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Odd Wisconsin Archive

No One Suspected That She Was a Woman

The Wisconsin women serving today in Iraq and Afghanistan follow in the 150-year-old footsteps of a handful of dedicated -- and clever -- predecessors. During the Civil War, women were forbidden from the military but that didn't stop some of them from disguising themselves as men and joining up.

The Platteville Witness in March, 1864, noted, as if it were nothing unusual, "the return from the army of Miss Georgianna Peterman." It goes on to say that "Miss Peterman has been for two years a drummer in the Seventh Wisconsin [Infantry]. She lives in Ellenboro, Wis., is about twenty years old, wears soldier clothes, and is quiet and reserved."

She is probably the woman called Belle Peterson many years later, in Ethel A. Hurn's book Wisconsin Women in the War Between the States (Madison: Wisconsin History Commission, 1911):

"The other case recorded is that of Belle Peterson, a young country girl, who lived near Ellenboro. A soldier who saw her at that time, says that she was 'just an ordinary girl, neither good nor bad looking.' But she was adventurous, and one day surprised her father by telling him that she was going away from home for some time. Her family learned later that she had enlisted in a Wisconsin regiment. The date of her enlistment is not certain, but it was probably late in 1862; she served in the army for some time, possibly as a spy or a scout. Those who saw her in her uniform, say that she made a fair-looking soldier, and that no one would have suspected that she was a woman." (The full text is here)

More stories of women in combat during the Civil War are on pages 113-120 of Mary Livermore's My Story of the War (Hartford, Conn.: A.D. Worthington and Co., 1890), which is online at Google Books. Hurn's book about Wisconsin women in the Civil War is one of the many online documents in our Turning Points in Wisconsin History collection.

Coming back to the present, you can get a vivid, personal look into the life of Wisconsin soldiers in Iraq inside the Society's new, heavily illustrated book Private Soldiers: A Year in Iraq with a Wisconsin National Guard Unit, which has just arrived from the printer. It will be in bookstores quite soon, or you can order it online. More details are here.

:: Posted in Odd Lives on September 23, 2007

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