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‘Female Soldiers’ or Transgender Men? Part 2

A Study of the Gender Identity of Albert D.J Cashier and Lyons Wakeman

Part Two of Three

(The article is adapted from my Bachelors degree dissertation. It has been split into three parts. Sources have been removed for ease of reading but are available on request.)

Dress and attempts to hide femininity

Dress and Clothing

The majority of works on the topic of female soldiers and the American Civil War in general suggest that it was easy for women to pass as men by cutting their hair and adopting male attire. Leonard suggests that 19th century gender roles enabled women to command the respect of men simply by wearing their clothes, as anyone perceived to be male would go unchallenged in their masculinity. The importance of clothing is exalted as the ‘primary identifier’ of a person, and as such, ‘little more was needed to hide their true identities’.

Blanton and Keegan assert with confidence that, accompanying male attire, short hair and a male alias made it easy for women to pass as men.

It is indisputable that male clothing was necessary for one to pass as a man. However, the suggestion by Blanton, Keegan and Kronyk that passing was ‘easy’, or ’simple’; that passing women simply ‘marched into battle’ and that ‘little more (than clothing) was needed to hide their true identities’, is speculative and simplistic. This narrative ignores the female soldiers who bound their breasts and attached material to their underwear. It ignores the many nuances of social conditioning and gendered mannerisms and overlooks the struggle female soldiers had in navigating bathrooms, sanitary needs, bathing and bunking down with mess mates.

Anyone who has attempted to live in the opposite gender for a lengthy period of time can attest to the fact that doing so convincingly is extremely difficult. The purpose of passing is to make oneself invisible and to ‘blend in’ with cisgender people. This was also the purpose of passing for female soldiers.

Transgender men today may take testosterone to alter their physical features in an attempt to appear more masculine. However, for pre-transition transgender men, and certainly for Wakeman and Cashier, passing without the aid of hormone treatment is unpredictable and challenging. The feminine features inherent in AFAB bodies; round faces, undefined jawline, lack of Adams apple, lack of body and facial hair, curvier hips and fatter legs, frustrate efforts to transition without hormones.

Almost all accounts of transition written by transgender men relay the difficulty and unpredictability of passing. Some complain of “soft faces” that make presenting as a masculine man hard. Some tell of passing as a man in some social circles but being ‘outed’ in others. Many discuss constantly being on guard and having to predict the correct number of layers necessary to convincingly hide their chests and hips for specific social situations.

If this is the case for transgender men today, the difficultly Cashier, Wakeman and others must have had passing is immense. When historians talk of the ‘simple’ steps passing women took to present as men, they ignore these challenges. In order to assess the true motives of Cashier and Wakeman, understanding these difficulties is paramount.

Firstly, the female figure does not easily lend itself to clothing designed for men. Breasts especially can cause issues, which is why many transgender men are forced to bind their chests. Binding often takes the form of bandages or specially purposed vests that compress the chest to give it a flatter appearance. Both methods can result in severe bruising, broken ribs, punctured lungs, difficulty breathing, difficulty moving (particularly strenuous activity such as exercising or indeed, fighting) damage to intercostal muscles and particularly in the case of bandages, irreversible damage to the breast tissue.

Soldiers resolving to bind would have been required to do so constantly to avoid rousing suspicion. For female soldiers with smaller breasts, it is likely that the standard issue military undershirts and overcoats would have been sufficient for flattening the chest. For those with larger breasts, the method of binding would have largely depended on financial means. Janet Velazquez Mitchell, a wealthy woman who survived the war and later wrote a popular account of her experiences, hired a tailor to design a binding garment. The binder consisted of six wire nets, held up by chest and shoulder straps, that compressed her breasts and padded her waist and shoulders, giving a more masculine appearance. While this device ‘proved very satisfactory in concealing (her) true form, and in giving (her) something of the shape of a man’, she was later detected after the garment broke.

