Published March 28, 2023
A Soldier's Secret
On April 12, 1861, Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, igniting a Civil War that would divide the nation for four long years. Recruiting posters enticed young men to join their friends and family in the military, calling upon their sense of duty and patriotism, and promising adventure and financial gain. In this episode, you will meet a soldier who had a secret; a secret that went all the way to their grave… until 100 years later, that is.
This History UnErased podcast is funded by the New York City Council. This episode was co-written by Kathleen Barker and Dinah Mack and produced and edited by Dinah, with a little help from Kathleen and Deb Fowler.
Hello, and welcome to UnErasing LGBTQ History and Identities — A Podcast for Teachers. I’m Deb Fowler, executive director of History UnErased.
In this season, my colleague Kathleen Barker will introduce you to a few of the characters featured in our Intersections & Connections curriculum and some fascinating - and empowering - backstories.
This episode features a Civil War soldier who had a secret; a secret that went all the way to their grave… until 100 years later, that is. And it is quite possible that hundreds more also carried a secret, like this soldier’s, to their grave.
Take it away, Kathleen!
On April 12, 1861, Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, igniting a Civil War that would divide the nation for four long years. Recruiting posters enticed young men to join their friends and family in the military, calling upon their sense of duty and patriotism, and promising adventure and financial gain.
But what if you were born female?
Women could not officially serve as soldiers in either the Union or Confederate Army, but they could contribute in other ways. Thousands of women in the north formed or joined ladies’ aid societies, knitting socks and gloves, growing food, and raising money. About 3,000 women, mostly middle-class and white, served as nurses in Union Army hospitals. Thousands more, in both the north and the south, followed the troops as cooks and laundresses. These women were mostly free and enslaved African-Americans or working-class white women.
Despite a ban on women soldiers, historians estimate that anywhere from 400 to 1,000 female-bodied individuals served as soldiers during the Civil War. They disguised themselves as men with short hair and pants, and enlisted to fight for both the north and south. Adventure, freedom, money, patriotism…whatever the reason, enlisting in the military gave women a taste of independence that was just not possible for women at the time.
In this podcast, you will meet one such person: Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, a teenager from upstate New York who enlisted in the Union Army under the name Lyons Wakeman. We don’t know how Sarah would identify today, or what pronouns they would use, so we are using the language–and the names–that Sarah used during their own lifetime. In this podcast, at the point when Lyons enlists in the military, we will use the pronouns he/him as this is what would have been used in his Regiment.
Much of what we know about Sarah’s life comes from the letters sent home to family during the war. Throughout this podcast, you will hear excerpts from these letters. Most of the earlier letters are signed “Sarah” or “Rosetta.” Other aliases used are Lyons Wakeman and Edwin R. Wakeman. These letters, hidden in an attic away from the public view for over a century, are an invitation into a life that might otherwise have gone unknown.
Sarah Rosetta Wakeman was born on January 16, 1843. As the oldest of nine children, Sarah worked hard on her parent’s farm in Bainbridge, New York, tending to animals and caring for her younger siblings. Not much is known about Sarah’s early life before her letters; we can only surmise through some hints in her writing that the poverty, her father’s debts, and the limitations on her life were reason enough to want to leave home.
Whether it was a longing for adventure, patriotism, or the chance to earn a monthly wage of her own, Sarah left the farm at the age of nineteen in the fall of 1862. Cutting off her long hair and donning male attire, Sarah who from this moment on identified as Lyons to the external world, secured a job shoveling coal on a boat traveling the Chenango Canal, which linked the Susquehanna River in southern NY state to the Erie Canal.
During their first voyage on the Canal, Lyons met recruiters for the 153rd NY State volunteers. He was offered $152 to sign up with the regiment– that was over a year’s worth of wages and much more than a woman could earn anywhere…more than the Wakeman family earned subsisting on their farm.
According to the enlistment records, Lyons Wakeman joined the Union Army on August 20, 1862 for three years or until the end of the war. He was described as 5 feet tall with a fair complexion, brown hair, and blue eyes and he inflated his age to 21.
The regiment departed New York for Washington, D.C., on October 17, 1862. In his first letter sent home three months after departure, Lyons described his enlistment and encouraged family members to remember him.
