he Civil War period produced a number of fictional female soldiers whose reasons for fighting in the war were political, rather than romantic or sexualized (like the female characters who cross-dressed and ran off to war to join their lovers in eighteenth century women warrior ballads), and who generally fought as women, rather than assuming male attire. However, these heroines were far from ordinary women.[i] The chief creator of this genre, Charles Wesley Alexander (writing under the name of Wesley Bradshaw), dealt with the problems of representing armed womanhood by imbuing his female soldier characters with magical powers, making them so markedly different from actual women that it was impossible for readers to take these characters as role models. Alexander, a pulp fiction writer, was extremely prolific in his depictions of such female soldiers and spies as Pauline of the Potomac(1862), Maud of the Mississippi(1863), and General Sherman’s Indian Spy(1865).
Although Alexander generally confined himself to describing the exploits of Union heroines, he did write one, The Picket Slayer, about a demonic young Englishwoman. Alexander described her actions on behalf of the Confederacy in Manichean terms: “she was a child of sin, doomed from the moment of her birth to perdition, and destined, while she remained on earth, to be the enemy of everything good.”[ii] As she tells the Confederate president, “My mission hither, President Davis, is to render your cause assistance, not because it is holy, as you hypocritically say, but because it is the most diabolical that could be conceived of”(30). Able to appear and vanish at will, possessed of supernatural strength and cunning, the picket slayer is evil incarnate—hardly the jolly, love-besotted cross-dresser the public had come to expect. But then again, she was a Confederate sympathizer, and Alexander was a Union partisan, and a writer hardly given to subtlety.
Just as Alexander’s female soldiers were different from ordinary white American women by virtue of their supernatural powers, so too were they distinct from them because of their ethnicity or nationality. Surprisingly enough, given that the Civil War was fought on American soil, none of Alexander’s heroines were, by the standards of their time, American. As General Sherman’s spy Wenonah tells him when she signs up for a career as his spy, “General, I would help the good pale faces. I love the pale faces. Pale face blood and Indian blood, Tecumseh’s blood, runs in my heart together, like brother and sister.”[iii]Wenonah, although she is certainly capable of shooting Confederates in self-defense, does not see herself as a fighter: “A woman,” she tells Sherman, “makes but a poor warrior”(21). However, her Indian attributes (“the eagle’s eye and the fox’s ear”(21)) make her an excellent spy. And, like the picket slayer and Pauline of the Potomac, Wenonah has access to supernatural means: she is able to put guards to sleep with a “strange moving of her hands”(22).
At times, she appears to others to be racially ambiguous: as one drunken would-be rapist tells her, “____ me ef I ken tell yer frum an Injun or a nigger?”(27) Wenonah is capable of exploiting her interlocutor’s racist beliefs to her advantage: as she tells the drunk when he asks her to run off with him, “Oh! I go! I go! You give me plenty pretty blankets, plenty shiney [sic] money, plenty pretty beads.”(28) Yet she is finally entirely limited by her ethnic identity. She is not an object of veneration, but an object of lust, so that when a Confederate lieutenant falls deeply in love with her, “this love was not that of a pure heart, but merely an ardent passion.”(31) And while she reacts to a threat of execution with “the stoicism of her race”(43), she is incapable of an equal relationship with Sherman: she speaks to him “like a child, confiding in a beloved father”(59). When she finally dies in battle, Bradshaw expostulates her: “Poor child of the wilderness. Pure as the air of her prairie home, beautiful as the rose, brave as the warrior from whom she was descended, and gentle as the dove.”(63) Exoticized, magical, and dead, Wenonah is a tragic Indian maiden, and Bradshaw’s final words about her encourage readers to pity her, rather than imagine themselves in her place.
Just as Alexander’s female soldiers were different from ordinary white American women by virtue of their supernatural powers, so too were they distinct from them because of their ethnicity or nationality.
While half-breed Wenonah is presented as a primitive, Pauline of the Potomac (who in a sequel takes on the identity of Maud of the Mississippi) is a superwoman, far outside the mainstream of white American middle-class femininity. She is not American, but is rather a French girl who has fled the Revolution of 1848. Although she has originally planned to enter a convent upon her father’s death, she agrees to the deathbed wish he makes after draping her with the American flag: “Pauline, my child, I devote you to America, the land of our adoption…This starry flag, the standard that Washington loved…is the veil that you now take.”[i]
She is a gift to America, but she is crucially different from American women. Pauline is clearly not a character with whom readers are expected to identify: as the narrator interjects, “doubtless many might consider the course of Miss D’Estraye as rather masculine or at least outside of the established line of conduct for a female and a refined lady; but we beg leave to remind out readers that Miss D’Estraye was French, and that what would seem indecorous to American women, is by no means so regarded by the gentler sex in France”(49). Thus Pauline does not hesitate to threaten her would-be Confederate captor: “One more movement…and I blow your traitorous brains from your skull, and trample your vile carcass into the earth”(53). Nor does she confine herself to mere words, but is a woman of action. As she describes an incident in which she is threatened by rape: “Whipping out one of my revolvers, I discharged it directly at the villain on my right, and, without waiting to see its effect, immediately after leveled and fired at the one on my left”(85).
The distance between Pauline and her readers is not simply one of national identity. Although she does not have access to Indian magic, she has received training from a family friend who works as a wizard or necromancer. Because of this she is able to remember, from childhood, his descriptions of a folding boat, and to design and have built such a boat so that she can run the batteries at Vicksburg. For energy on her perilous and exhausting journeys, “our heroine kept about her a small bag of the Coacoaleaf, so highly prized by the natives of South America.”[ii] Although Bradshaw’s female warriors are violent, the Union sympathizers among them discharge their weapons only in defense of their chastity; although they defend the nation, they do so from an outsider position, as Europeans or Native Americans.
Although Alexander devoted a healthy portion of his prodigious output to representing female soldiers, he managed to sidestep questions of citizenship entirely by making his women warriors foreign, coca-chewing magicians. The armed women he created were so outlandish that his books about them could be enjoyed as patriotic entertainment, rather than taken as the substance of debate.
To read some of these books in their entirety, go to Wright American Fiction (1851-1875), a wonderful collection of 19th century American fiction hosted by Indiana University Digital Library Program. There are currently 2,887 volumes included (1,763 unedited, 1,124 fully edited and encoded) by 1,456 authors. For more information view the works of Charles Wesley Bradshaw.