Essay by Erin Lindsay McCabe
It is July, 2009, and I've already written hundreds of pages. I am talking to my mom on the phone when she asks me.
“Why do you want to write about this?” she asks. “Why this person? Why not someone else?”
I give her my answer, the one I think I would give Oprah if Oprah asked me the same question, the one I would say to my mom’s book club if they asked.
“Because people should know about her,” I say. “Because people should know women did these things. Because I can’t believe no one gets taught this stuff. Because I think it’s important.”
I am not writing about Rosetta because of the things we know about Sarah Rosetta Wakeman. We know that she was born on January 16, 1843. We know that she was the oldest of nine children, that she was her father’s farmhand, that her family had financial trouble. We know that when she was 19 she decided to leave the family farm and find work so she could send money home. We know that she decided to dress as a man to get work on a canal boat and that it only took her one boat ride up the river to find out that being a soldier for the 153rd New York State Volunteers paid better than any job she could find: $13 a month plus a $152 signing bonus. But there's a lot we don't know.
March, 1998. I had gone into the stacks to find a woman, any woman, who lived in the 1800s. I was looking for a primary source on which to write my next paper for U.S. Women’s History. I wanted to find a diary, but what I found were Rosetta Wakeman's letters.
Rosetta told her family, “I have got So that I Can drill just as well as any man there is in my regiment.” She is both tender and brazen, writing in one letter, “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 bullets made for me yet. Nor i don’t Care if there is.” She can make us laugh with her directness. We know for sure she got into a fistfight with Pvt. Stephen Wiley, who was a drunk and a thief. She “give him three or four pretty good cracks and he put downstairs with himself.” She loved her family, sent home all the money she could spare, and had dreams she could never fulfill as a woman. “If I ever own a farm, It will be in Wisconsin. On the prairie,” she wrote. She tells us she was “independent as a hog on ice,” and that she had no intention of giving in to anyone else’s ideas of how she should behave, saying, “I will Dress as I am a mind to for all anyone else cares, and if they don’t let me Alone they will be sorry for it.”
Rosetta was not an anomaly. In fact, there were a lot of women like her. At least two hundred women are documented as having fought on both sides of the Civil War. Even Rosetta knew they existed, writing:
“Over to Carroll Prison they have got three women that is Confined to their Rooms. One of them was a Major in the union army and she went into battle with her men. When the Rebels bullets was acoming like a hail storm she rode her horse and gave orders to her men. Now She is in prison for not doing aCcordingly to the regulation of war. The other two is rebel Spies and they have Catch them and Put them in Prison.”
Who were those women? Rosetta doesn’t say. History doesn’t either, because the records from Carroll Prison are incomplete.
There are a lot of things I love about Rosetta that didn’t make it into that college paper, but they made it into my novel. And there are a lot of things she didn't tell us: How it felt to be a woman dressed as a man. Whether or not she ever killed anyone in battle. What it was like to march into combat, all the way down to Louisiana, and to never once get found out for being a woman in the two years she served. How she did it, how she did all this, while pretending to be a man.
I imagined answers to the things we can't know, adding tidbits from the tales of other women who fought. Then, with Rosetta’s voice in my head, I tried to introduce a woman like her to the world, envisioning what someone in her position might have experienced, giving her a fictionalized life, a fictionalized husband, and a fictionalized story. But here, I'll leave you with Rosetta's own words:
“The weather is cold and the ground is froze hard, but I sleep as warm in the tents as I would in a good bed. I don't know the difference when I get asleep. We have boards laid down for a floor and our dishes is tin. We all have a tin plate and a tin cup, and a knife and Fork, one spoon. We have to use the floor for a table. I like to be a soldier very well.”