James W Erwin


"Frances Clalin Clayton" (Library of Congress)


  Lecture Flyer, Mrs F L. Clatin (American Antiquarian Society)

                                                                            Who Was Frances Louisa Clayton? 

    In nearly every book mentioning women soldiers in the Civil War one will find two photographs. The first shows a tall, angular soldier, with a long nose and prominent ruddy cheekbones, in nine-button cavalry shell coat, a wide-brimmed hat with the crossed sabers insignia and yellow cord of the Union cavalry, light blue trousers, holding a cavalry saber. The second is a woman with an impossibly narrow waist wearing a dark dress and a white blouse.

   They are the same person – Francis Louisa Clayton.

   Because of these photographs, she is one of the most recognizable women – and certainly the most recognizable woman soldier – of the war.

   One or both photographs have appeared more than twenty-five books, ranging from children’s coloring books to popular histories such as Ken Burns’ Civil War to well-known scholarly works such as Deanne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook’s They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers of the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, her story was repeated in magazines devoted to Civil War history, and in newspaper articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Boston Globe. The Minnesota History Center featured her photographs in a recent exhibition. Her photographs were part of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 2013. One of her photographs illustrates the Civil War Trust’s web page on women soldiers in the war.

   The tale of a young Minnesota woman who disguised herself as a man to join her husband in the military, who fought, chewed tobacco, and cussed like the male soldiers, and who eventually stepped over her husband’s dead body at the Battle of Stones River to charge Confederate lines has beguiled readers since its first telling. With few exceptions, Clayton’s story has been accepted uncritically for more than one hundred and fifty years. Respected historians have recounted her story as fact. It has been the inspiration for plays, feminist histories, and children’s books about strong women aimed at girls and young women. Her success in passing as a soldier in an all-male army has been cited as a reason for permitting women to become members of the modern military’s combat arms.

   But what do we actually know about Frances Louisa Clayton? Where and with what units did she serve? How did she manage to join the army? And what is the story behind the iconic photographs?

   As with many stories handed down from the war, the details vary. But the narrative usually goes like this: Frances Louisa Clayton and her husband (John or Elmer – the accounts differ) lived in Minnesota. For reasons that are unknown, she and her husband traveled to St. Louis to join the Union army in 1861. She enlisted in either a Missouri (or Minnesota) artillery battery or cavalry regiment (or perhaps both at different times) under the name “Jack Williams.” Clayton was a very tall, masculine-looking woman, bronzed by exposure to the weather. She had an erect and soldierly carriage. Clayton learned to drink, chew, smoke (she was said to particularly like cigars) and swear to better pass as a man. She successfully stood guard and picket duty in all kinds of weather, and “was considered a good fighting man.”

   Clayton was credited with fighting in 18 battles, most notably Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and Stones River (also known as the Battle of Murfreesboro). At the latter battle, her husband was killed next to her. It was said that, when the call came to fix bayonets, without hesitation Clayton strode over his body and charged. She was wounded at least once, possibly three times – at Fort Donelson, Shiloh or Stones River or all three. After her husband was killed, Clayton left the army in early 1863, perhaps because her gender was discovered while she was being treated for wounds received at Stones River.

   Everything we know about Frances Louisa Clayton, except for the photographs, comes from newspaper stories. This is not unusual. There were many reports during the war of women serving in the army. Such matters were considered sensational and newspapers of the time thrived on the sensational. And because women intentionally sought to disguise themselves as men using false names, there are few official sources that can confirm the stories found in the newspapers.

   Given the times this should not be surprising. Women’s “place” was not in the army but as the dutiful housewife waiting at home for her man to return from the battlefield where men – because of the weakness of the women – would fight to protect the country. The notion that women would fight in combat units was unthinkable. Indeed, it took the overwhelming numbers of diseased and wounded men to overcome the bias against women even serving as nurses.

