An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman 153rd Regiment, New York Volunteers, 18621864, edited by Lauren Cook Burgess, Oxford University Press, New York, $9.95.
During the Civil War years of 186165, countless letters were mailed home from the front by soldiers under arms. In the mass of literature produced by soldiers, few compilations are more remarkable than those of Private Lyons Wakeman. These letters, now compiled in a slim book by editor Lauren Cook Burgess, represent the wartime experiences of a dedicated Union soldier. In many ways, Private Wakeman’s tale is quite typical. Yet one key factor sets Wakeman’s story apart from those of other Northern veterans–Lyons Wakeman was actually Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, and her letters represent a rare glimpse of what life was like for a woman in the ranks.
Sarah Wakeman had adopted the clothes and profession of a man prior to mustering into Federal service. In the guise of a man, she was working as a coal handler on a river barge in New York state when the Civil War began. Influenced by her fellow workers, Sarah chose to enlist in the 153rd New York Infantry under the male name of Lyons. Her letters home are filled with joy at being a Union soldier and earning a decent salary. Sarah’s unit accepted her as a good soldier who handled “himself” well.
Lyons Wakeman’s military service ran from September 1862 to June 1864. She spent the bulk of her time in or near Washington, D.C. When finally sent South, Lyons and her unit participated in the ill-fated Red River campaign under the ragged leadership of Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks. During the campaign, Wakeman experienced combat at the Battle of Pleasant Hill, La., and in the subsequent Federal retreat. She felt proud to have held her place in the ranks and to have stood firm in the face of enemy fire. Her letters give the reader a look into the day-to-day life of a Federal soldier living through the grind of drill, march and camp life.
During the Red River fiasco, Wakeman fell ill. Like many other Civil War soldiers, disease, not bullets, struck her down. In May 1864, she was hospitalized with an intestinal disorder. Her earlier letters made frequent mention of a premonition of her own death, which unfortunately came true on June 19, 1864. She died in a hospital in New Orleans and was buried at Chalmette National Cemetery. Her tombstone bears the name Lyons Wakeman–her identity concealed to the very end.
After reading this fascinating collection of letters, one comes away with a deeper understanding of why some women chose to bear arms under assumed names during the Civil War. There can be no true accounting of how many other women followed the same pathway of service, but there were probably hundreds. Sarah Wakeman was in many ways a typical soldier. Yet in fundamental ways she was unique. By choosing to serve her country and thereby sacrificing her life, Sarah Wakeman stands as a prime example of the courage and fortitude typical of the many American women who managed to secretly bear arms during the nation’s worst crisis.
Greg M. Romaneck