Individuals of lesser means probably used bandages (the worst possible material in terms of health outcomes), given that they were inexpensive and readily available. Alternatively, some starter corsets and stays of the period were adjustable and may have bound the breast satisfactorily.

An advertisement for a 19th century child's corset
Ferris 'Good Sense' Corset. Such garments may have been repurposed as binders

One such example is the Ferris ‘Good Sense’ Corset, notable for being adjustable, and providing the wearer with a straighter (rather than curvier) figure, depending on the style and tightness. However, given the lack of documentary evidence written by lower middle/working class female soldiers, the truth of their binding situation remains largely unknown.

While it is true that chest binding may have not been a phenomenon unique to transgender soldiers, it is worthy of attention for two reasons. For female soldiers who remained in their male identities after the war, such as Cashier and Schaffer, if they were binding during their military service, it is highly likely that they had to bind for the rest of their lives as men. It is remarkable that Cashier and Schaffer would continue binding if they truly were cisgender women, given the sheer uncomfortableness and negative health outcomes associated with binding, and the comparatively few social and financial gains each made by living as men (which will be further discussed later). Additionally, the ‘desire for removal of one’s own sex characteristics’ is a key indicator of gender dysphoria according to the DSM-V. Combined with further evidence, breast binding should be seen as a key indication of gender incongruence.

Another problem inherent in wearing men’s clothing is that trousers and slacks do not provide adequate room for the hips and pelvic region. Therefore, depending on the cut of the trousers, a passing woman may appear curvier than a cisgender man would in the same outfit. The natural curves of the female body can stifle the ability of AFAB people to pass as men and would have posed a significant issue for larger female soldiers in particular.

Standard uniform regulations were fairly scattershot in both the Union and Confederate armies. In the north, troops were supplied with standardised uniforms, but the quality and style of these varied based on local supplies. Confederate units were expected to uniform themselves. Since Cashier and Wakeman both fought for the Union army, analysing their dress is somewhat simpler.

The Union army uniforms largely conformed to standard United States Army regulations. According to these regulations, ‘all trousers (were) to be made loose, without plaits, and to spread well over the boot’. From this description, it can be inferred that trousers were cut in a style similar to the modern boot cut. This is confirmed through photographic evidence of Union men in uniform. Indeed, the only photograph of Wakeman prominently displays his loose and baggy trousers.

Unfortunately, the regulations along with the photograph of Wakeman confirm little of the cut of the waist and upper leg, which is the region that may have caused the most trouble for female soldiers. From photographs of Union soldiers, it is clear that trousers were cut straight and without tapering.

An image of a man in black and white. wearing the uniform of the union army
Photograph Illustrating the Union Army Uniform

This cut enables the hem of the trouser leg to fit around boots, but becomes tighter towards the thigh, as more muscle mass and fat is stored in the upper leg. In seated photographs, this is evident through the noticeable creases on the upper thigh.

In men, the hips, upper legs and thighs appear straight, whereas in women, the hips and upper legs produce a noticeable curve. For Cashier and Wakeman, straight legged trousers would have exaggerated these curves, unless the trousers were extremely loose.

Mitchell’s account provides further evidence of the struggle to conceal the hips in uniform. Although fighting for the Confederacy, illustrations confirm that southern uniforms were similarly cut to union ones. She writes ‘if I had undertaken to wear pantaloons without (padding), they would have drawn in at the waist and revealed my true form’. This account, and the difficultly of hiding the female figure in clothing produced for male bodies, prove that passing as men was not as simple as Blanton, Teorey, Leonard and Keegan assume.

Aside from Mitchell, there are no known accounts or overt evidence of how female soldiers dealt with this issue. However, that so many passing women enlisted, and so few were detected during the war, should indicate that female soldiers found ways to mask their ‘true form’.

Transgender men today generally either wear looser trousers, pad their thighs or bind their hips with material to make the leg appear straighter. For female soldiers, when looser trousers could not be easily procured, they may have used bandages.