   Newspapers of the time were highly partisan. They were a hodge-podge of hard news, official documents, letters from soldiers and politicians, and what today we would call human interest stories. Included in the latter were tales of women like Frances Clayton who joined their husbands to fight the enemy. The stories typically lacked specifics about the woman’s military career because, as Blanton and Cook say, the newspapers “found the story of the faithful wife more appealing than the details of her service.”[1]

   One other caveat: most of the information we have about any of these women – and this is true of Clayton – came from the woman herself. The reporter rarely was able or inclined to seek out confirmation from other sources. Certainly, none came from contemporary official documents or government sources. Moreover, this kind of story fell into the category of “too good to check” for its truth. Thus, the newspaper accounts must be approached cautiously.

   The Louisville Journal of May 21, 1863 reported that an unnamed female soldier who had served twenty-two months in the Union Army sought transportation home to Minnesota. The woman fought at the Battles of Shiloh and Stones River and was “twice wounded severely.” She told the paper that she had “enlisted in the same company as her husband and was with him at the time of his death, which occurred at Murfreesboro.”  The story was picked up by the Nashville Dispatch on May 22, 1863 (a common practice at the time).

   Further details emerged when the woman reached Minnesota. The May 26, 1863 issue of the Saint Paul Daily Press carried an article in its regular column “The City” entitled “A Curious Incident – A St. Paul Girl in Rosecrans’ Army.” The article noted that the young woman moved to St. Paul from elsewhere and married a man named Clayton in 1856. (The story did not give either her or her husband’s first name. They were referred to throughout as Mr. and Mrs. Clayton.)

   The couple moved to St. Louis in 1860. When the war broke out her husband decided to join the army. She wanted to join as well. Mr. Clayton therefore bought her a suit of men’s clothes and a fake mustache and goatee. She told the reporter that the two were mustered into Company A, 13th Missouri Cavalry. She served for 22 months (the same as reported in the Louisville newspaper) and was wounded, apparently twice, at Shiloh and again at Murfreesboro (Stones River). Her husband was killed on the third day at Stones River. It adds the claim that she rode past his body three times before she could pick him up. Afterwards, Mrs. Clayton opted to reveal her deception to authorities voluntarily.

  She was described as 26 years old, “German by birth” but with no accent, not rough or masculine looking, but still with the close-cropped hair she had in the army. Clayton stayed in St. Paul just a few hours before leaving for Saint Anthony, Minnesota (a nearby town).

   The Saint Paul Pioneer added that Clayton was wearing “a man’s shirt with a turn down collar and breast pin,” and she “seemed very much to enjoy the flavor of a fragrant Havana which she was smoking with perfect nonchalance.” She told the reporter that she used the alias “Jack Williams” when she enlisted. And, according to the story, she was a “capital swordsman and an accomplished horse-man.” (The emphasis was in the original article.)[2]

   A third article that was widely reprinted throughout the Midwest originally appeared in the Grand Rapids (Michigan) Eagle in late September or early October 1863. Titled “Eventful History of a Soldier Woman,” it identified her by full name, Frances Louisa Clayton, for the first time. It contains most of the details later recounted by historians and is still the most cited source for the information about Clayton’s service.

   The article says she enlisted along with her husband (his name is not given here either) in an unidentified Minnesota regiment (rather than a Missouri regiment) about two years previously. It offered the claim that “the better to conceal her sex, she learned to drink, chew, smoke, and swear with the best, or worst, of the soldiers. She stood guard, went on picket duty, in rain and storm, and fought on the field with the rest, and was considered a good fighting man.” (It gives no source for these accolades other than, apparently, Clayton herself.)

  Her husband, it says, was killed at Stones River just five paces in front of her, but she charged over his body with the rear rank, attacking the enemy with the bayonet. (This implies they were members of an infantry regiment rather than a cavalry regiment.) Clayton received a wound to her hip. Her gender was discovered when she was treated for the wound. She is said to have been discharged on January 3, 1863. In a fourth article in Fincher’s Trades’ Review on November 21, 1863, Clayton said that she was wounded at Fort Donelson, not at Stones River (or, apparently Shiloh). Furthermore, she denied that her sex was discovered by the army, repeating the claim from the St. Paul article in May that she voluntarily revealed her gender.[3]

   None of these sources mention the iconic photographs, explain their origin or their purpose. The photographs themselves yield a few clues but they are as misleading as they are enlightening.

