Historical Note: Sarah got a love letter. Major Sullivan Ballou wrote to his beloved wife: “Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their characters. Tell my two mothers his and hers I call God’s
blessing upon them. O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.” He died a week later. Sarah Ballou has come to represent all women of the Civil War era. But not all women of the age faithfully tended to the children, wrote their emotions in diaries, and gracefully fought from the side lines. Some fought on the front lines. Approximately four to six hundred women from both the North and the South disguised themselves as men to join in the battles of the war between brothers. These women are not remembered by the love letters they received like Sarah Ballou. In fact, they are very rarely remembered at all.
Is it alright if I call you so? See, a mere century and a half has passed, and we’ve forgotten your name. You wanted to fight, but you were a woman. And you were the rarest of these rare.
Why did you go? Were you like Mrs. Black, accidently placed on a draft role? Were you just a teenager who read dime novels of heroes dressing up like men to fight for patriotism and beauty? Did you abhor slavery? Or were you romantic like Hattie Martin, a newlywed who’d just promised to follow your husband all the way to the grave? Somehow, I don’t see you as a romantic. Were you fleeing? Did you run from the abuse of a war at home to a different war? What drove you to don the disguise?
America, your grandkids, if you had them, saw the world at war.
Did you cut beautiful long locks behind closed doors? Did you bury blonde tresses or chestnut curls beneath the dirt, a funeral for your feminity? How did it feel to wear pants for the first time? Did you steal the oversized uniform? Or were you rich like Loreta Valzquez who had custom “shoulders” built out of wire? Something makes me think you were poor.
America, can you believe it, the country’s one again?
Did you keep from singing when the young boys played so your soprano wouldn’t give away your secret? Did your heart beat with the drums, scared of death and aching for change? What was your first battle? Were you at Shiloh, Gettysburg, or the Battles of the Bull Run? Who did you turn to when you saw the bodies, the missing limbs, the blood soaked fields? How did you wash the blood of your friends from the hairs of your arm in a company of men? Did your secret keep you away from brotherhood?
America, you must have found someone. Or someone found you. Because you weren’t just one of the known female soldiers who disguised themselves as men to fight. You were one of the six that fought while with child.
Who was the baby’s father? Was he the boy who you romantically followed to war? Was he a Confederate, and you, a Yankee? Was he cruel? Did he discover your secret and attack—was that why he didn’t encourage you to leave when he found out? Had he been killed? Was that why you wept; why you stayed?
America, today, would have gotten an abortion?
When did you discover that while boys died, life grew inside of you? When morning sickness attacked with the force of a rebel yell, did you duck behind a bush? Did you chalk it up to the gruesome battle? Could you cry?
America, the country’s fighting still.
Most women gain twenty to thirty-five pounds. How did you hide the extra weight when soldiers were supposed to be starving? Were the men that dense, that distracted? How do you hoist a rifled musket when your stomach bulges with newness?
America, why didn’t you leave? Why wasn’t the fight over for you sooner? What kind of world were you bringing your baby into? Maybe you didn’t know where your home was anymore. Or was it that you’d grown to love the cruelty of war?
How did you feel when your story was in the paper? You, a series of secrets, made the headlines. Adrian Root wrote home to his mother, “A corporal of a New Jersey regiment who was on duty with the pickets complained of being unwell… His officers had him carried to a nearby farmhouse. There the worthy corporal was safely delivered of a fine, fat little recruit for the… regiment!” Did you have a mother to write home to?
You were relieved of your picket duty when you were discovered. Was this your first child? Did you know what to do with a squalling babe? How long did it take for your hair to grow long again? Was honesty as unfamiliar as the dress in the winter of 1863?
America, you make me wonder what I’m missing.
A daughter of the broken nation you fought to mend.