The Uncommon Soldier
U. S. Women’s History 10/19/12 An Uncommon Soldier: Fighting for the “Home” Front Throughout the passage of time, in order to make sense of the world and justify established ideologies, man has put forth disproportionate effort into defining what is deemed by the masses as acceptable and appropriate. With the formation of these social life requirements, it goes without saying there will be outliers who do not fit this man-created construct, either by innate or self-realized characteristics. This social restraint is undoubtedly the source of much emotional turmoil and unrest.
Here is where Sarah Rosetta Wakeman’s story begins. As a white, American woman born in the 1800’s, Wakeman’s scope of “acceptable” life directions was very limited, and much can be said about how she dealt with the obstacles created by the aforementioned social constraints. Wakeman’s decision to leave home, and assume the characteristics of a man, was more out of a sense of familial duty than an outward expression of suppressed sexual identity. In order to better understand Sarah’s motivation one must first analyze her childhood and the environmental factors which molded her.
Born on January 16, 1843, in what would become Afton, New York, to Harvey and Emily Wakeman, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman was the eldest of 9 children, seven of whom were female. To Harvey and Emily’s dismay, Sarah and her two siblings that followed were all female, which was less than to be desired during the era. Sarah was nearly nine years old before Emily was able to give Harvey a son (Burgess, 101). At that time, children were expected to begin helping the parents by contributing as soon as there was work compatible and “appropriate” for their age and gender.
This is how Sarah’s transformation was necessitated. To understand these driving forces in more depth, one must take a look at the role Sarah played in her home life. Sarah’s dad, Harvey, found the easiest way to support his family, as many did during this time, was through agriculture. The amount of work required to be successful in that endeavor during that time period, far exceeded the capabilities of one man. Since they were in the north, the possibility of slave labor was nonexistent, so as was customary of most family farms from the period, Harvey attempted to create an army of his own metaphorical laves, his children. With her innate familial duty and lack of male siblings, Sarah had no choice but to step up. While the letters do not technically say that she played a large role in what would have been considered male gendered labor, Burgess as well as other historians, are left to speculate based upon her communications with her father, “… Rosetta’s high level of interest in her father’s farming, her knowledge of the details of the family farm, and her desire to own her own farm after the war are evidence that she served as her father’s farmhand,” (Burgess, 9).
This knowledge and desire were attributes associated with being male and not seen as traits a woman could or should possess. Working the farm alongside her father had more life-altering implications than can be determined without further dissection. While most professions today are not gendered, farm work is still connotated to be in the male domain, as the work is strenuous and more physically demanding than most. If 150 years later, even after the advent of modern technology, it is still considered to be a gendered role, one can only imagine the psychological toll this upbringing played on her identity (Chambers, 10/19/12).
After years of transitioning between her societal gender role and the gender role made necessary by her family, the delineation became less distinct. The manual labor sculpted Sarah, instilling in her a “man’s” work ethic, as well as diminishing the strength of her more feminine qualities, while amplifying those characteristics associated with the male gender (Chambers, 10/19/12). Her transformation into a man was a process that began there as a child, doing what was necessary to help her family. This established precedent of doing what is necessary sets the stage for her future endeavors.
One major benefit of having a female child, during this period, was that once the girl was of age and could be married off, usually around their early teens, they were no longer the financial burden of the family. “At 19 years of age, Rosetta appeared to have no prospects for marriage, which would have relieved the family of her care,” (Burgess, 9). As the eldest child, with the most responsibility, she understood better than her siblings how her not getting married off was detrimental to the advancement of her family.
By the time she had reached this point in her life, her brother Robert was old enough to start working the land alongside Harvey, filling the void Sarah had been filling her entire life. Around the same time that Sarah began to lose her utility at home, Harvey brought the family into some financial turmoil with a hefty debt. After having filled the role as a major contributor and gaining the sense of fatherly duty in caring for the family, Sarah arrived at an impasse.
In her mind, the family was still financially dependent upon her, yet “… her farm work would have been of limited value in paying her father’s debt, and her work as a domestic could not have paid enough to substantially assist her family,” (Burgess, 9). The ways in which she had previously been aiding her family were no longer sufficient. It was at this point in Sarah’s life that she made the conscious decision to go against the confines of society, which would ultimately lead to both her demise as well as her post-mortem fame.