While the Civil War era solutions to this problem may be lost to history, the problems of disguising the female figure remained an issue nonetheless. Failing to acknowledge this difficulty allows the generalised myth of the ‘ease of passing’ to continue and diminishes the achievements of those who were able to successfully evade capture.

Study of these nuances is important for the theory that Cashier and Wakeman were transgender, because, along with binding, disguising the hips indicates a desire for removal of secondary sex characteristics as stated in the DSM-V criteria. It further indicates Cashier’s conviction that he was male, rather than female, as the mental and physical strain of being disguised constantly would constitute an extreme measure for a cisgender person to take on a daily basis.

If there is little analysis relating to the disguises of passing women, there is even less attention paid to the act of maintaining a male disguise throughout camp life. Numerous questions remain to be answered through documentary research, namely how female soldiers bathed and used the toilet while maintaining their disguise. Since these questions do not relate directly to the transgender status of Cashier and Wakeman, they will not be speculated on further. However, it is worth considering how these female soldiers, and Cashier in particular dealt with the issue of menstruation.

Victorian attitudes towards menstruation rendered the subject taboo, and as a result, our understanding of the issue is best informed by medical, specifically midwifery, textbooks. Writing in 1840, John Elliotson warned the reader that menstruating women were ‘unclean’, and others promoted the idea that ‘women, at the menstrual period, are more subject, than at other times, to spasmodic and hysterical complaints’.

Such textbooks also provide information about menstrual hygiene, and it seems there are various methods by which women curbed the flow of blood. Menstrual napkins were common, largely made from bird’s eye or plain fabric and fashioned to resemble nappies or modern-day briefs. These garments would be worn underneath the drawers. Others used T bandages, which were made by tying ribbon around the waist and attaching either end of the bandage to resemble a modern-day thong. Some women, simply wore thicker petticoats, although as the author rightly notes, these women must have had lighter flows of blood, otherwise their ‘condition (would have been) exposed’.

This information provides valuable context for the further analysis of the actions of female soldiers. How did passing women in the Civil War deal with menstruation and evade capture? Given the vast amount of confirmed female soldiers, it is puzzling that scholars have failed to tackle this question.

The lack of primary documents from passing women and the taboo nature of menstruation in this era leaves historians with little to analyse. It may be true that given the inherent bloodiness of warfare, camp life rendered bloody clothes and bandages unexceptional. Cashier, Wakeman and others probably used bandages to stem the flow of blood, whose bulk may have been hidden well by loose trousers. Any extra girth provided by these menstrual napkins possibly aided their disguises, by giving the appearance of a penis. However, the difficulty of applying, maintaining, changing and removing bandages without capture should not be understated, and it will remain largely unknown how passing women dealt with these issues.

Although Harriel argues that female soldiers probably did not menstruate, given their poor diets and extended periods of exercise, there are examples of passing women being caught precisely because of menstruation. Georgianna Weldon of the 1st New York Cavalry was discovered after a Sergeant noticed ‘evident signs of a woman’s monthly courses’.

It is worth considering these challenges because it helps dispel the narrative that passing as a man was easy and enables further understanding of the true complexities that went into fashioning a disguise. Furthermore, recognising these complexities helps to inform analysis of Cashier’s motives. It seems remarkable that Cashier was able to evade detection for so long, given the fact that he would have been disposing of numerous menstrual napkins once a month for many years.

By managing to keep his menstrual hygiene hidden, Cashier displayed a clear ‘desire to be known as another gender’ and a wish for ‘sex characteristics of the other gender’, as indicated in the DSM-V criteria.

Male Mannerisms

The military careers of passing women depended in large part on their ability to not only disguise their female figure, but also to adopt male mannerisms. Mannerisms provide subtle clues as to the gender of an individual, and performing the mannerisms of the ‘opposite’ sex may mark a female soldier out as a passing woman, instead of a man.