   There are six known photographs of Clayton. All are carefully posed – four of her in uniform (two standing and two sitting) and two of her in civilian dress (one standing and one sitting). All are carte de visites – a photograph mounted on a card about 2 1/2 inches by 4 inches. Carte de visites were hugely popular during the war. Not only were thousands made of ordinary soldiers, but many were made of famous persons, such as President Lincoln and General Grant, and traded much like baseball cards are today.

   The Library of Congress and the Boston Public Library have originals. One privately owned copy was displayed at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 2013, and one privately held copy was recently advertised for sale on the Internet.

   All have similar markings on the back. The professional quality of the images is evident. They were taken by Samuel B. Masury, a Boston “Photographic Artist.” Masury was an early daguerreotypist and photographer who practiced throughout New England, counting among his specialties the production of carte de visites.

   The Library of Congress website identifies the photographs as being of “Frances Clalin Clayton” who disguised herself as “Jack Williams.” On the back of the photographs are handwritten inscriptions which read: “Frances L Clatin 4 mo heavy artillery co F [or I] 13 mo cavalry 22 months.” Another one reads: “Mrs F L Clayton 4th Mo arty was in the battles of Shiloh and Stones River.” Other copies of the carte de visite have similar inscriptions, although at least one attributes to her three months in the artillery unit and nineteen months in the cavalry regiment, “22 months in all.”

   One writer has asked why the wife of a Minnesota farmer had her photograph taken in Boston.[4] And why would these photographs – remarkable as they are – be found in multiple copies? The answer is that the photographs of Frances Louisa Clayton were not personal mementos of the war so commonly taken of hundreds, if not thousands of soldiers, but part of a commercial venture.

   Clayton embarked on an extensive lecture tour in the northeastern United States in the summer of 1864. She likely had the photographs taken in May or June 1864, for she had them with her when arrived in Albany from Massachusetts in early June on her way to Rochester. From there Clayton traveled to Concord, New Hampshire on July 1 and to Syracuse, New York on July 18. She passed through Providence, Rhode Island in late July on her way to New York. At the end of July, she was in Pittsburgh. She lectured in Montpelier, Vermont in August, in Hartford, Connecticut in August or September or both, then back to Vermont, and finally in Maine in November.



   By early 1865, Clayton was in Boston. The most complete description of the nature of her lectures is found in a flyer announcing that a “Mrs. F. L. Clatin” would appear at The Institute Hall in Boston on February 23, 1865 to give a talk about her experiences in the war and a demonstration of her military prowess. The flyer said she was from Minnesota and served 22 months in the Western army’s cavalry with her husband. She claimed to have been in 18 skirmishes and two hard fought battles during that time. “MRS. CLATIN is no imposter,” the flyer assured its readers, and said that she had her papers with her to calm anyone’s doubts.

   Her lecture began with an appearance in uniform and a sword exercise, and following a musical interlude, her reappearance in woman’s attire. She claimed to have been wounded three times and was “now a cripple.” In addition to the twenty-five cents admission, her “picture will be for sale at the close of the lecture.” These pictures are almost certainly the ones that survive today and are the well-known images found in numerous books about the Civil War.[5]

    Curiously, the flyer spells her last name as “Clatin” rather than “Clayton.” We can only speculate why. It may be a simple, although embarrassing, misspelling of her last name. It might be a phonetic spelling of her last name, although in that case Clayton seems the more logical choice. If her husband was German (as she was reported to be), then Clayton or Clatin could be an Anglicized version of Klatten. (Many soldiers of German origin Anglicized their names on joining the army.)

