02/12/2014 02:30 pm ET Updated Apr 13, 2014

Women Who Fought for Love

Every Valentine's Day, I'm reminded of a sweepingly romantic love letter:

My Dear Sarah,

Never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name."

Major Sullivan Ballew wrote that letter to his wife Sarah during the Civil War-- just a week before he received a mortal wound at the First Battle of Bull Run. During the war, many soldiers sent home poignant and romantic Valentines and letters proclaiming their love and faithfulness to the women who waited for them back home. But as I discovered while researching the Civil War for my novel, I Shall Be Near To You, there are also women whose actions speak volumes about their love.

It surprises many people to learn that over 200 women disguised themselves as men and fought in the Civil War. Many of these women enlisted for reasons that were the same as men's, to fight for a cause they believed in or to support their nation. Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, for instance, joined for love of family, adventure and regular wages; in her letters, the only ones yet discovered from a female Civil War soldier, she tells her family, "I knew I Could help you more to leave home than to stay there with you." But like male soldiers who enlisted to be with friends or relatives, many of the women who became soldiers found they could not bear to be parted from husbands, fiancés and lovers. When asked to explain her desire to join the military, one unidentified woman serving in the 19th Illinois Infantry said, "I have only my husband in all the world." Despite the risk of imprisonment if they were discovered, these women demonstrated incredible devotion in offering their lives in exchange for the opportunity to stand beside their men, marching right into the ranks and onto the battlefields.

Martha Parks Lindley found that despite being "frightened half to death" she was "so anxious to be with my husband" that she left her children with her sister, donned her husband's old clothes and followed him. She enlisted as "Jim Smith" in the 6th US Cavalry, Company D just two days after William Lindley did. Martha toughed it out through three months of battles and skirmishes during the Peninsular campaign and a 10-month stint as a hospital orderly. Both she and her husband managed to survive their three-year enlistment and raised their four children together. It was those children who saved Martha's uniform and pistol and remembered the tales she and William told of their wartime exploits.

In Maine and Ohio, two other married women, Mary Brown and Elizabeth Finnern, found they had scant more patience than Martha Lindley. When their husbands decided to re-enlist after returning home safely from their first tours, the ladies decided they had endured enough separation. The two women decided to go along with their husbands, Mary enlisting in the 31st Maine Infantry and Elizabeth in the 81st Ohio Infantry. Both couples survived the war and remained married until the husbands died, Ivory Brown in 1903 and John Finnern in 1905.

While serving in the military certainly doesn't seem like a romantic honeymoon, several sets of newlyweds served together as soldiers. Martin and Elizabeth Niles had been married three months when they decided to enlist in the 14th Vermont Infantry, where they spent the next 10 months of their 27-year marriage. Mary Owens eloped with a man her parents didn't like and together, they enlisted in the cavalry. And Alabaman Miss Weisener left home saying she was going to deliver supplies to the troops, but instead traveled to Tupelo, Mississippi, where her love, lawyer E.L. Stone, was stationed. The pair secretly married and the new Mrs. Stone joined her husband's regiment.

Then there's the story of Charlotte Hope, who never had the chance to serve with her fiancé, a lieutenant in the Confederate Army, because he was killed in a raid during the summer of 1861. A few days after Charlotte learned of his fate, she joined the CSA 1st Cavalry, calling herself Charlie Hopper. She told a fellow soldier that she "didn't want pay for the work she wanted to do." Her goal was to avenge her fiance's death by killing 21 Yankees -- one for each year of her fiancé's life. Her zealous actions convey her fearlessness and express the depth of her sorrow; in the hopes of getting close to more Union soldiers, Charlotte volunteered for scouting missions until she, too, was killed in a raid.

While these women went to the extreme in terms of their devotion, each Valentine's Day we celebrate that same passion for our significant others and, like them, remind ourselves that sometimes it is worth risking everything for love.

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