Mannerisms can be separated into two categories; those that are caused by physical differences in the anatomy and dress of men and women, and those that are caused by social conditioning. It is also worth noting that Victorian mannerisms and the appropriate behaviours of each sex were more rigid and defined, compared with deconstructed gender roles in Western society today. This is evidenced in the sheer number of etiquette manuals produced for both men and women during the Victorian era.

Typically, male mannerisms caused by anatomy include spreading the legs when seated, walking with the feet shoulder width apart, standing with weight balanced equally on both feet, relaxed shoulders that roll back instead of forwards and speaking with a deep voice. The extremes of dress in the Victorian era caused differences between the sexes also; passing women that were used to lacing corsets and putting on stockings often gave themselves away by attempting to put on male clothes as if they were women’s instead. Harriel cites the example of a Mrs Smith who was discharged in 1861 after wringing out a dishcloth in a ‘feminine manner’. Furthermore, a passing woman using the alias of John Thompson was discharged months into her service after being caught ‘due to the feminine manner in which she donned her socks’. These examples illustrate the extreme difficulty in remaining undetected as a passing woman, as even the slightest discretion in everyday mannerisms and actions could reveal their ‘true sex’.

Astonishingly, evidence suggests that a passing woman was caught and discharged within Cashier’s own company by Cashier’s own commanding officer, Charles Ives, for this very reason. Private Thomas Hannah writes of a suspected female soldier who was discovered after attempting to catch an apple with an imaginary dishcloth. The fact that Ives knew Cashier intimately enough to give a lengthy witness statement during fraud investigations against Cashier, and also caught another passing woman in his company should prove the extreme lengths Cashier went to in order to remain undetected.

Additionally, there are many mannerisms that are socially conditioned in individuals, and they are intrinsically linked to the gender roles of the society in question. To understand these mannerisms in the context of the American Civil war, it is necessary to examine gender roles in the Victorian era. Women were taught to ‘avoid everything masculine’, ‘never (display) passion’ and to be ‘sunbeams that make everything glad’. Although boys and girls were raised largely the same (until puberty), girls were expected, from birth, to begin learning the roles of ‘a little housewife’.

Boys on the other hand, were taught to be dominant, confident, and to ‘dissociate from the feminine’. For a passing woman, disregarding the conditioning of her upbringing and adopting these ‘masculine’ characteristics may have been extremely difficult.

As Morgan writes, masculinities are constructed to an extreme degree during warfare. The warrior as a symbol of masculinity is common throughout antiquity, and in the highly masculine arena of the military, effeminate behaviour would be spotted and noted almost immediately. Therefore, any passing woman in either the Union or Confederate armies would have to adopt male mannerisms and characteristics extremely quickly.

This may explain why some of the most successful female soldiers, such as Katie Hanson, Charley Miller, Sarah Edmonds and even Cashier himself, were those who had dressed in male attire before enlisting. With time to practise masculine posture, walking and talking, they may have been able to adapt more quickly to the masculine theatre of war.

As with most other aspects, no sufficient scrutiny of this aspect of becoming men has been undertaken, but studying the mannerisms expected of men during this era indicates that passing as a man was more nuanced than simply wearing trousers as Leonard suggests. For Cashier and Schaffer, we can assume that they either developed perfect ‘male’ mannerisms over time, or were constantly on guard against effeminate behaviour, or else they simply would not have been undetected for so many years.

However, it could be the case that performing male mannerisms outside of the highly gendered theatre of war may have been less about disguising inherent femininity, and more for the purpose of affirming their own perceptions of themselves as men. It is worth bearing this in mind and will be relevant in considering Cashier’s motivations for living as a man. Additionally, performing male mannerisms aligns with the DSM-V criteria of a ‘contrast between experienced gender and… secondary sex characteristics’ and the ‘desire for sex characteristics of the other gender’.