Her decision to assume the gender role of a man was a thoroughly calculated one, “Rosetta realized that one of the only ways open to finding an honorable position that paid enough for her to assist her indebted family was by dressing and acting the part of a man,” (Burgess, 9). This transition was not the leap it would have been for most women put into her situation, as she had been unknowingly preparing for this her entire life. With her newly realized gender, she would be able to remove her burden from the family, and further benefit them by providing a means to alleviate her father’s debt.
Sarah took on a male role with the purpose of finding a job that paid a man’s salary, for it was only as a man that she would be able to make a significant difference. When she first left home in August of 1862, she began working at a coal barge doing manual labor. Similarly to the work she did with Harvey, the job was very physically taxing and further strengthened her work ethic. If Sarah had set out to become a man with any intention other than to support her family then she would have most likely stayed there where she was earning enough to be self-sufficient.
However her goal was not to become a man, but to do her part for her family. As a result of that, when she was given the opportunity to make a significant difference, at sever personal risk, for her family, she took it. This opportunity presented itself when soldiers from the 153rd Regiment recruited her. “The $152. 00 bounty offered to enlistees in the 153rd was over a year’s wages to even the ‘male’ Rosetta,” (Burgess, 10). Had Sarah not decided to go out and find work as a man, there would have been no chance of her earning that kind of money, especially not all at once.
In addition to the initial lump sum, as a soldier she could guarantee a steady flow of money to her family. In fact she even said, “I am getting 13 dollars per month, I will send part of it home to you,” which shows that she is doing all possible to keep money going to her family. Without the motivation to earn for her family, there would have been no benefits to her enlisting. More proof that Sarah took on the male role to provide for her family appear in her letters.
Many of the letter she sent to her family contained money intended for the family, “When I send you money I want you to lay it out for the family,” (6/5/1863, Burgess, 31). This clearly shows the money she sent back was for the purpose of supporting the family. It also indicates that she was not sending them money for any reason but benefitting the family. She strongly expresses that point by specifically allocating the funds in several of her letters. In modern times, most people who trade gender roles do it for reasons of sexual expression, whereas Sarah was not sexually confused.
This is evidenced most strongly by her relationship with Alfonzo Stewart. Alfonzo Stewart was a ranch hand that worked with Harvey on the farm. Their relationship, if one did truly exist, would have been kept secret as he was 25 years older (Chambers, 10/19/12). This is another contrast, between 19th century and 21st century America, because of the fact that a 25 year age difference today is not unheard of, whereas Sarah and Alfonzo’s relationship would have been prohibited. More evidence suggesting Sarah’s heterosexual nature is presented in her letter home on the 19th of June, 1863.
While this is not the first letter bringing up Alfonzo, it is the first one that emphasizes her emotional investment in him. It is in this letter than she refers to him by a nickname. She writes,“ … let me know all about farming and how long do you intend to keep Fony, (June 19, 1863, Burgess, 32). While this does not directly prove that there was a sexual relationship taking place, it does suggest that there was, at very least, a strong enough closeness to have special names for each other. The pet name is not the extent of the evidence supporting this claim.
In a previous letter, Sarah mentions Alfonzo in a flirting manner stating, “Tell me all about Alfonzo. Tell him that I can make the best soldier than he would,” (June 5, 1863, Burgess, 32). This is a prime example of primitive flirting as Sarah’s intent was to tease Alfonzo, and ensure that she was still in his thoughts. Sarah Rosetta Wakeman is the truest definition of a hero. She did whatever it took, and sacrificed everything to take care of her family. Having no brothers old enough to work the field, Sarah began playing the part of a man by working alongside her father on their farm.
From that time on, her characteristics only developed more to fit the male role. When she turned 19 she was forced to make the biggest decision, her own identity. She chose to leave home, as a man, to find work to support her family. Contrary to the ideologies behind gender-crossing today, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman’s transformation was not to express suppressed sexual identity, but rather to ensure she would be able to provide for her family and continue her role as a parental figure.