   The name “Clalin” is even more puzzling. It does not appear in any of the contemporary newspapers. It could be an alternate spelling or misspelling, or simply the result of the scrivener failing to cross the “t” in Clatin.[6]

   The interviews Clayton gave in the summer of 1864 were generally similar to those given in 1863, but they added a few tantalizing details that shed additional light on her possible service and prewar life.

   In a June 4, 1864 given to the Semi-Weekly Chronicle (Lansingburgh, New York), Clayton said that she and her husband were members of the 15th Missouri Cavalry. She said that when her husband joined the army, she procured a uniform and went with him. The company commander – but no one else in the regiment – knew she was a woman. She acted as the captain’s servant to avoid suspicion. The regiment suffered severe casualties at Shiloh. “Men were scarce and she volunteered to do any duty assigned to her.” She left the army after her husband was killed at Stones River. She was wounded three times in that battle herself, in the knee, thigh, and arm. The knee injury her crippled “for life,” leaving her “to hobble through the world like hundreds of wounded males.” Clayton bolstered her story by showing “two daguerreotypes of herself, one in female attire, and the other in that of a volunteer soldier.”[7]

   This is by far the most plausible explanation of how Clayton could have fought in the various battles she claimed to have been in without leaving any documentation of her service. A company commander would be in the thick in the regiment’s firefights, usually only a few steps behind or ahead of its battle line. It would not be unusual for the captain’s servant – man, disguised woman, or (in some cases) African American – to accompany him in battle. There are other documented instances of women accompanying their husbands, sons or lovers disguised as soldiers with the knowledge and acquiescence of the unit’s commander, or simply as camp followers.

   Clayton told the Syracuse Daily Courier and Union on June 18, 1864 that she and her husband served in “Cook’s Corps of Sheridan’s Division.” The reporter must have garbled this quotation because Philip Sheridan was a division commander in Alexander McCook’s Corps at the Battle of Stones River. The story – the newspaper noted – was given credibility by a daguerreotype of her in uniform showing that her appearance was “well calculated to pass her as a ‘brave volunteer.’”[8]    

   A few days later Clayton added some personal prewar details. The Ogdensburg Republican reported that she was born on the ocean to German and Italian parents while they were on their way to America. Her family settled in Beloit, Wisconsin, in the “heart of the Indian wilds.” She learned to ride, shoot, and hunt deer, wolves, and ducks. She married in Minnesota and joined the army with her husband in St. Louis. She displayed the two photographs, one in uniform and the other in civilian clothes, which, along with her frank and unreserved manner, was enough “to convince the most skeptical that her story is true.” [9]

   There is one more piece of evidence which, while not conclusive, suggests that the photographs taken in Boston are of the woman who was the subject of the 1863 and 1864 newspaper stories and tends to confirm the details of the story she told about her early life.

   According to marriage records from Suffolk County, Massachusetts (Boston), on March 30, 1865 a mariner named George Slocum married Frances L. Clayton. It was the second marriage for both. Clayton was thirty years old and her birth place was listed as “at sea.” Her parents were John and Prudence Lunkenheimer. A John Lunkenheimer (born in Germany) lived in Milwaukee and moved to St. Paul in 1852, where he kept a hotel until 1860. (John’s wife is listed as Elizabeth in the 1860 Census.) While the 1860 Census does not show a Frances living with the Lunkenheimer family, that should be no surprise if she married Clayton in 1856.[10]

   There was, however, a Louisa Clayton the Census shows as living with a merchant family in Marquette, Wisconsin. She was twenty-five years old in 1860 and born in Germany. A James Clayton, a twenty-nine-year old farm laborer, lived in the Mackford-Markesan area, about ten miles away.[11]

   It seems nearly certain that the Frances L. Clayton married in Massachusetts was the same woman who was giving lectures and selling photographs of herself in Boston just a month before. Her age and family background fit exactly. Whether she is the same Louisa Clayton who lived in Wisconsin before the war is more speculative, but certainly fits within the general parameters of the stories she told about herself.

