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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

On Memorial Day we remember America's veterans. And today we have a story from the tiny town of Saunemin, Illinois. People there are deciding what to do with the house once owned by the town's most celebrated veteran, Jennie Hodgers. She served in the Civil War - one of the hundreds of women who served secretly in the conflict. You see, Jennie Hodgers passed herself off as a man, Albert Cashier.

The pieces of her old house are stored in a warehouse and some townsfolk are trying to put it back together as a monument to Jennie's - to Albert's - life and service. Linda Paul has the story.

(Soundbite of music)

LINDA PAUL: Albert D.J. Cashier was the shortest soldier in the 95th Illinois Infantry. In one of the few existing photographs of Cashier during the war, you can faintly detect the outline of breasts under her uniform. But that's if you're looking for it, and the military apparently was not.

Professor RODNEY DAVIS (Retired, History, Knox College): They didn't conduct physical exams in those days, the way the military does now. What they were looking for was warm bodies - that sufficed in many instances.

PAUL: Rodney Davis is a retired professor of history at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. He taught American history, including the Civil War, and knew all about the exceptional story of Albert Cashier. And in one of those real-life twists that seems too lucky to be true, he discovered that his own great-grandfather was the commanding officer to Albert D.J. Cashier.

Prof. DAVIS: C.W. Ives was her first sergeant - his first sergeant, however you want to do it, his/her first sergeant. So, they got to know each other rather well.

PAUL: Jennie Hodgers masquerading as Albert Cashier marched thousands of miles. She was at the Siege of Vicksburg and the surrender of Mobile. Her regiment took part in more than 40 skirmishes and battles.

Prof. DAVIS: Albert Cashier seems to have been in from the beginning to the end. She stuck it out.

(Soundbite of music)

PAUL: Almost 50 years after the Civil War ended, U.S. Pension Bureau officials discovered that Albert Cashier was actually a woman. They figured they'd uncovered something like what we today call identity theft. So they launched a fraud investigation. It seemed impossible to believe that a frail little woman drawing a veteran's pension could actually have fought throughout the Civil War.

Rodney Davis says his great-grandfather was one of several former comrades who successfully rallied to Jennie's defense. Her status as a Union Army veteran, to them, trumped her identity as a woman.

Prof. DAVIS: She demonstrated that she was as good as they were. She was as brave as they were, as effective a soldier. For her to be a woman was obviously worthy of remark, but it's not anything that seems to have made them turn away from her.

PAUL: After her gender was discovered, Jennie Hodgers told different stories to different people about why she had started her life as a man. Rodney Davis says that on a visit to Jennie Hodgers late in her life, his great-grandfather also asked for an explanation.

Prof. DAVIS: And according to Ives' interview in the Omaha Bee, Cashier replied, lots of boys enlisted under the wrong name, so did I. The country needed men, and I wanted excitement.

PAUL: To get an idea why Jennie Hodgers may have subjected herself to the rigors of war, you need to know a little about the U.S. job market in 1861.

Ms. DEANNE BLANTON (Co-Author, "They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War"): Well, a private in the Union Army made $13 a month, which was easily double what a woman would make as a laundress, or a seamstress or even a maid.

PAUL: Deanne Blanton is co-author of "They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War," and has documented hundreds of women who masqueraded as men during the war. She says many joined for patriotic and economic reasons.

Ms. BLANTON: But once they were in the pants and earning more money and spending their money, they seemed to greatly enjoy the freedom that came with being perceived as a man.

PAUL: Women at the time of the Civil War couldn't vote. They mostly depended on men to survive. In return, they were supposed to devote their time and talents entirely to husbands, children and their extended families. That was the Victorian ideal. An ideal, Blanton says, that was mostly aimed at middle and upper-class women, and they're not the ones who went off to war.

Ms. BLANTON: The women who went to war, who disguised themselves as men and carried a gun, were overwhelmingly working-class women, immigrant women, poor women, urban women and yeoman farm girls.

PAUL: Jennie Hodgers part of this group. She was an immigrant from Clogherhead, Ireland, who couldn't read or write. By the end of the war, she needed to make some tough decisions about her identity. If she stayed Albert Cashier, it was more likely she'd find work, keep the friends she made during the war and be part of a respected community of Civil War veterans.

Ms. BLANTON: She can have a bank account. She can vote in elections - and she did, by the way. Or, if she goes back and puts on a dress and tells everyone that she's Jennie, she has just lost her entire life.

