had a cross-dresser in Saunemin,” she says.
“I wouldn’t like to think that that’s what puts us on the map,” Jim Schulz says, “but maybe it is.”
“The town was not especially proud of Cashier,” says Cheryl O’Donnell, a church secretary and Cashier proponent. Since the 1960s, a handful of locals have been trying to save Cashier’s house. Over the years, the house has been moved at least eight times. For a while, it was next to the Saunemin fire station.
O’Donnell says the fire department used to joke about the house. “They said, ‘We’re gonna burn it for a practice drill,'” she says. “They thought that was funny.”
The house was saved thanks to Betty Estes, the tourism director of a town just down the road. She began bringing busloads of people over to Saunemin to view Cashier’s grave. The city board of Saunemin seemed to take notice, and now there are big plans to finally reconstruct the old house and put it close to the spot where Cashier used to live.
If things go according to plan, Hodgers’ secret will soon be exposed to a larger audience. Visitors will be able to come to her grave site — and to her old house — to hear all about her remarkable and complicated life.
This story aired on NPR on May 24, 2009.