   Is there any basis upon which to believe the claims she made during her lectures about serving in the Western armies for 22 months?

   Frances Louisa Clayton claimed to have been in the 13th Missouri Cavalry. There was such a regiment and there was even a John Williams in it, but the regiment was not organized, and he did not enlist in it until September 1864 – long after the events in which she said she participated.

   Some authors say she could have been in the 13th Missouri Infantry Regiment, which was present at Fort Donelson and fought at Shiloh. The regiment lost 18% of its engaged strength in the battle – severe casualties by any measure rendering men to be “scarce.” General William T. Sherman commended the 13th Missouri in his memoirs “for holding their ground under heavy fire, although their cartridge boxes were empty.”[12]

   Thus, it is possible that Clayton and her husband were in this regiment at Shiloh, for the details she gives check with its experience. But the regiment was reorganized as the 22d Ohio Infantry after Shiloh, and was stationed at Trenton, Tennessee (many miles from Murfreesboro) guarding the Mobile and Ohio Railroad during the Battle of Stones River. There is no record of anyone named Clayton, a John Williams, or anyone named Williams being a member of that regiment, although it would not have been unheard of for her and husband to have enlisted under other assumed last names.

   But the notion that Frances Clayton and her husband might have been members of the 13th Missouri Infantry regiment should not be rejected out of hand. There are circumstances that might account for her story, but they are by no means conclusive. Several members of the 13th Missouri were detailed at various times to other Missouri units, mostly to the 1st Missouri Artillery. If she were among these soldiers, it could account for the claim that she served for a time in the artillery. (It is also possible that she and her husband served briefly in an artillery unit before joining the infantry.)

   When the regiment was converted to Ohio infantry, Missouri Governor Hamilton Gamble wrote Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to ask that the Missourians in the regiment (about one-third of its members) be allowed to transfer to existing Missouri regiments or to those that were then forming. The War Department replied that such a transfer was not possible because War Department policy provided that wherever a regiment had troops from more than one state, it was to be considered as belonging to the state with the greatest number of companies.

   However, at least one soldier from the 13th Missouri was transferred to another Missouri infantry regiment. Charles Heinrich was a member of Company A, 13th Missouri. The Compiled Military Service Records for the 15th Missouri Infantry show a “Henry Willhelm,” about whom it says: “For the prior service of this man see the name of Charles Heinrich on records of Co. A, 13. Mo. (Subs. 22 Ohio) Vols.” He joined the 15th Missouri in October 1862. Willhelm was not Frances Clayton or her husband. He remained with the 15th Missouri to the end of the war, was detailed as a sharpshooter, and later promoted to corporal and sergeant. Heinrich mustered out in 1865. He died in 1922 at Edwardsville, Illinois.[13]

   But the 15th Missouri Infantry fought at the Battle of Stones River in Sheridan’s Division as part of McCook’s Corps – as mention in the Syracuse newspaper article. Thus, there was at least one soldier in a Missouri regiment who was probably present at Fort Donelson, Shiloh and Stones River.

   Is it possible that a Jack, Jacob, or John Williams (or Wilhelm) – and perhaps another man with the same last name –  experienced a similar transfer but it was not recorded? Company commanders signed off on the unit’s muster rolls every two months and thus could, as historian Richard Hall suggests, either destroy or omit from the official records any mention of soldiers discovered or known to be women. Whether that happened here, like all efforts to explain Frances Clayton’s military service, lies in the realm of speculation.[14]

   Some authors identify Clayton’s regiment as the 13th Cavalry, Missouri State Militia. There was such a regiment, one of several authorized by an agreement between President Lincoln and Missouri Provisional Governor Hamilton Gamble to fight guerrillas in the state. It never left Missouri, however, serving mostly in mid-Missouri until 1863, when it was consolidated into the 5th Cavalry, Missouri State Militia (Second Organization).

