The lyrics to the Four Seasons’ song “Walk like a man. Talk like a man,” would have been good advice for Sarah Rosetta Wakeman. Since she was a girl, she didn’t come by that naturally. But learning how to do just that gave her a purpose and an adventure way beyond the family farm in Chenango County, New York.
By the time Wakeman was 17 years old, she had had some schooling, but it was necessary for her to work as a domestic to help support her eight younger siblings and help her father pay off his debts. Her future wasn’t looking too bright, so she decided that dressing like a man would increase her options.
When she was 19 she donned her disguise and worked as a coal handler on a barge on the Chenango Canal. For four trips, she made $20. At the end of her first trip she met some soldiers who tried to recruit her to sign up with the 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers. She had three more river trips to think about it and decided that the $152 signing bonus for enlisting was too tempting.
PRIVATE LIVES Wakeman changed her first name to Lyons and lied about her age, instantly maturing to 21 years old. The rest of the information on her regimental descriptive roll was true: five feet tall with a fair complexion, brown hair, blue eyes and the occupation of “boatman.” Wakeman’s gender was probably accepted at face value because of the cursory physical examination soldiers were given at the time of enlistment, often nothing more than a firm handshake. Since there were a lot of pre-adolescent boys that edged their way into both the Confederate and Federal forces, it wasn’t unusual to have beardless recruits with higher pitched voices.
In corresponding with her family, Wakeman initially signed her letters “Rosetta,” confident her secret would not be detected. She described army life and inquired about life back home. She promised her father she would send money from her $13 a month salary for him to buy food and clothes for the family. Unfortunately, she had to explain later that she had naively lent it to the first lieutenant and sergeant and received a promissory note in return for the whole amount including interest. She sheepishly admitted that she had been taken advantage of by these officers and that she had learned her lesson.
About three months into her military career, Wakeman got the measles and was hospitalized for seven days. There didn’t seem to be any lasting effects of the disease, and she often expressed how much she enjoyed being a soldier, in contrast to her life on the farm. She had good clothes, enough food and no responsibilities except to handle a gun.
AN EASY JOB In July 1863, the 153rd Regiment moved from Alexandria, Virginia to Washington, D.C. to help protect the capital against potential riots in connection with the newly instituted draft. Wakeman appreciated the spacious barracks, the well water for drinking and the salty river water for bathing. She complained that Colonel Edwin Davis was so strict that the soldiers were hoping to be sent to the front lines, away from his command.
A month later, Wakeman was assigned to guard the prison that housed Rebel prisoners and officers. With easy duty and a comfortable environment, she felt invincible. She didn’t believe it was possible for her to die in battle, but if that was God’s will, she would submit to it. She reminded her parents that she was “as independent as a hog on ice.”
In October, Wakeman reported that her days were filled with drilling exercises: company drill in the morning and battalion drill in the afternoon. She enjoyed doing them and was proud that she could drill as well as any man in her regiment, and definitely better than the soldier in Company C who fell down, got a bayonet in his leg and “bled like a stuck hog.”
Home was feeling increasingly distant, and Wakeman stopped believing she would ever see her family again. This spurred a confession that she had sinfully given in to lots of temptations in the army. She admitted to getting into one fight, and after Stephen Wiley hit her, she gave him three or four good punches in return, putting him in his place. God’s spirit had since worked in her, she believed, and she prayed that she wouldn’t go astray again.
FIGHTING THE ENEMY With the new year came new orders, and finally the 153rd was going to see some action. They left Washington on February 18, 1864 and marched to Alexandria, Virginia. From Alexandria they continued on to New Orleans, finally settling at Camp Franklin in Algiers, Louisiana, just across the Mississippi River.
Wakeman’s regiment fell under the command of Major General Nathaniel P. Banks. His mission was to establish a strong Union presence in Texas, and he planned to follow the Red River north to Shreveport, near the Texas border. An order went out saying that no women (nurses, laundresses, officers’ wives, etc.) would be allowed to accompany the command except by written authority from Headquarters. The commanding officers still had no idea that at least one member of the rank and file was in direct defiance of that order.
Wakeman’s group marched 16 days, over 300 miles, making stops to unload supplies. When they encountered Confederate forces lying in wait, the two-day Battle of Pleasant Hill ensued. On the second day, Wakeman was in the front lines under fire for four hours, until the fighting was halted by darkness. She spent the entire night lying on the battle field listening to the cries of the wounded and dying.
Wakeman’s life was spared, but the Federal troops were still in danger. On April 21, 1864, General Banks ordered a forced march totaling over 100 miles back to Alexandria with the enemy on their tails. Two days into the march, Wakeman’s brigade was ordered to lie along the river and wait for the opportunity to attack Confederate forces. As the enemy came closer and surrounded them, the only way out was to fight. Wakeman’s group charged the enemy and defeated them. The next morning, the regiment continued back to Alexandria only to get lost in the woods. Exhausted, they finally arrived there on April 25.
Wakeman had proven herself a worthy soldier, but her prediction about not coming home came true. She was admitted to the hospital on May 3 with chronic diarrhea, the most deadly disease of the Civil War. She was sent to the Marine U.S.A. General Hospital in New Orleans on May 7 but didn’t arrive until May 22. Thanks to a Rebel attack which destroyed river transportation downstream of Alexandria, access on the Mississippi River was shut off for over a week. Wakeman was 21 years old when she died one month later on June 19. There is no record of any hospital staff discovering her real identity, and she was given a soldier’s burial in New Orleans.
QUESTION: In today’s society, is it easier to be a man or a woman? Why?
©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved
Wakeman, Sarah Rosetta (Lauren Cook Burgess, ed.). An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864. Pasadena, Maryland: The Minerva Center, 1994.