Nov. 24, 1862
My Dear Father and mother and sister and brothers, one in all,
I receive you letter on Sunday the 23. I was very glad to hear from you and learn that you were all well. I am well and enjoy good health. Our Regiment is in Camp at Alexandria, Virginia… We have had no fighting yet. We have to guard the City and stand on picket. I stood on my post all last night. When i left you… I went on the canal to work. I agreed to run 4 trips from Binghamton to Utica for 20$ in money, but this load of coal was going to Canajoharie, Montgomery Co.
When I got there i saw some soldiers. They wanted I should enlist and so i did. I got 100 and 52$ in money. I enlisted for 3 years or soon [as] discharged. All the money i send you i want you should spend it for the family in clothing or something to eat. Don't save it for me for i can get all the money i want. If i ever return i shall have money enough for my self and to divide with you.
If you want to save anything to remember me by, keep that spotted calf and if i ever return i want you to let me have her again. Tell Robert to give her a few oats this winter and I will pay him for doing so. Tell Celestia that I will send her my likeness as soon as I can. Mother, i will tell you where my little Chest is. It is upstairs over the bedroom in the garret. Let Robert go and climb up by the stove pipe hole and he will find it on the left hand side toward the road up in the corner. I want you should keep all my things for me for i believe that God will spare my life and that I shall see you all again face to face before i die. Father, if you will send me some postage stamps I will be very thankful for them. I want to drop all old affray and I want you to do the same and when i come home we will be good friends as ever.
Good-by for the present.
Sarah Rosetta Wakeman
Lyons’ military experience was typical for an enlisted soldier. Living conditions were pretty harsh: soldiers slept outdoors or in portable, lightweight shelters that provided minimal protection. In the early years of the war, rations included hard bread (also known as hardtack), salted or fresh meat, and coffee, sugar, and salt. Of course, as the war dragged on, fresh meat, fruits, and vegetables became increasingly scarce.
Days in camp were pretty monotonous, an endless cycle of drilling, cleaning and maintaining weaponry, and guard duty. Music, cards, and gambling were the most common forms of entertainment. Wakeman described this life in camp in a letter home this way: “There is a good many temptations in the army. I got led away into this world So bad that I sinned a good deal.” The arrival of letters or care packages from home was always cause for celebration and in Wakeman’s letters there was often a request of stamps to keep the communication going. Although many soldiers likely found these conditions unappealing, Lyons made the most of the experience.
March the 29/63
I take my time to write a few lines to you and let you know that I am well. I receive a letter from you today. I was much pleased with it…You mustn't trouble you Self about me. I am contented. I want you to get along the best way you can until this war is over. I believe that God will spare my life to come home once more. Then I will help you to pay you debts. I will send you more or less money while I am a soldier. When I get out of the service I will make money enough to pay all the debts that you owe…
Our regiment don't expect to stay here long. I don't know where we shall go to. Some think that we shall go into a Fort into heavy artillery. For my part I don't care where we go to. I don't fear the rebel bullets nor I don't fear the cannon. I have heard the heavy roar of the cannon. I have to go on guard every other day and drill the day that I am not on guard. I like to drill first rate. We have battalion drill every afternoon at 2 o'clock and drill till 4 o'clock. We load and fire our guns on drill. We fire blank cartridge…
When you think of me think where I am. It would make your hair stand out to be where I have been. How would you like to be in the front rank and have the rear rank load and fire their guns over your shoulder? I have been there my Self.
I am getting fat as a hog.The climate agrees with me first rate. I am the fattest fellow you ever see. Write to me as soon as you get this letter. I send love to you all, this from you Affectionate, Rosetta Wakeman
Despite spending much of his time in camp, Lyons and his fellow soldiers had to be prepared to march whenever they received their orders. An order of “heavy marching” meant soldiers had a few hours before departing camp with all of their gear. A “light marching” order was given on short notice, and soldiers were expected to carry only the bare minimum, such as their musket, ammunition, and a canteen. Soldiers had to march in all kinds of weather, through mud and snow, and even across mountains. Stationed in Virginia by the spring of 1863, Lyons could look forward to marching in heat and humidity.
April the 13, 1863
Dear Father and Mother, Brother and Sister,
It is with pleasure that I Write a few lines to you and you know that I am well at present and I hope these lines will find you all the same.
Our regiment has exchanged guns. We have got enfield Rifle. We have got Marching orders. We expect to March tomorrow at one o’clock. We have got three day rations cook all ready for us. I don’t know where we Shall go. You needn’t write to me until I write to [you] again.
I feel perfectly happy. If I go into a battle I shall be alright. It is what I have wish for a good while…If it is God will for me to be killed here, it is my will to die.
