Dude Looks Like A Lady, And Other Civil War Tales

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Civil war document

This broadside from the Civil War advertises service in the Navy as a way to avoid the draft. Among the perks offered is "$1.50 extra per month to all, Grog Money." The document is on display at a new National Archives exhibit, Discovering the Civil War. National Archives hide caption

itoggle caption National Archives

During the Civil War, a soldier named Frank Thompson served two years in Michigan's volunteer infantry. After he deserted for medical reasons, it came to light that Thompson wasn't exactly who he said he was.

For starters, he was actually a woman named Sarah Emma Edmonds Seelye. Her story is one of many on display in a new exhibit at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Instead of focusing on the big battles, Discovering the Civil War highlights individual stories told through documents in the National Archives' collection.

"Sarah Seelye basically described why she wanted to do this as having a high spirit of adventure," says Bruce Bustard, senior curator at the Archives.

Seelye's story is told through a transcript of a deposition from her Army bunkmate, who said, "I never knew she was a woman."

Other documents reveal equally fascinating pieces of Civil War history — including a raid on Vermont during which Confederates robbed three banks before fleeing across the Canadian border.

Another document on display is a list of "substitutes" — men who fought in the place of others.

"You could hire a substitute if you were drafted — and the going rate went from about $200 to $275," Bustard says.

The exhibit runs in two parts; part one is on display through Sept. 6.

GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

During the Civil War, a soldier named Frank Thompson served in Michigan's volunteer infantry, and after two years fighting for the Union, it came to light that Thompson wasn't exactly who he said he was. For starters, he was a woman named Sarah Seelye.

His story, or rather her story, is one of dozens the National Archives here in Washington calls the undiscovered Civil War, and a new exhibit at the museum tells those stories.

Bruce Bustard is a senior curator at the Archives. He's here in the studio with me along with reproductions from the exhibit.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. BRUCE BUSTARD (Senior Curator, National Archives): Glad to be here.

RAZ: Tell me first about this woman, Sarah Seelye, why would she pass herself off as a man to fight in the war?

Mr. BUSTARD: Sarah Seelye basically described why she wanted to do this as having a high spirit of adventure, and she had actually previously disguised herself as a man, as a traveling Bible salesperson, and had gone around the country and had been quite successful at it.

RAZ: Now after two years of serving, she was eligible, or he but she, was eligible for a pension. Initially, she was denied a pension, and you have a copy of that document with you here.

Mr. BUSTARD: Yes, she was denied a pension, and as part of that pension application, she got the statements of some of her comrades in arms, and one of the documents we have on display is this man's deposition, describing that he was her bunkmate in the Army.

RAZ: And what does he say about her?

Mr. BUSTARD: He says: She, or he as then known, was my bunkmate considerable of the time, but I never knew that she was a woman.

RAZ: You have some documents that detail a raid, a confederate raid on the state of Vermont that happens towards the end of the war. What's the story behind that?

Mr. BUSTARD: Twenty-one cavalrymen came across the border from Canada, and they come into St. Albans, rob three banks. They kill one person. They try to set the town on fire, but the chemicals that they had to set the town on fire didn't work very well. So they leave town. A posse pursues them, and they make it across the Canadian border, where the posse, the American posse, captures them.

RAZ: And you have a telegram there. This was a telegram that was sent by the governor of Vermont to a senior military official saying there's been a terror attack on the state of Vermont.

Mr. BUSTARD: He writes: Rebels from Canada have invaded the state, robbed all the banks at St. Albans, killed several citizens and are at work destroying property.

RAZ: I was amazed to learn about, and I guess I'm sure Civil War scholars and even sort of the Civil War buffs know about this, but you could actually pay somebody to serve on your behalf. And this took place on both sides to the point where President Lincoln even hired a substitute to serve in his name. What was that system about?

Mr. BUSTARD: You could hire a substitute if you were drafted, and the going rate went from about $200 to about $275.

RAZ: And you could avoid service that way.

Mr. BUSTARD: And you could avoid service. Now, President Lincoln paid for a man that has come down in history as Lincoln's substitute, but in fact, he was a part of a program where prominent individuals could contribute to the war effort by finding a man who was willing to go into service for that person.

And Lincoln did this. The man's name was John Staples, and I wish I could tell you that he had a heroic military career, but unfortunately, he just served in the defenses of Washington until the end of the war.

RAZ: That's Bruce Bustard. He is a senior curator at the National Archives. You can catch the exhibit Discovering the Civil War at the Archives through the end of the summer.

Bruce Bustard, thanks so much for coming in.

Mr. BUSTARD: Thank you for having me.

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