Soldiers, Spies and Saboteurs

She risked everything that is dear to man -- friends, fortune, comfort, health, life itself… —Elizabeth Van Lew, grave marker.

Women were soldiers, whether they served as vivandieres, daughters of the regiment, spies or disguised as men because they were often faced with the same dangers as the men that were called soldiers. These women came from every social status, joined for various personal reasons and committed themselves for differing lengths of time just as the men but have received far less recognition for their service. This is their legacy to the Civil War.

The Half-Soldier Heroines

Marie Tebe, “French Mary”

Like many women of the Civil War, Marie Tebe joined her husband when he enlisted in the 27th Pennsylvania Infantry even before Fort Sumter was fired upon. Dressed in a blue Zouave jacket, short skirt trimmed with red braid over red trousers, boots and a sailor hat, Marie was a true vivandiere, selling goods to the soldiers, to include contraband whiskey. She also served as a cook, laundress, seamstress and nurse for the men and was said to have been under fire thirteen times. In Frank Rauscher’s memoir on the 114thPennsylvania Infantry he wrote, “She was a courageous women and often got within range of the enemy’s fire whilst parting with the contents of her canteen among our wounded men. Her skirts were riddled with bullets during the battle of Chancellorsville.” Major General David B. Birney awarded her a medal for gallantry, but she would not wear it because “she did not want a present.” At the battle of Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862, Marie and other soldiers of the 114th Infantry helped set up a field hospital to care for the wounded. And in spite of being wounded by a bullet in the left ankle, she cared for others. “French Mary” served the Union army until the end of the war when she was mustered out with the regiment on May 29, 1865.

Kady Brownell

Like Marie, Kady joined the 1st Rhode Island to accompany her husband who was appointed as an orderly sergeant. A daughter of a Scotsman and soldier in the British army, this stern-faced girl with long, flowing hair, had a passion for military life. She too wore a modified uniform, with a skirt covering the trousers to the knee, a sash with big curtain tassels, and a sword. “This daughter of the regiment was resolved not to be a mere water-carrier, nor an ornamental appendage,” wrote biographer Frank Moore. Kady took rifle practice with the men, becoming “one of the quickest and most accurate marksmen in the regiment.” The sword she wore with her uniform was not ornamental either; she practiced daily with her husband and friends until she was familiar with its uses. One story says it was because of her impressive display of martial arts that Kady was appointed color bearer, but another more romantic tale is that during the battle of Bull Run, she rescued the banner from a fallen comrade. Regardless of how it transpired, in the battle of the 1st Bull Run, Kady proudly carried the flag and following military procedure, Moore wrote that …she remained in the line, guarding the colors, and thus giving a definite point on which the men could rally, as the skirmish deepened into a general engagement. There she stood, unmoved and dauntless, under the withering heat, and amid the roar, and blood, and dust of that terrible July day. Shells went screaming over her with the howl of an avenging demon, and the air was thick and hot with deadly singing of the minie balls. She received a bullet wound for her valor and a poem for her gallantry.
Who with the soldiers was staunch danger-sharer
Marched in the ranks through the shriek of the shell?
Who was their comrade, their brave color-bearer?
Who but the resolute Kady Brownell!

After the regiment was discharged Kady and Robert reenlisted in the 5th Rhode Island Infantry, which was part of a force that in January 1862, took Roanoke Island, and two months later advanced on New Bern, North Carolina. Kady, now serving as a daughter of the regiment and nurse, marched with the regiment fourteen miles through the mud of the Neuse River. She was given permission to carry the colors up until the charge was ordered. Kady once again proved she was a hero. While the regiments were moving into position, the 5th Rhode Island was seen by other units advancing through the woods from an unexpected direction, and were mistaken for a force of Confederates. Preparations were quickly made to open fire with both muskets and artillery. Seeing the danger, Kady promptly and courageously dashed to the front into open ground and waved the colors until the advancing regiment was recognized as friendly. Her action no doubt saved dozens of lives that could have been lost to a battlefield blunder. Kady was tending the wounded at New Bern when she received word that Robert had fallen. She stayed by his side for a month at New Bern then accompanied him to New York where he recuperated for eighteen months, their soldiering days now over.

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