So good-by for this time.
This is from you affectionate,
June the 5th, 1863
I can tell you what made me leave home. It was because I had got tired of stay[ing] in that neighborhood. I knew that I Could help you more to leave home than to stay there with you. So I left. I am not sorry that I left you. I believe that it will be all for the best yet. I believe that God will spare my life to come home once more. When I get out of this war I will come home and see you but I Shall not stay long before I shall be off to take care of my Self. I will help you all I can as long as I live.
If I ever own a farm It will be in Wisconsin. On the Prairie. I [am] enjoying my Self better this summer than I ever did before in this world. I have good Clothing and enough to eat and nothing to do, only to handle my gun and that I can do as well as the rest of them...
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…
As I set here a Write I can hear the Cannon Roar from Fort Lyon. Fort Lyon is on one side of us and Fort Ellsworth on the other side.
In July of 1863, the start of the first military draft in the United States led to five days of rioting and extreme violence in New York City. Due to a shortage of soldiers and manpower for the war, the United States Congress passed a draft law, which made all male citizens between the ages of 20 and 35, as well as all unmarried men between the ages of 35 and 45, subject to military duty. What began as a protest against the draft soon turned into a race riot. Men with money could buy their way out of the draft lottery and service by hiring a substitute or by paying $300 to the government. This amount of money was obviously impossible for the working class and the poor. For some people, $300 represented more than a year’s salary. Since black men were not considered citizens, they were exempt from the draft. Rioters, many of whom were working-class Irish immigrants, blamed African Americans for the war and resented the fact that they were exempt from the draft. As a result, black neighborhoods were attacked, and African Americans were beaten, lynched, and their homes and businesses were destroyed. The riots lasted for five days before they were stopped by the arrival of Union troops, but not before causing significant damage and loss of life. Riots also broke out in other cities, like Boston and Detroit.
Fearing the draft riots would spread, on July 20,1863 the New York 153rd Regiment was sent to Washington to guard the city. The Regiment was assigned to barracks on Capitol Hill, and given the task of guarding the depot of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad. As Lyons and his fellow soldiers patrolled the city, they had a front-row seat to the construction of the Dome on the brand-new U.S. Capitol building. The final addition to the Dome, the Statue of Freedom, was added on December 2, 1863, while Lyons was still in DC. Together with the statue, the dome was 288 feet high. That must have been quite an impressive site to behold for soldiers from rural upstate New York!
August the 5, A.D. 1863
My Dear Father and Mother,
We expect some drafted men to fill up our regiment. They have drafted a good many men in Washington. They have drafted black men as well as White men. They are adrafting every day here now.
It is a very pretty place here. Where our barrack is the road runs all around our Camp grounds. There are some pretty houses here. We are Right in sight of the united states Capitol. It is one hundred feet high from the ground to the top of it and there is men to work on it all of the time. This building is made all of marble stones. I have been inside of it. I have been in the Congress hall. That is a pretty place you better believe…
Write as soon as you get this letter. So good-by for this time, from yours respectful,
Miss Rosetta Wakeman Rosetta Wakeman
While on patrol, Lyons’ regiment also guarded Carroll prison, or the Old Capitol Prison, which housed political prisoners, at least three of whom were women! One was imprisoned for disguising herself as a soldier and even serving as a Major in the Union army. Another prisoner, known as Ida P., was believed to be a Confederate mail carrier. Perhaps the most infamous female prisoner was Belle Boyd. She was well-known for visiting Union camps to gather information, especially by flirting with Union Officers. Belle also served as a courier, for example, delivering vital information about Union troop movements to Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, which helped his troops to capture Front Royal, Virginia in 1862. Boyd was arrested at least six times, and after her stay in Carroll Prison, she was banished to the South. She eventually made her way to England in 1864, where she married a former Union naval officer and wrote her memoirs. About these women, Lyons wrote:
I have just thought of something new to Write to you…
Over to Carroll Prison they have got three women that is Confined in 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 the 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. They are Smart looking women and [have] good education…
October the 13, 1863
Our regiment expect to move before long. Where we Shall go I don't know, nor I don't Care. For my part I hope we Shall go to South Carolina, for there is nothing so lovely as the Southern Sun. When it rises over the virginia hills and Shines into the vales of South Carolina, I then like to be a Soldier. The hotter the Sun Shines, the better I like it in the army…
Capitol Hill Washington, D.C.