   Others have suggested that Clayton served in a Minnesota regiment – perhaps the Thirteenth Minnesota Cavalry, the 13th Minnesota Militia Cavalry or a Minnesota artillery regiment. Apart from the very explicit identification of her regiment as a Missouri regiment (surely St. Paul papers would have proudly identified a Minnesota regiment if that was her unit), there was no 13th Minnesota Cavalry or 13th Minnesota Militia Cavalry. Was Clayton perhaps in a Minnesota artillery unit? A Minnesota battery (1st Independent Minnesota Battery) was at Shiloh and a different one at Stones River (2d Independent Minnesota Battery). There were no Minnesota troops of any description at Fort Donelson. The 2d Minnesota was not mustered into service until March 1862. It did not fight at Fort Donelson or Shiloh.

   Some authors have identified one of the units in which she was a member as the 4th Missouri Heavy Artillery. Missouri did not have “4th” Artillery Regiment, heavy, light or otherwise. It had two artillery regiments, the 1st and the 2d. Two of the 1st’s batteries, Batteries D and K, fought at both Fort Donelson and Shiloh, but neither battery was at Stones River.

   In short, no single Missouri or Minnesota regiment fits her alleged battle experience of fighting at Donelson, Shiloh, and Stones River.[15]

   Apart from the question of whether her military service can be verified from official records, the photographs of Frances Louisa Clayton are incontrovertible proof that she could pass as a man in uniform if not proof that she did.

   Frances Louisa Clayton’s story does not end with the Civil War. In December 1866 and January 1867, she made several papers again, this time as Mrs. F.L. Sigel. (Whether her real married name was Sigel, or she was merely trying to capitalize on the popularity among German-Americans of General Franz Sigel can’t be verified, although the 1865 marriage record prompts suspicions.) There is no doubt this was the same person who was lecturing in 1864 and 1865. The details of her service are the same she consistently recounted. Clayton was said to be seeking a pension for her military service, but, as the articles observed, women were not supposed to be soldiers and therefore the law did not provide a pension for them. The stories rather presciently asked whether she was not a valuable subject for the study of women’s rights.

   Frances Clayton appears once more in the press. In January 1870, a story in the Meriden (Connecticut) Republican noted the passage through town of a masculine looking woman named F.L. Siegel who sought help from the local post of the Grand Army of the Republic for railroad fare. The paper described her as German by birth, but who spoke good English, six feet tall, with a rough, weather-beaten complexion. The woman, it said, chews tobacco and “swears like a pirate.”

   Clayton (or Siegel) recounted to the paper the same narrative as during the war, with a few added sensational (and possibly apocryphal details). Clayton said that after her military service she was captured by guerrillas for fifteen days, acted as a government detective, and finished by acting as nurse on a ship in Galveston, Texas. Just prior to the Connecticut article being published, she was hauled into a New York City court on a charge of assault. When the judge asked her what weapon she used, she said: “‘nature’s weapon,’ displaying a fist that would fell an ox.” She and her husband were headed to Nashua, New Hampshire, where they expected to receive assistance in moving somewhere out West.[16]

   While Frances Clayton exited the known historical record by 1870, she was not forgotten. In 1897 the prominent suffragette Carrie Chapman Catt edited a pamphlet entitled “The Ballot and the Bullet” which had four essays arguing for women suffrage. One of the essays, “Female Warriors” by D. P. Livermore, recounted the story of Mrs. Frances L. Clayton, concluding that her service justified giving her the vote.[17]

   With the rise of feminist and gender studies, the story of the woman who served 22 months in the army, was wounded, and stepped over her dead husband’s body to charge the enemy has enjoyed renewed popularity. Especially noteworthy are the paired photographs of her in uniform and civilian dress, which appear again and again whenever this subject is covered, dramatically illustrating the feasibility of a woman of that era passing as a man to serve her country. 