Mental Health

Modern research has studied the impact that living in a transgender identity has on an individual’s mental health. While gender diversity ‘is not linked to, or part of any psychopathological disorder’, it is true that discrimination, transphobia and constant vigilance to keep such identities secret can cause mental health issues. 84% of young transgender people in the UK have self-harmed, and transgender individuals globally have increased risks of committing suicide, contracting HIV and experiencing violence due to their gender presentation. So, while trans identities do not cause inherent mental conflict, the society such identities are explored in often does negatively affect an individual’s mental health.

If we accept Vincent’s findings that individuals struggling with gender identity issues are likely to experience mental unrest due to the stress of passing, it should be expected that Cashier and Wakeman also dealt with this stress.

Due to the fact that mental health difficulties are common in wartime and as a result of the outcomes of warfare, mental unrest was probably common to many veterans of the Civil War. Therefore, focus will be placed on examples that arise strictly from gender identity issues, rather than general mental illness that could otherwise be caused by experiences of war and violence.

The best evidence we have of gender based mental unease on the part of Cashier comes from the records of his retirement and eventual institutionalisation. The accounts of Leonard, Harper, Blanton and Clausius all indicate that upon admission to the Watertown State Hospital, Cashier was forced to wear ‘the garb of her real sex’, and that this caused considerable stress. Cashier protested against this requirement at first, but later relented. It seems that wearing skirts was a considerable source of angst, as he apparently ‘pinned (them) in the middle to make trousers’, and felt ‘vulnerable and afraid’ because his peers treated him as a woman. Particularly upsetting is the claim from Lieutenant Charles W Ives, who wrote that ‘(Cashier was) broken, because on discovery, she was compelled to put on skirts. (I was told) that she was as awkward as could be in them’. Blanton also indicates that Cashier was placed in a women’s only ward in the hospital, further exacerbating his distress.

It is almost certain that this mental anguish was caused by the act of wearing clothes contradictory to his gender presentation, as both Brainard and Saxton testified that ‘his mind seemed to be alright’, and ‘he was not simple in any way’.

Why would wearing female clothing cause such distress for Cashier if he was truly comfortable in his female body? If other evidence of transgender identity can be explained by external factors, namely monetary gain, it seems that this distress may be the best, most conclusive evidence of Cashier’s true gender identity. It seems too, that Cashier was unique in his distress, as other notable female soldiers, such as Frances Clayton, Janet Velazquez Mitchell and Sarah Edmonds, returned to wearing female clothing with ease. To ignore Cashier’s mental anguish, and his refusal to wear ‘the garb of her real sex' ignores perhaps the clearest evidence currently available that Cashier was a transgender man.

This evidence also supports Cashier’s transgender identity in line with the DSM-V diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria. His feeling ‘vulnerable and distressed’ as a result of incongruence between his perceived gender and the perceptions of others directly correlates with point a(e), ‘desire to be known and treated as another gender’. Furthermore, Cashier’s distress relating to the wearing of dresses aligns with point b, ‘distress or impairment in social, occupation or other important areas of functioning’. Clearly then, Cashier seems to have struggled with gender dysphoria in terms of his outward gender presentation during his final years.

In terms of Wakeman, the distinction between gender based mental anguish, and distress caused by the effects of warfare is less evident. Although he writes ‘my mind is not easy at any time’, this could be referring to the fear of death associated with battle. Additionally, because Wakeman died before his ‘true sex’ was learned, there is no evidence of distress related to being forced to wear female clothing. However, there are scant hints that Wakeman was perhaps ashamed to come home, which could have been caused by his family’s perceptions of him, and his own mental distress relating to this. He writes ‘I don’t care anything about coming home for I (am) ashamed to come, and I sometimes think that I never will go home in the world.’ This evidence will be considered more closely in the following discussion of female soldiers and their relationships with home and family.

By examining the mental health of Cashier in particular, it is clear that his behaviour matches the diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria laid out by the DSM-V and provides clear evidence of his transgender identity. To ignore this behaviour further buries the nuances of his identity under a narrative of pragmatism and the myth that passing as a man was simple.

This is the end of part two. In part three, we will examine family relations, the motivations of 'passing women' and make our overall conclusions.

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