OPED: Before the word transgender, women served as men
One of the toughest military enlistments in the Civil War was served by a woman who dressed as a man. Private Albert D.J. Cashier, born Jennie Hodgers in Clogher Head, Ireland, marched thousands of miles and fought in dozens of battles and skirmishes with the 95th Illinois Infantry.
Cashier joined the regiment at the beginning of the war for a three-year term, and continued fighting until after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. After mustering out, Cashier lived out the next half-century as a man, spending three years at the Soldiers' and Sailors' Home in Quincy, Ill., until, nearing 70, he suffered the onset of dementia and was sent to a state mental hospital. There, hospital staff discovered Cashier's secret and forced him to wear a dress.
As I watched the news unfold last week in response to President Trump's Twitter declaration that he would not "accept or allow" transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military, I couldn't help but think of it as an act of regressive abuse, and also as an exercise in futility.
No matter their gender identity, people have served our country honorably and willingly since the early days of this republic. During the American Revolution, Deborah Sampson took on the identity of Robert Shurtleff and joined the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment. She fought for a year and a half as a man, and it was a busy time: scouting territory, storming British fortifications, digging trenches at the siege of Yorktown. Her sex was only discovered when she got sick and was sent to a hospital.
Was she punished? Far from it. She received an honorable discharge and, eventually, a full military pension from the state of Massachusetts.
Before transgender was a word, hundreds of women posed as men to serve in the Civil War. They did so capably and, in many cases, without ever being found out. Medical exams were cursory — show them your hands and feet, and you were handed a musket — and both the Union and Confederate armies desperately needed warm bodies at the front. Like other soldiers, many of these women fought for love of cause and country, and for the paycheck.
We can't pretend to know how each of them identified from a gender perspective. Some soldiers returned home and resumed life as women, marrying and raising families. Some, like Cashier, continued after the war to live on quietly, privately as men.
But the point is that it didn't matter: They served, and served well, and served the same as the soldiers who were born as men.
And for all the women who fought under male identities, there were many more who pushed Victorian gender boundaries by acting boldly in military capacities as spies, nurses and vivandieres — also known as daughters of the regiment — who bore the flag in battle, rallied troops and cared for the wounded. The pioneering Civil War nurse Clara Barton, who traveled to the battlefield under fire to aid the sick and dying, would later go on to found the Red Cross. An ardent suffragist, she believed that opportunities in the war advanced the social position of women by decades.
Though we think of our modern moment as a time when identity is at its most open, there have been times in American history when, despite the strictures of the day, we showed that we could embrace the variety of human experience.
Here's how one newspaper reporter described Albert Cashier's service not long after his past was revealed: "During the war Cashier's comrades noted that the handsome young 'Irishman' was rather inclined to be offish, but overlooked the soldier's exclusiveness in their admiration for 'his' military bearing and reckless daring ... Owing to the soldier's rigorous health and apparent abandon Cashier was always among those chosen when dependable men were absolutely necessary."
Post-war, Cashier lived a low-key life in Saunemin, Ill., working odd jobs around town that included handyman, farmhand and janitor, for 50 years. At the Soldiers' and Sailors' Home, before he was moved to the state hospital, Cashier was treated with respect as a veteran. The staff at the home kept his secret for years.
When Cashier's fellow soldiers found out he was born a woman, they were surprised. But many of them rallied to protest his treatment at the state hospital. When he died, in October 1915, he was dressed in his Union blue uniform and buried with full military honors. The tombstone was inscribed with the details of his military service — and his male identity, Albert D.J. Cashier.
Clara Barton once wrote a poem to honor the women who went to the field. But the words she chose could just as easily be used to honor anyone who wishes to serve in the military, no matter how high the barrier. Above all, bravery and service make us equal in commanding dignity and respect:
But later, it chanced, just how no one knew
That the lines slipped a bit, and some 'gan to crowd through;
And they went, — where did they go? — Ah; where did they not?
Where did they go? Where they were needed.
Bonnie Tsui is a writer in Berkeley, Calif., and the author of "She Went to the Field," a history of female soldiers in the Civil War.