“Why shouldn’t a woman fight in the war?” Eliza asked her sister.
“Because you can’t, and so you mustn’t. And many are dying in battles,” Eliza’s sister Emily replied.
“Nonsense. I’m going to figure out how. We have to help fight for our principles, not just watch others do so.”
Eliza abhorred conventional thinking, and unjust rules drove her mad. “This isn’t right!” she would shout about discriminatory laws. Family members worried about her. Mama and pop, in particular. Sleepless night hours often passed talking about their daughter. Yet, she lived as they raised her – educated, adventurous, fiery, and action-oriented. These were their examples. Since her early years, the family home served as a station on the Underground Railroad. Dozens of people spent time there while fleeing from enslavement. Eliza talked with them about life, saw the pain in their eyes, and the heroic courage of family and others helping.
“I still don’t see how you’re going to become a Union Army soldier,” Emily said.
“There has to be a way for me to dress as a man without getting caught.”
“Mama is going to be furious with you.”
“Mama should expect nothing less of me.”
The sisters quarreled some back and forth. But both knew the outcome; once Eliza made up her mind, nothing could change her thinking.
Eliza turned twenty-three a few weeks before the Civil War started. While many women around her were settled into marriage and bearing children, Eliza spent her days teaching at a school and nights reading on pop’s rocking chair. But as the fighting began and talks of war’s progress became regular evening conversation and watching men enlist, Eliza felt much angst sitting at home or in a classroom. Within a few months, she decided to enlist as well.
When her cousin Tom returned for a break from war, she approached him for help. Tom, a gentle spirit with a kind, soft face, an easy smile, and a similar desire to always help, first said no. “You don’t want to be a soldier,” he said curtly, the easy smile less easy now. He didn’t want to elaborate, and she didn’t want to pry. Her desire to enlist, however, remained unchanged. “Please, Tom.”
Tom and Eliza were almost the same age, born just weeks apart. They grew up next door to each other and were best friends. Like Emily, he too understood Eliza’s made-up mind wasn’t going to change. He could help, or she would find someone else. “Ok, I’ll help you.”
The evening before he was to leave back to camp, Tom brought her some of his clothes and cut her hair short. Knowing mama and pop wouldn’t accept her enlisting, she wrote them a note. The following morning, she snuck out of the house and met Tom in the center of town. He had never seen her smile so big.
After a short train ride and a long walk, the two arrived at camp. Eliza introduced herself as George, a name she picked in honor of her hero, George Washington. She had practiced a firm handshake and speaking with a deeper voice. And while nervous, she stood excited and confident and spoke assertively.
The ruse worked. “Welcome.” She was now officially a Union Army soldier.
Note: “She is. A Union Army Soldier.” is a historical fiction short story from the U.S. Civil War. While based on real events, the story, characters, and incidents are fictitious.