December the 28/63
Dear Father and Mother,
I receive you kind and welcome letter today. I am well and tough as a bear this winter…
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. I have enjoyed my self the best since I have been gone away from home than I ever did before in my life. I have had plenty of money to spend and a good time asoldier[ing]. I find just as good friends among Strangers as I do at home…I sometimes think that I will re-enlist for five years and get my eight hundred dollars bounty. I Can do that if I am a mind to. What do you think about that?...
Edwin R. Wakeman or Rosetta Wakeman
Capitol Hill Washington, D.C.
February the 18/64
I write a few lines to you to let you know that I am well. Our regiment is agoing to leave Washington today. We are agoing to texas by the way of new orleans. We are agoing to take the boat at Alexandria.
I bid you all good-by. Don't never expect to see you again.
Edwin R. Wakeman
Lyons’s Regiment traveled south on the Steamship Mississippi. Five men were packed to a bunk for the journey and there was no room to spare. In his next letter home, Lyons wrote that he spent nine days on the water and six days out of sight of land before arriving in the city of Algiers on February 29, 1864. Once there, they slept in an Old Machine Shop and went outdoors to live. While rumors floated around about a battle in Mobile, Alabama, the regiment was preparing for battle up the Red River.
March the 8/64
Dear Father and Mother,
I take my time to write a few lines to you tonight and let you know where I am. I am in Camp Franklin, LA. I am well and enjoy good health and I hope those few lines will find you all the same.
Our regiment has join the first Brigade and first Division and 19 army Corps under the command of major General Banks. We expect to march Soon for Alexandria [Louisiana] and the red river. We expect to have some fighting to do before we get there to the red river. I don’t neve expect to see you again in this world…
The weather is as warm here as it is in N.Y. the first of June. The trees is in full bloom and the grass is quite high….
Edwin R. L. Wakeman
In February of 1864 Lyons was transferred to the field to take part in the Red River Campaign in Louisiana. And on March 15, 1864, Lyons departed with 20,000 soldiers. They marched 180 miles to join two other regiments, and from there they traveled 170 miles northwest up the Red River to seize Shreveport. Ironically, an order was given that, “No woman shall accompany the command except by express authority from these Headquarters given upon written application through the ordinary channels”. Given that women could not be soldiers, this order was meant to include nurses, cooks, and laundresses. While this order did not include soldiers, historians have proven that there were at least two people who passed as male soldiers: Sarah Rosetta Wakeman and Jennie Hodgers, an Irish immigrant born in 1843 who enlisted as Private Albert Cashier in the 95th Illinois Infantry. Cashier’s regiment fought in over 40 engagements, including the siege of Vicksburg, the Battle of Nashville, and the Red River Campaign. He served a full three-year enlistment with his regiment until they were mustered out on August 17, 1865. After the war, Cashier returned to Illinois and continued to live as a man. He also voted in elections at a time when women did not have the right to vote and collected his veteran’s pension. Cashier died on October 10, 1915, and was buried in his full uniform with a tombstone inscribed Albert D.J. Cashier, 95 Illinois.
On March 25, 1864, after a grueling 10 day march of 18 miles a day, Lyons’ regiment finally reached Alexandria, Louisiana.
March the 27/64
Dear Father and Mother,
I take my time to write a few lines to you and let you know that I am well…I have marched 200 miles. We was ten days on the road amarching. We expect to Start for Shreveport tomorrow. Today is Sunday….
With only two days of rest, Lyon’s regiment headed toward Natchitoches, traveling more than 70 miles in six days. They marched through densely forested land in Confederate territory. Can you imagine how long the marching line would span for a regiment of over 20,000 soldiers? While battles with Confederate troops raged on at different parts of the long Federal line, Lyons’ regiment was ordered to guard the wagon train.
On April 9, 1864, Lyons’ division marched eight miles back to Pleasant Hill and waited for the Confederate attack. Lyons' time fighting in the Battle of Pleasant Hill lasted for four hours. The dead and injured were everywhere and the air was filled with smoke from burning wagons. At midnight, after suffering so much loss, they marched back to Grand Ecore Landing arriving on April 11. Three days later, Lyons would write his last letter home.
Grand Ecore Landing, LA
on the Red River
April the 14/64
Dear Mother and Father, Brothers and Sisters,
I take my time to write a few lines to you. I am well and in good spirit and I hope those few lines will find you all the same.
