05/07/2014 04:41 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2014

Military Moms of the Civil War

You know what's more badass than women in the military? Women in the military carrying babies to full term and giving birth right in the ranks.

I was shocked when I learned that during the Civil War, over 200 women served as soldiers -- drilling, guarding prisoners, spying, nursing, and seeing combat -- all while disguised as men. From the moment I learned of them, I have admired those women immensely and as part of my quest to help bring their stories to light, I wrote a novel, I Shall Be Near To You, inspired by their service. But once I gave birth to my son in 2011, I was struck by overwhelming respect and amazement for the six documented women who did all that and did it while pregnant.

Known only from comrades' letters home, one of the six was an unidentified New Jersey woman who fought at the Seven Day's Battle during her first trimester. Between the fatigue, nausea, and hypersensitive sense of smell early pregnancy brings, the putrescence of being on the battlefield surrounded by unwashed men and festering bodies must have been nearly intolerable. Yet somehow she managed to press on, fighting and getting wounded at Antietam while in her second trimester. Instead of going home after such a harrowing experience, she returned to duty and earned a promotion to corporal. Though the men in her Company had noticed that her "tent mate" often took her place for guard duty, Samuel S. Partridge described her as "a real soldierly, thoroughly military fellow." She went on to fight (in her third trimester!) at Fredericksburg, after which she was promoted again, this time to sergeant. Within a month, the woman went into labor while guarding on picket duty, according to Colonel Adrian Root of the 94th New York Infantry, and had to be carried to the nearest farmhouse/field hospital -- quite possibly the worst birth plan I've ever heard. She delivered a baby boy, whose father was purportedly the unmarried woman's helpful tent mate. Understandably, the incident became the topic of many letters home and general gossip throughout the Army of the Potomac, which is how we even know about this woman today.

Elijah H.C. Cavins' letters are the reason we know about an unidentified sergeant (another woman who got promoted up the ranks!) who fought at the Battle of Stone's River while five months pregnant. Like the nameless New Jersey woman, this officer "always attended to his various duties" and went completely undiscovered until the moment "he gave birth to a large boy."

Confederate sharpshooter Lucy Thompson Gauss was perhaps a tiny bit more cautious. She served beside her husband for 16 months before heading home in the final weeks of her pregnancy. Sadly, War Department records indicate that her husband died at the Battle of Fredericksburg the second week of December 1862, around the same time their daughter was born. It speaks volumes of her grief that although the baby could only have been days old, Gauss returned to the Confederate Army in an unsuccessful attempt to bring her husband's body home. It also speaks of her desperate situation as a widow and single mother that she continued on to Richmond to claim her husband's back pay and enlistment bounty. What about her own pay? The historical records don't say.

Historical records also don't detail how two female Confederate prisoners of war managed to conceal their identities during their pregnancies, escaping detection despite routine searches of new detainees and extremely close quarters. One of these women, described only as "a portly fellow" in fellow POW Griffin Frost's Camp and Prison Journal, gave birth to "a fine boy." The other, "a rebel officer" according to the Sandusky Commercial Register, also delivered a "bouncing boy" and was "undoubtably a woman." Even more amazing than hiding their pregnancies until the last minute is that the women carried the pregnancies to term at all, given the terrible conditions at the prisons where rations were meager and primitive barracks were barely heated. There is no doubt that these ladies were tough.

Perhaps the most uncomfortable Civil War "birth story" belongs to another soldier whose name is also lost to history. In 1865 Sergeant Joseph Cross of the 29th Connecticut Infantry (Colored), wrote home to his wife:

One Question I wish to ask Did you Ever hear of A Man having a child [?] there is such a case in our regiment & in Company F she played man Ever since wee have been [out] the child war born feb 28 it rained hard all day and now she is in the hospital.

At the time, the regiment was serving in the trenches outside Petersburg -- all I can think of is that poor woman, giving birth in the mud and rain in miserable February. Unbelievable.

How these six women were able to perform their duties during the exhaustion and nausea of the first trimester is hard to fathom. Perhaps the help that some of them had from the fathers of their children, combined with sheer determination, made it possible. Maybe, like most male soldiers, they haled from working-class or farm backgrounds, and were used to hard physical labor and poor living conditions. But how did they conceal their growing bodies as the pregnancies progressed? How were the men around them so clueless? Ill-fitting uniforms are one possibility, or the fact that most men had never seen women in pants. Or perhaps it truly was, as Herman Weiss suggested in a letter home to his wife, after she too wondered how a pregnant corporal in the 6th New York Heavy Artillery had gone undetected, "there is a great many women that dont show much anyway." Still, none of that answers how the women kept up in marches or ran across battlefields, even in their last trimesters. I felt like I could hardly breathe walking my dog around the block! And the agony of sleeping on the hard ground, with no body pillow in sight? I thought being pregnant was sheer misery. I can hardly imagine what it must have been like as a soldier in the Civil War.

Knowing about these women makes the current indecision about women's role in the "fully integrated" military all the more ludicrous. Certainly these brave and strong Civil War ladies proved they were capable of everything men were, and more. "What use have we for women, if soldiers in the army can give birth to children?" Colonel Adrian Root wrote home. What use indeed!

Source: They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War, by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook.