Women have served in every war this nation has fought since the Revolutionary War, when Deborah Sampson Gannett took up arms. Ironically, it is only in the 20th and 21st centuries that women have been excluded from the infantry. The number of women who disguised themselves as men to fight on the frontlines in the American Civil War was estimated at about 400. Mary Livermore, a key agent and organizer of the U. S. Sanitary Commission, believed the number to be much higher “then was dreamed of.” There are references in the writings of soldiers to uniformed women found dead in the “heaps of bodies” on the battlefields, newspaper accounts of women attempting to enlist, and many documented accounts in regimental histories and official records of women soldiers discovered after injury or death. Illinois, having raised more troops than most other states, no doubt had its share of women who served their country during the conflict.
One well-documented story is that of Albert D. J. Cashier, an Irish immigrant born in Clogherhead, Ireland, on December 25, 1843. Jennie Hodgers, as he* was known at birth, left that name far behind when he came to America. Unlike many other women who disguised themselves to go to war, Cashier was living as a man prior to his enlistment. He worked as a farm hand, laborer, and a shepherd. Though he often refused to speak of his past or family, later in life Cashier offered a variety of reasons for his choice to live as a man many of which were conflicting. In one account, Cashier said he was given the name Albert by his stepfather and worked with him in a shoe factory in New York. A second story held that he joined the army to follow his lover. And, in yet another account, he told his former sergeant, Charles Ives, that he had a twin brother and that his mother dressed them both in boys’ clothing. Whatever the truth may have been, from a practical stand point, Cashier could earn a better wage and have more opportunities for work as a man. He could also own property, have a bank account, and vote. None of those rights were afforded to Jennie Hodgers, a woman.
With this background, the transition to the life of a soldier was an easy one for Cashier. He was accustomed to hard work and, as an illiterate immigrant, he was used to less-than-ideal standards of living. The medical exam given to prospective recruits at the time was cursory at best. The muster record indicates that Cashier was nineteen years old, with amber hair and blue eyes, and stood 5’3″ tall. Upon mustering into Company G of the Illinois 95th Infantry in the Union Army on August 6, 1862, at Belvidere, Illinois, the regiment was sent to Camp Fuller at Rockford for training.
Cashier saw action in more than forty skirmishes and battles, including the Siege of Vicksburg and the Red River Campaign. The 95th traveled more than 9,500 miles according to its regimental history and was considered a strong fighting unit. Many of his fellow soldiers noted that while Cashier was of small size he was “able to do as much work as anyone in the company.” He was noted for his bravery in battle and was considered an exceptional soldier. During reconnaissance at Vicksburg, Cashier was captured by a Confederate outpost. He escaped by knocking away a pistol from the hand of his guard and out-ran his captors to return to his unit. Cashier and his fellow soldiers endured great hardships at Brice’s Crossroad near Tupelo, Mississippi. His unit had marched quickly to arrive at the scene, enduring the intense heat of June, which had made some soldiers faint from exhaustion. Despite the death of their Colonel Thomas Humphrey and removal of Captain William Stewart from the battlefield, the unit fought on. Eventually they retreated, in chaos and exhaustion. After regrouping, the 95th endured several more difficult encounters with the Confederates before being mustered out in August 1865. Cashier chose to retain his masculine identity after the war.
Cashier proved an able soldier though not an outgoing one. In Robert D. Hannah’s deposition, taken prior to Cashier’s death in 1915, he noted that Cashier was “very quiet in her manner and she was not easy to get acquainted with.” Despite this, his comrades came to his aid after the War on more than one occasion and for a brief period Cashier owned a plant nursery with a fellow soldier. He settled in Saunemin, Illinois, and worked various odd jobs. He later worked as a farmhand for the Chesebro family. The family built a small home for Cashier, frequently hosted him in their home, and provided a burial plot in the family’s cemetery. In 1890, Cashier applied for a soldier’s pension, which he received. Experiencing some difficulty of circumstance and health issues, he requested an increase in benefits in 1899. His application was supported by more than a dozen of his former comrades who signed a letter confirming his status.
Cashier continued to work and from time to time did odd jobs for Illinois State Senator Ira Lish. During one such job, the Senator inadvertently ran over Cashier’s leg with his car. When the Doctor, called in by Lish, set the leg he realized Cashier’s nearly life-long secret. Senator Lish and the doctor agreed to keep the matter quiet, only telling the Chesebro sisters who were enlisted to help care for Cashier. The leg, which was broken, did not heal properly and by the age of 66, Cashier was an invalid. He was placed at the Quincy Soldiers and Sailors home with the assistance of Senator Lish, who made sure his identity as a woman remained a secret. The staff of the home did not reveal the new resident was anything other than an aged male veteran.
As with many elderly people, Cashier’s mental health began to decline. The superintendent of the Soldiers and Sailors home assigned Dr. Leroy Scott, a psychiatrist, to Cashier. Scott spent many years interviewing Cashier about his life and trying to establish his history. By 1913 the physicians at the Soldiers home determined that Cashier was beyond their ability to care for and began proceedings to have Cashier declared insane. In 1914, it was revealed to the public that Cashier was, in fact, a woman. The sensational story made its way to newspapers across the country. When the news reached the Pension Bureau, an investigation was immediately launched. Several depositions were taken with Cashier’s former comrades and many were interviewed. The Pension Bureau determined that Jennie Hodgers and Albert D. J. Cashier were indeed the same person and that no fraud had been perpetrated. Cashier continued to receive his pension benefits.
In March of 1914 Cashier was sent to Watertown State Hospital after the courts concluded that he was insane. Cashier’s comrades visited him often. Some expressed concern and anger over his treatment at the State Hospital and by those reportedly caring for him. One letter remarked that a priest was more interested in Cashier’s money than his person. Upon arrival at the hospital, Cashier was placed in the women’s wing and forced to wear a dress despite his objections. This insensitivity proved to be his undoing. Being unaccustomed to long skirts and dresses, Cashier fell and broke his hip. He died shortly thereafter on October 10, 1915, and was buried in uniform with full military honors. His tombstone, at Sunnyslope Cemetery in Saunemin, Illinois, reads simply Albert D.J. Cashier, Co G, Ill Inf, 1843-1915. Local residents later added a stone honoring both Cashier and Jennie Hodgers. Albert D. J. Cashier remains the only known female soldier to serve a complete tour of duty and to receive a military pension. He endured the horrors and hardships of war like any other soldier. As to why he chose to fight, Cashier remarked “Lots of boys enlisted under the wrong name. So did I. The country needed men, and I wanted excitement.”
* Throughout the article I have used to the masculine pronoun when referring to Cashier to honor his choice to live life as a man, regardless of his biological sex.
Interested in learning more?
Blanton, DeAnne, and Lauren M. Cook.They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War.Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.
Clausius, Gerhard P. “The Little Soldier of the 95th: Albert D.J. Cashier.”Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 51 no. 4 (1958).
Davis, Rodney O. “Private Albert Cashier as Regarded by His/Her Comrades.”Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 72 no. 2 (1989).
Dunn, Margaret “Peggy”.With Hearts of Fire: Women in the Civil War. Springfield: University of Illinois at Springfield, 2005.
Lannon, Mary Catherine. “Albert D. J. Cashier and the Ninety-fifth Illinois Infantry (1844-1915).” Master’s thesis, Illinois State University, 1969.
Tsui, Bonnie.She Went to the Field: Women Soldiers of the Civil War. Guilford, Connecticut: The Globe Pequot Press, 2003.