Our army made an advance up the river to pleasant hill about 40 miles. There we had a fight. The first day of the fight our army got whip[ped] and we had to retreat back about ten miles. The next day the fight was renewed and the firing took place about eight o'clock in the morning. There was a heavy Cannonading all day and a Sharp firing of infantry. I was not in the first day's fight but the next day I had to face the enemy bullets with my regiment. I was under fire about four hours and laid on the field of battle all night. There was three wounded in my Co. and one killed…
I feel thankful to God that he spared my life and I pray to him that he will lead me safe through the field of battle and that I may return safe home.
I receive you kind and welcome letter the other day. I was glad to learn that you was agoing to work the Ham farm this summer and milk twenty cows. I would advise you to buy the farm and if you will, I will Come home and help you pay for it, if I live to get out of the army…
I can’t think of anymore to write at present. So good-by from you Affectionate,
Edwin R. Wakeman
On April 21, the army began a forced march of 70 miles back to Alexandria. The conditions were so difficult and the pace so quick that many were unable to continue and some even died on route. On the 23rd they reached Monet’s Bluff and the Cane River crossing where the Confederate army waited on the opposite side. Lyons was forced to lie down in the woods and wait under continuous fire and bombardment from Confederate troops. At one point Lyons even survived charging a Confederate attack. At last engineers were able to build a bridge for the army to cross, and they continued their retreat and marched on.
It was during this time that Lyons became extremely ill. He had survived over 400 miles of marching and fighting with little food to eat and contaminated water from streams to drink. A major cause of death during the war was dysentery from dirty water, and soon even Lyons would tragically perish this way.
On May 3rd, Lyons was admitted to the 153rd Regimental Hospital with chronic diarrhea, and on May 7th his condition was so bad that he was sent to the Marine U.S.A. General Hospital in New Orleans. The trip took an agonizing fifteen days– medical records show that Lyons was not admitted until May 22! The two-week journey over rough terrain took a physical toll on Lyons. When he was checked into the hospital his condition was listed as acute.
Lyons struggled to survive for close to a month, before passing away on June 19, 1864. While we do not know if his secret identity was ever discovered by other soldiers or medical staff, Lyons’ earlier life as Sarah was never reported. Sarah Rosetta Wakeman died as Private Lyons Wakeman at the age of 21. Lyons was buried in Chalmette National Cemetery in New Orleans with a headstone inscribed Lyons Wakeman, New York.
Sarah Rosetta Lyons Wakeman’s experience as a soldier in the Union army was a well-kept secret for more than a hundred years until letters were found by relatives in an attic and made public. And yet, while we have access to the letters we are still left with so many unanswered questions about life as Sarah and as Lyons. Did Lyons' friends in the Regiment know? How did Lyons keep Sarah a secret for so long while living in such close proximity to other soldiers? Did the family keep this secret at home? What would Lyons have done upon return? It is nice to imagine that true to the letters, with the taste of freedom, income and opportunity, Sarah Rosetta Lyons Wakeman would not have returned home to the family farm at all. Instead, perhaps as the letters describe, Lyons would have returned home to pick up the beloved spotted cow and bring it to land purchased in Wisconsin, continuing to live an identity that offered personal rights and freedom. We can only wonder….
This episode was co-written by Kathleen Barker and Dinah Mack. Kathleen is History UnErased’s program director and is a library and information specialist and public historian with 20 years of experience as a museum and library educator. Dinah is our youth equity program director and is a veteran, former, middle school social studies teacher, the author of two books, curriculum writer, and K-12 teaching coach. The primary source letters in this episode were read by Dinah Mack.
This podcast is funded by the New York City Council. It was developed by History UnErased and produced and edited by Dinah Mack, with a little help from Kathleen Barker and me, Deb Fowler.
Our theme music is “1986” by BrothaD via Tribe of Noise.
I’m Deb Fowler. Thanks for listening.
1. Blanton, DeAnne, and Lauren M. Cook. They Fought like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War, chapter
2. Wakeman, Sarah Rosetta, and Lauren M. Cook. An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Wakeman, Alias Private Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers. Pasadena, MD: Minerva Center, 1994. Print.
Library of Congress Songs
1. Gilmore, Patrick Sarsfield, and Boston Airforce Band Of Liberty. When Johnny comes marching home. MENC, 1861. Audio. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/ihas.100010447/
2. Steffe, William, et al. Battle Hymn of the Republic. Department of the Air Force, 1861. Audio. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/ihas.100010421/