One subject that is seldom discussed is the role that women had during the Civil War, including those few cases where a woman would enlist as a man. During my research of the Battle of South Mountain that occurred on September 14th, 1862, I have come across five women soldiers that were disguised as men. Adding to that there were a few other women, although not engaged at South Mountain, who would fight at Antietam. According to the book “They Fought Like Demons” by Deanne Blanton and Lauren Cook, there were a total of eight known cases of women soldiers at Antietam.
Mary Galloway joined up with the rear of the Army of the Potomac just days before Antietam and would be later cared for by Clara Barton when a bullet struck her neck. Another woman who traveled through South Mountain was Sarah Edmonds, acting as a currier. Sarah Edmonds wrote the book “Nurse and Spy in the Union Army” which was published in 1865, and it focused on her adventures in the army and describe the Maryland Campaign simply as “The brilliant and triumphant victories at South Mountain and Antietam, which more than counterbalanced the disastrous campaign of Pope, and which sent a thrill of joy throughout the North.” If Elvira Ibecker, known as Charles Fuller of Company D of the 46th Pennsylvania wasn’t discovered a month after enlistment in 1861 she might have fought at South Mountain.
So who were the women that fought at South Mountain? Well, I was able to find the names of five women who are confirmed to have been combatants during the “Bloody Prelude” to Antietam. The Battle of South Mountain nowadays has been summed up by three mountain gaps, even though there were five gaps that were fought over. You have Brownsville and Crampton’s Gaps to the south near Harper’s Ferry, and Fox’s Gap, Turner’s Gap and Frostown Gaps to the north. All five mountain gaps cover a ridge stretching about 10 miles.
The Battle of South Mountain erupted during the morning when Union forces of Colonel Eliakim Scammon’s 1st Brigade attacked a brigade of Confederate infantry under the command of General Samuel Garland at Fox’s Gap. After a few hours of hard fighting, some of which was hand to hand, a portion of General George Crook’s 2nd Brigade arrived with the 30th Ohio, making the advance in Wise’s Southfield. Held in reserve was that of the 28th Ohio which would later fight against Drayton’s Brigade.
In the 28th Ohio was Catherine Davidson who was disguised as a man. The 28th Ohio was positioned behind the 30th Ohio in southeast corner of Wise’s Southfield. As Drayton’s men positioned themselves, members of the 30th and the 28th Ohio would face off with portions of the 15th South Carolina during the late afternoon in what would be the total destruction of Drayton’s Brigade. Catherine survived the Battle of South Mountain only to be wounded three days later at Antietam.
Several resources state that Ida Remington fought at South Mountain. Apparently South Mountain was Ida Remington’s first major battle of the Civil War and she later fought at Antietam. Ida spent most of her career as a soldier serving as an officer’s servant until September of 1863, when she was detected as a female and was jailed.
During the afternoon hours of September 14th, General Joseph Hooker’s First Corps took Mount Tabor Road at the base of South Mountain, at Bolivar, side stepping Turner’s Gap. During Hooker’s march north toward Frostown, General John Gibbon’s Brigade was ordered back to Bolivar. At Bolivar, Gibbon’s men were to attack Confederate positions at Turner’s Gap. Confederate Colonel Alfred Colquitt had his brigade of Alabamians and Georgians positioned at the base of South Mountain.
As Gibbon’s (Iron) Brigade marched westward through the fields along the National Pike, they were hit with shells from Cutt’s Artillery Battalion that was positioned on the heights north of Turner’s Gap. Rebecca Peterman was serving in the 7th Wisconsin Infantry during the Battle of South Mountain. The 7th Wisconsin Infantry formed a line of battle on the north side of the National Road. Their skirmishers were thrown out and then a fight quickly ensued. After a heavy skirmish, the 7th Wisconsin Infantry reformed their line of battle with their left flank touching the National Road and their right touching the wood line. The fight was brutal, but the Iron Brigade never broke through the main Confederate battle line, as Colquitt’s men held their position behind a stonewall.
Rebecca Peterman’s role during the Battle of South Mountain is unknown. Besides being a drummer boy, she is credited as having participated in the Battle of Antietam. So who is Rebecca Peterman? Rebecca “Georgianna” Peterman enlisted in the 7th Wisconsin Infantry in the fall of 1862, at the age of sixteen. Once, when asked why she enlisted, she stated that she wanted to see what war was really about. She enlisted for two reasons. The first was because she wanted to be near her brother and cousin. Her cousin is credited with having given Rebecca the idea of enlisting. It took about two weeks for her own brother to realize that she was in uniform. Rebecca was known to be an adventurous country girl who lived in Ellenboro, Wisconsin and the sound of war was exciting to her, thus creating her second reason. Even after her brother died in late 1862, she stayed in the ranks for another two years.
So how did Rebecca manage to keep from being detected? She had a small, boyish, build, with some masculine features. From a distance she could pass as a young boy of sixteen. Some resources even stated she was better looking as a soldier than a young girl. Rebecca not only participated in battles and camped with her company, she also scouted and picketed. During battle she was known to be one of the most gallant soldiers and Frances Clayton who served with Peterman even stated “she was a good fellow.” Rebecca was eventually wounded above the temple but survived.
Though there is a discrepancy with service records, Elizabeth Niles also passed through South Mountain in some capacity. Some records state that Elizabeth served with the 4th New Jersey Infantry, which fought at Crampton’s Gap. While other records show that she fought alongside her husband Martin, who served with the 14th Vermont Infantry. Most resources state that Elizabeth and Martin Niles were on their honeymoon when the war broke out. Elizabeth cut her hair and served beside her husband in 1862 through the war. The records for her husband point in the direction that both served in the 14th Vermont, which means that she would have come through South Mountain during the Army of the Potomac’s pursuit Lee’s army in July of 1863.
Another name that appears to have marched through South Mountain during the Maryland Campaign is that of Nellie K., who served with the 102nd New York Infantry, part of General Mansfield’s Twelve Corps.
Although not a common topic among Civil War buffs, the fact of the matter is that one can not deny that female soldiers came through South Mountain and in some cases fought at South Mountain. Research is on-going to find more names to add to those who fought at South Mountain that are women. As I find those names, this blog posting will be updated. Unfortunately, the armies kept no “official” records of women in the ranks, so this makes researching the topic very slow. Nevertheless, these women risked certain punishment if they were found in the ranks from both the army as well as the community in which they came from, and they deserve to be recognized for their service to their country.