Fanny Lee: Girl Soldier in the Civil War

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Letter written by Fanny Lee, Bradford Family Collection

Fanny Lee, whose real name was Fannie E. Chamberlain, was one of the hundreds of women who enlisted to fight in the Civil War. She was 18 when she disguised herself as a boy and joined the 6th Ohio Cavalry alongside her cousin, George. She would have seen action in Virginia during the winter of 1863-1864.

It is unclear how she was discovered, or even her full story. Fanny seemed to be an expert at subterfuge. She told Charlotte and Lucia Bradford, nurses from Duxbury, that she was Fanny Lee, a war widow with no friends. They seemed to believe she was forced to leave the Army once her ruse was discovered. Lucia wrote in her notes, “a young woman taken from the army is sent here by the Provost Marshall.” However,  The Daily Ohio Statesman, a Columbus, OH, newspaper, claimed “she announced herself, disgusted with life as a trooper.” Whether she left of her own accord or was accidentally discovered, she was ill at the time and needed care. Not able to be treated at an all-male Union Army Hospital, she was sent to the United States Sanitary Commission’s Home for Wives and Mothers. It was here she met matron Charlotte Bradford and her sister, Lucia.

Fanny wanted to become a nurse and continue to serve her country, but the US Army wanted nothing more to do with a woman who had so “unsexed herself.” Once well enough to travel, she returned to Ohio. Shortly thereafter, Charlotte received a letter from her former patient. Fanny, with her hair growing out, had traded in her soldiers uniform for good and married John J. Butts in Summit, Ohio on July 28, 1864.

In her letter she wrote, “The soldier girl is now a soldier for life in the Brigade of
Matrimony.”

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Excerpt from Fanny’s (Fannie) Letter

The full transcription follows:

[illegible] Summit Co Ohio
August 20th 1864

Dear Friend

I wrote to you soon after I returned but receiving no answer I came to the conclusion that you had not received it I wrote twice to Mrs. Doresay before I received an answer. I have just received one form her in which she says it is the first time she has heard from me. I am now married to a young man of my acquaintance here I will send you a paper with my…[missing page]

…in the man for whom I procured a discharge is my cousin. I have often thought of you dear friend and of your sister and the many kind friends in Washington. I feel that I am greatly indebted to the Sanitary Commission and the kind people connected with it.

I have lost all my hair and the new has come out to about a inch long it is so very dark so almost as it was colored all the time of my masquerade in soldier attire. The weather is considerable cooler here then in Washington. I am very anxious to hear from you please write all the news I would like to know if any body was there to see me after I went away. Has Mrs. Vassar been there if there is any letters there for me please send them to my present address.

I hope you will write soon and not wait as long as I have it was not my fault for I wrote to you before I wrote six or seven letters and sent them to the Post-Office by a boy and I think now that he never mailed them at all. I am in better health than I was when I left Washington. Give my love to your sister and remember me to all my acquaintances there. Tell Mr. Wood that I never shall forget their kindness, do not forget to remember me to Valentine. I must now close my letter hoping it will find you all well as it leaves me. From you war loving friend.

Fanny E. Butts

P.S. You see that Lee was only an assumed name. You will see by the paper what my real name is.

Yours Truly
Fannie Lee

The soldier girl is now a soldier for life in the Brigade of Matrimony. Do you have as much fun or noise there as when I was there I suppose Mrs. Cornwall was glad to get rid of me.

Fannie

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Charlotte Williams Hemenway: Runaway Slave Aboard the Ship Plato

Carolyn Ravenscroft, Archivist

Except of letter written by Capt. Jonathan Smith to Zilpah Smith, July 29, 1816. DAL.MSS.021

Excerpt of letter written by Capt. Jonathan Smith while in Baltimore to his wife, Zilpah Smith, July 29, 1816. DAL.MSS.021

The story of Charlotte Williams Hemenway, a runaway slave (or indentured servant), captured and jailed in Baltimore, MD in 1816 is one that you have probably not heard.  In fact, if it were not for a brief mention of her tale in a letter written by Captain Jonathan Smith (1780-1843) to his wife, Zilpah Drew Smith, found in the Smith McLaughlin Collection, her story might have been lost. The following is an excerpt from that letter, dated July 29, 1816:

“…I am going to tell you a romantic tale that will rather surprise you as it is founded on facts, I suppose that you recollect the boy that I shipped to go in the Plato after the war, that I told you left me in Baltimore, if you recollect his name was Charles Hemenway, that same person was discovered to be a girl & was put in jail for a runaway where she now is. [1] I have been before a Justice & gave my opinion that she was free, & there is Quaker here that is endeavoring to get her out of jail. She says that her name is Charlotte Williams Hemenway. You may depend that I was not a little surprised to see him metamorphed, he had made one voyage from here to the West Indies. I hope that the poor thing will get clear for she is in a bad [torn page]. It is really funny that I should ship a woman for a man, I will look out better for the time to come…”[2]

Capt. Jonathan Smith House, built 1822. 18 St. George Street, Duxbury, MA

Capt. Jonathan Smith House, built 1822. 18 St. George Street, Duxbury, MA

There is not much to go on in this story to help ascertain Charlotte’s origins or even whether she was black or white. There are clues that could lead to either conclusion. In an earlier letter, written June 15, 1814, Smith mentioned the slaves he saw in Charleston, SC. His opinion of them was not very high. Not knowing the make-up of his crew, I can’t say whether he was more open minded when it came to freedmen as sailors, but had Charles/Charlotte been of African descent, it seems probable that Smith would have mentioned it to his wife. On the other hand, indentured servitude was not as wide-spread in the early 19th century as it had been during the colonial period. If Charlotte were merely a white servant, she would have been able to blend easily into Baltimore – making it far less likely that she would have been caught. It is also curious that a Quaker would trouble themselves with an indentured servant. So, the jury is still out, but my best guess is she was a runaway slave or, according to her, being mistaken for one.

Whatever her heritage and reason for bondage, there is one thing that is perfectly clear, Charlotte Williams Hemenway was a remarkable woman – both clever and brave.  To have disguised herself as a man and shipped out on the Plato, an 87 foot vessel, for weeks without her true sex being revealed is the stuff of adventure stories.

My hope is that this article will find its way onto the computer screen of someone who has more information on Charlotte Hemenway , perhaps a researcher or descendent,  and we will learn the rest of her story.

[1] Plato was a ship built in Duxbury in 1811. The master carpenter was Charles Drew (brother-in-law of Capt. Jonathan Smith). It was owned by Reuben Drew (another brother-in-law), Charles Drew, Jonathan Smith and Joshua Magoon.  It was used as a merchant vessel, making frequent voyages to European markets.  After the Drews sold her, the Plato became a whaling vessel and wrecked in 1842 off of Montauk, NY.

[2] I have transcribed the letter with corrected punctuation and spelling. The original writing can be seen in the photograph accompanying this blog article.