   But what can we say about Frances Louisa Clayton with confidence? The person in the photographs is Frances Louisa Clayton; the photographs were taken in Boston, probably in 1864; the photographs were taken to be sold as part of her lecture appearances; and she is the same person about whom the newspaper articles were written in 1863, 1864, 1866, 1867 and 1870. The notations on the back of the photographs are consistent with the claims of her service given in the lecture flyer, and with the details of her service as recorded in numerous newspaper articles each time she was interviewed.

   While the newspaper stories, marriage records and the 1860 census records are not definitive, they are highly suggestive that a woman named Frances Louisa Clayton was born at sea, at least one of her parents was German (probably named Lunkenheimer), she probably lived in Wisconsin and Minnesota before the war, and she traveled extensively throughout the northeast giving talks about being a woman in the army.

   What we do not know and aren’t ever likely to know is whether Frances Louisa Clayton really served in the Union Army with her husband. Even if she enlisted under the name Jack Williams (or some variant), it is impossible to verify from the available records anything about her claimed service. We do know that the units she expressly identified either did not exist or did not exist while she was allegedly in the army. A possible explanation is that she served in two different units – maybe the 13th and 15th Missouri – the first fought in the earlier 1862 battles and the second later that year at Stones River. It is possible that her commanders destroyed any record of her service after her gender was known, or that she accompanied her first husband in the Union Army without ever formally enlisting while using an assumed name. Either possibility could explain the lack of official records evidencing her service.

   If Clayton’s story is apocryphal, does it matter? To historians it should. There are enough verifiable accounts of women serving as soldiers in the Civil War that this one is not necessary to prove that such things happened or to draw whatever conclusion one desires from that fact.

   But the truth or falsity of the account of Clayton’s military service is largely irrelevant today. Despite the doubts surrounding her story, respected scholars, the popular press and others writing about the war continue to accept it as true. The photographs are just too striking and fit too neatly into the overall narrative that women served successfully in combat during the Civil War to ignore.

   Images of other women who served or claimed to have served in combat units just do not have the same power as Clayton's. The best-known photograph of Sarah Emma Edmonds shows her in a man's civilian clothes. The photograph of Jennie Hodgers (Albert Cashier) is grainy and fuzzy. The picture of Loreta Janeta Velazquez in civilian clothes was obviously made several years after the war (probably in conjunction with the publication of her memoir in 1876). Her photograph as Lieutenant Harry Buford looks like looks like an obvious disguise with a fake mustache and goatee. William C. Davis says it was probably taken after the war as well.[18]

   The paired photographs of Frances Louisa Clayton showing the same woman in a military uniform and in a civilian dress are too influential and too ingrained in the historical accounts of the Civil War to be dismissed out of hand by uncertainties about the backstory that goes with them. These images are symbols of the women soldiers who served in the Civil War. Their visual strength cannot be matched by photographs of any other person. Clayton’s tale has become one that too many people want to believe to do anything other than repeat it as fact with the caveat that its details are “vague.”

   And so, whether her story is true or false, verifiable or not, fact or legend, it is likely to continue to be told as if it happened.


[1] Deanne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook, They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers of the Civil War (New York: Random House, 2002), 150.

[2] Saint Paul Daily Press, May 26, 1863. A similar article appeared in the Minnesota Staats-Zeitung, May 30, 1863. Saint Paul Pioneer, May 26, 1863.

[3] The traditional account of Clayton’s service is found in Deanne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook, 10-11, 34, 48, 52, 55, 58, 75, 149-150.

[4] Mike Pride, “The Unbelievable Life of Frances Clayton,” Concord Monitor (Concord, N.H.), February 21, 2016, at www.concordmonitor.com/Archive/2016/02/pride-cmforum-022116 (accessed October 24, 2017).

[5] Lecture Flyer, Mrs. F.L. Clatin, Ephemera Invitation 0520, Record ID 379397, American Antiquarian Society, [February 23, 1865]. I am indebted to Anita Silvey’s middle-grade history, I’ll Pass for Your Comrade (New York: Clarion Books, 2008), 90, which is the only book that reproduces a copy of the flyer and provided the clue that led to this article.

