Editor's Note: Erin Lindsay McCabe is the author of the novel I Shall Be Near to You, the story of a 19th century woman who disguises herself in men's clothing to enlist in the Civil War and fight side by side with her husband. Erin McCabe has joined us to talk about Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, revealing the facts that informed her beautiful work of fiction.
I first learned of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman during my last quarter of college. The final assignment for my U.S. Women’s History class was to write a research paper using a primary source as a starting point. I went up into the stacks of the college library, hoping to find a diary. Instead, the book An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864 jumped out at me. I had been fascinated by the Civil War as a kid, watching the entire Ken Burns documentary with my parents at age thirteen. But never once had I heard that over 200 documented women had disguised themselves as men and fought in the Civil War. When I saw the cover photograph of a uniformed Rosetta staring back at me, there was no question what my primary source would be.
The first thing that really grabbed me, though, was Rosetta’s feisty personality. I loved her colorful phrasing as she detailed a fist fight with another soldier: “I give him three or four pretty good cracks and he put downstairs with him Self.” Or how she described life as a soldier, sleeping on the ground, using the tent floor as a table, ending with “I like to be a soldier very well.” Writing that she might soon be going “into the field of battle,” she said, “I don’t feel afraid to go. I don’t believe there are any Rebel’s bullet made for me yet. Nor I don’t care if there is. I am independent as a hog on ice.” It was easy to love Rosetta.
But she wasn’t all courage and bravado. Her letters reveal a tender relationship with her family and confusion about her future. She sent tokens home for each of her siblings and money to help her parents. It was clear she loved her family but was at odds with them, writing to her sister Lois, “I forgive you of everything you ever done to me and I want you to do the same.” Later, sending home a photo, presumably of herself in uniform, she asked, “How do you like the looks of my likeness? Do you think I look better than I did when I was to home?” She further baited her parents by telling them, “I sometimes think that I will re-enlist for five years and get my eight hundred dollars bounty. I can do that if I have a mind to. What do you think about that?” For all her brazen talk, it’s hard to imagine, reading those words, that she didn’t at least wish her family would say they were proud of their soldier. And then too, she suffered bouts of homesickness, once writing she planned to come home and help run the farm, another time saying, “it seem like a dream to me to think of home.” But she had other dreams too, the chief one being a place of her own on the Wisconsin prairie (which meant continuing to live as a man, since women couldn’t legally own property then).
I carried Rosetta’s story with me for a decade, wondering how she managed to serve for two years without ever getting caught, what her life at home must have been like, why she felt “aShamed to come [home],” whether she would have gone to Wisconsin had she survived. I wondered what I could do with her story, how I could help ensure that she and the other women like her would not be forgotten. I worried they already had been. Then, one night as I was climbing into bed, I heard that voice I fell in love with in the library -- Rosetta’s voice -- in my head. I sat down and wrote the words: “I know it when I see them.” And that was when I knew what I had to do, too. That line became the first chapter of my novel I Shall Be Near to You.