PAUL: Jennie's decision: to continue her life as a man.

(Soundbite of music)

PAUL: A few years after the war, posing as Albert Cashier, she made her way to Saunemin, Illinois. She worked many jobs, including a stint as a farmhand and the town lamplighter. She ended up living in a little house that today sits in a desolate storage building.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JIM SCHULZ: I'm okay.

PAUL: Saunemin is a pretty sleepy place: just a grain elevator, a few other businesses and The Tap — the only restaurant and bar along the main strip of town. Jim Schulz lives on a farm outside of Saunemin. He and his wife, Dina, have heard the talk around town.

Ms. DINA SCHULZ: Some people, I think, are looking toward this that it's going to bring us a certain amount of tourism. And other people, I think, frankly, would rather everybody not know we had a cross-dresser in Saunemin.

Mr. SCHULZ: I wouldn't like to think that's what puts us on the map, but maybe it is.

Ms. CHERYL O'DONNELL: The town was not especially proud of Albert.

PAUL: Cheryl O'Donnell is a church secretary and Albert Cashier proponent. Since the 1960s, a handful of locals have been trying to save the old Cashier house. Over the years, the house has been moved to at least eight or nine spots. For a while it was next to the Saunemin fire station.

Ms. O'DONNELL: They said we're going to burn it for a practice drill, the fire station. They thought that was funny when they told us that, you know.

PAUL: Just as the house was about to go up in smoke, it was saved by Betty Estes, the tourism director of Pontiac, the town just down the road, bringing busloads of people over to Saunemin to view Albert Cashier's grave. And it seems the city board of Saunemin took notice. The village board has some big plans to finally reconstruct the old house and put it close to the spot where Albert used to live.

(Soundbite of music)

PAUL: It's Memorial Day, and Cheryl O'Donnell has brought me to the cemetery where Jennie Hodgers is buried. Because Jennie worked so hard to guard her secret, O'Donnell sometimes feels a little guilty.

Ms. O'DONNELL: I'm wondering if she's somewhere chastising me for bringing her into the spotlight.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: One, ten-hut.

PAUL: Many in town have gathered for a reading of the names - veterans from Saunemin who have served in America's wars.

Unidentified Man: The Civil War: E. Brown, John H. Byrne(ph), Albert D.J. Cashier.

PAUL: It's not Jennie Hodgers' name that's read on Memorial Day because it's Albert the town remembers. And it wasn't Jennie, the doctor sent to an insane asylum at the end of her life, it was Albert's name on the commitment papers.

(Soundbite of song, "The Star Spangled Banner")

PAUL: Here's what happened: late in her life, Jennie Hodgers was still living undetected as Albert Cashier in Saunemin, but at age 67, when she was hit by a car, she was sent to live at a soldiers' and sailors' home for disabled war vets. A couple of people there knew her secret, but remarkably, it was a few years before it slipped out and made it into newspapers around the country. That's when the Pension Bureau launched its fraud investigation.

At about the same time, Cashier had become confused and noisy. Her condition was what today we'd probably call dementia. But back then, as was typical, she was deemed insane and dispatched to an asylum. The identity she had chosen was ignored, or as they may have seen it, corrected. She was placed in the women's ward and forced to wear skirts.

Ms. O'DONNELL: It was so devastating to her that she would take pins and pin the skirt together between the legs to make them look like pants. And when she did that, they were very awkward 'cause they were so baggy, and she fell. And the fall resulted in an infection, and she never ever recovered from the infection. That was the cause of the death.

Unidentified Man #1: Though for seasons they must be people of war, let them live for peace.

PAUL: In the end, Jennie Hodgers did get rid of that dreaded cumbersome skirt. Albert Cashier's comrades made sure that she was buried in her soldier's uniform.

Unidentified Man #1: Amen.

Unidentified Man #2: Fire.

(Soundbite of gunshots)

PAUL: And that she received a proper military funeral.

Unidentified Man #2: Fire.

(Soundbite of gunshots)

(Soundbite of song, "Taps")

PAUL: If things go according to plan in the next year or so, Jennie's secret will be exposed to a larger audience. Visitors will be able to come to her grave site — and to Jennie's old house — to hear all about her remarkable and complicated life.

HANSEN: Jennie's Secret was produced by Linda Paul with help from Jay Allison and the public radio Web site transom.org. To see photos of Albert and his house, visit our Web site npr.org.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

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