[6] Historian Richard H. Hall not only declares Frances Louisa Clayton a fraud, but also asserts that she is not the same person as Frances L. Clalin, which is usually regarded as an alternate spelling of the name of the person appearing in the photographs. Richard H. Hall, Women on the Civil War Battlefront (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2006), 161-166. His conclusion is probably not correct. Most importantly, the details of their claimed service are identical, and Clayton was lecturing about her experiences in the East at the time the photographs were likely taken. That can hardly be a coincidence. Thus, the evidence strongly supports the identification of the person in the photographs as Frances Clayton.

[7] Semi-Weekly Chronicle (Lansingburgh, N.Y.), June 4, 1864.

[8] Syracuse Daily Courier and Union, June 18, 1864.

[9] The Republican (Ogdensburg, N.Y.), June 28, 1864.

[10] Massachusetts Vital Records, 1620-1915, Boston Marriages, 1849-1865, vol. 182, pp. 59-60, available at Fold3.com.

[11] Eighth Decennial United States Census, Wisconsin, Green Lake County, 231, 142.

[12] D. W. Reed, The Battle of Shiloh and the Organizations Engaged (Washington: Government Printing Office, rev. ed. 1913), 91; William Tecumseh Sherman, Memoirs of General W. T. Sherman (New York: Library of America ed., 1990), 260.

[13] Henry (Charles) Willhelm (Charles Heinrich), Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served in Organizations from the State of Missouri, Record Group 94, M405, roll 508; Charles H. Wilhelm (a/k/a Charles Heinrich), Organization Index to Pension Files of Veterans Who Served Between 1861 and 1900, Record Group 15, Publication T289, available at Fold3.com.

[14] Interestingly, there was a “John Williams” who enlisted in Company H, 17th Missouri Infantry in October 1861. Williams was discharged a few days later because the soldier “Proved to be a Woman.” Coincidentally, Sergeant John Clay – previously in the 3d United States Reserve Corps Infantry since June 1861 – joined Company H, 17th Missouri Infantry in September 1861. Clay was killed or mortally wounded on May 19, 1863, at Gray’s Farm near Searcy, Arkansas (northeast of Little Rock). His widow, Tekla, received a pension. There was no other Williams, Clayton, or persons with similar names in the regiment. John Williams, Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served in Organizations from the State of Missouri, Record Group 94, M405, roll 515, National Archives and Records Administration; John Clay, Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Dependents of Civil War Veterans Who Served Between 1861 and 1910, RG 15, WC 13198, National Archives and Records Administration, available at Fold3.com

[15] Only the 31st and 44th Indiana fought in all three battles. No one named Williams or Clayton in the Indiana regiments had the service record claimed by Clayton for herself and her husband. Report of the Adjutant General of Indiana, Vol. V, 1861-1865 (Indianapolis, Samuel M. Douglas, State Printer, 1866)(available at archives.org). Another candidate for Clayton’s regiment, the 15th Illinois, was created by a consolidation of several independent companies. Two of the companies fought at Donelson and Shiloh; one fought at Stones River. None of them fought at all three battles. Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Illinois, Vol. 8, pt. 2 (Springfield, IL: Phillips Bros State Printers, 1900)(available at archives.org). No source has ever connected Clayton to an Indiana or Illinois unit.

[16] Daily Ohio Statesman (Columbus, OH), December 31, 1866; Semi-Weekly Wisconsin (Milwaukee, WI), January 12, 1867; Ft. Wayne Daily Gazette (Ft. Wayne, IN), January 14, 1870.

[17] Carrie Chapman Catt (ed.), The Ballot and the Bullet (New York: Press of Alfred J. Ferriss, 1897), 25-26. I am indebted to the Mike Pride article, cited above, for pointing me to this publication.

[18] William C. Davis, Inventing Loreta Velasquez: Confederate Soldier Impersonator, Media Celebrity, and Con Artist (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2016). Davis conclusively debunks Velasquez’s claim of fighting in various battles disguised as a man.