Soldiers in Disguise

Rosetta Wakeman -- Lyons Wakeman

Since their lives as soldiers were secret, it is hard to know or understand the motivation, feelings and opinions of these courageous women.

We get a glimpse of their lives through Rosetta Wakeman. Enlisting in the 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, on August 30, 1862, at age 19, Rosetta shared her thoughts through letters to her family. Like many others, one strong motivation for her enlistment was money to help her family. In early August 1862, Rosetta left home dressed as a man looking for a job in a nearby town. Rosetta explained her decision to enlist to her family in her first letter to them, dated November 24, 1862. "When I left you I went to Binghamton. I saw you there. I meet you coming home from meeting. I went to work with Stephen Saldon the next day. I work half a month for 4$ in money. I was only 7 miles from Binghamton up the river. When I got done [with] work I went on the canal to work. I agreed to run 4 trips from Binghamton to Utica for 20$ in money, but this load of coal was going to Canajoharie, Montgomery Co. When I got there I saw some soldiers.

They wanted I should enlist and so I did. I got 100 and 52$ in money. I enlisted for 3 years or soon [as] discharged. All the money I send you I want you should spend it for the family in clothing or something to eat. Don’t save it for me for I can get all the money I want. If I ever return I shall have money enough for my self and to divide with you." In a later letter she explained her plans to help the family get out of debt. "You mustn’t trouble yourself about me. I am contented. I want you to get along the best way you can until this war is over. I believe that God will Spare my life to come home once more. Then I will help you pay your debts. I will send you more or less money while I am a soldier. When I get out of the service I will make money enough to pay all the debts you owe." She mentioned sending money to her family in numerous subsequent letters. "I send 4 dollars. I want you [to] let Robert have 1 and Celestia 1, Lois 1, and keep the other yourself. Robert, you let Father take the money and buy you a knife for to remember me by. We expect to get four months pay this week and if I do I shall have 60 dollars in money. I am getting 13 dollars per month. I will send part of it home to you. I will send you 30$ as soon as I can get to the express office." Money was not the only reason for leaving home. Being independent seemed to be important to Rosetta, too. "I can tell you what made me leave home. It was because I had got tired of stay[ing] in that neighborhood. I know that I could help you more to leave home than to stay there with you. So I left. I am not sorry that I left you. I believe that is will be all for the best yet. If I ever own a farm it will be in Wisconsin. On the Prairie. I [am] enjoying myself better this summer than I ever did before in this world. I have good clothing and enough to eat and nothing to do, only handle my gun and that I can do as well as the rest of them."

Military life seemed to appeal to Rosetta. She is able-bodied to do the job and willing to accept whatever fate God had in store for her. "We are adrilling nowadays. Company drill in the morning and a battalion drill in the afternoon. For my part I like to drill. I think a Skirmish drill is the prettiest drill that ever was drill. I have got So that I can drill just as well as any man there is in my regiment. When Colonel Davis gives a order I know what the regiment is agoing to do just as well as he does. I don’t know how long before I shall have to go into the field of battle. For my part I don’t care. I don’t feel afraid to go. I don’t believe there are any Rebel’s bullet made for me yet. Nor I don’t care if there is. I am as independent as a hog on the ice. If it is God will for me to fall in the field of battle, it is my will to go and never return home."

The 153rd was assigned duty in the Washington area from the time of Rosetta’s enlistment until late February 1864, when the unit was transferred to the field as part of Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’ Red River Campaign in Louisiana. Her regiment played a key role in the Battle of Pleasant Hill on April 9, 1864. Private Wakeman was on the front lines and in the fiercest fighting during the four-hour battle. At midnight, the Union army began its 40-mile retreat back to Grand Encore Landing, arriving there on April 11. It was from there that Rosetta wrote her last known letter home. "Our army made an advance up the river to pleasant hill about 40 miles. There we had a fight. The first day of the fight our army got whip[ped] and we had to retreat back about ten miles. The next day the fight was renewed and the firing took place about eight o’clock in the morning. There was a heavy cannonading all day and a sharp firing of infantry. I was not in the first day’s fight but the next day, I had to face the enemy bullets with my regiment. I was under fire about four hours and laid on the field of battle all night. There was three wounded in my Co. and one killed. I feel thankful to God that he spared my life and I pray to him that he will lead me safe through the field of battle and that I may return home safe."

While Rosetta was spared from death on the battlefield, she might have been better off had she died that way. Unfortunately, she contracted chronic diarrhea after persevering through 400 miles of hard marching, camping and fighting in a subtropical climate, drinking bad water and eating infrequently. She was admitted to 153rd Regimental Hospital and subsequently transferred to the Marine U.S.A. General Hospital in New Orleans where she died less than a month later on June 19, 1864. Her true identity was never discovered and she was given a soldier’s burial in Chalmette National Cemetery, New Orleans. Her headstone has her enlisted name: Lyons Wakeman.

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