Monday, August 15, 2011

An Uncommon Little Book

An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864. Edited by Lauren Cook Burgess, with a Foreword by James M. McPherson.  The Minerva Center, Pasadena, MD, (1994) 210 pages.

Burgess’ book is nominally, as the title suggests, about Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, a farm girl from New York who disguised herself as a man and left home to get a job as a boatman. On her first trip she met up with recruiters for the 153rd NY and joined on the spot. She served for two years, surviving a smallpox outbreak and two battles only to die of dysentery campaigning in Louisiana.

Burgess herself was unmasked during a reenactment at Antietam and barred by the Park Service from further participation. She sued, and won. This book therefore also is about barriers to women’s full participation in public life, including military service; about the lengths some women will go to in order to get around those barriers; and about their lived experience of doing so. It is, therefore, not just about an uncommon soldier but also more generally about an uncommon woman living an uncommon life. And yet Wakeman was not much different than any other soldier: adventurous, proud of her soldiering abilities, fatalistic about the outcome. She could march and shoot and even fistfight just as well as the other soldiers in her company. Her reasons for enlisting were not dissimilar, either—to have clothes, food, and camaraderie, to make money to send home to her family.

She was never detected. We only know about her service because her family preserved her letters. Burgess has lovingly transcribed these, and her light-handed editing lets Wakeman speak for herself. Because Wakeman is the only woman soldier for whom we have such a contemporary record, Wakeman must needs also speak for the hundreds of others we will never know much, if anything, about. Like Wakeman’s life and service, this is a short book. You can read it in a day, but Wakeman’s spirit will stay with you much longer.

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