Although they weren’t officially enlisted at first, women have served in the U.S. Army since 1775. American women tended to the wounded, washed and mended clothing and cooked for male troops. They were also spies and couriers during both the Civil and Revolutionary wars.
The First Woman to Receive a Military Pension Fought in the Revolutionary War
In 1779, after the Battle of Fort Washington, Margaret Corbin (popularly known as “Molly Pitcher”) became the first woman in the U.S. to receive a military pension. When her husband was killed, she stepped up to man the cannon solo and was seriously injured in the process. Congress voted her disability pension to be one-half of a soldier’s pay and one suit of clothes (or the equivalent in cash).
In 1804, the U.S. government also awarded Deborah Sampson a pension. Sampson served 17 months in the army during the American Revolution under the name “Robert Shirtliff”. After she was wounded in 1782, she was honorably discharged at West Point, New York in 1783.
Women Served On the Front Lines in the 1700 and 1800s … In Disguise
Prior to the 20th century, there were restrictions against female enlistment, so many clever women disguised their true identities in order to jump this hurdle. In the late 1700s, Deborah Sampson assumed the identity of “Robert Shurtliff” and served in the Continental Army for more than a year until she was wounded and honorably discharged. This practice occurred well throughout the Civil War and into the turn of the century, when the armed forces began conducting more thorough physical exams, which previously could have been only a strong healthy handshake.
The first recorded African American female enlistee also disguised herself as a man in order to serve. Cathay Williams served in the Civil War under a clever pseudonym: William Cathay. Shortly after enlisting, she was hospitalized for smallpox. She claimed that an Army surgeon discovered her gender while she was under his care, but she returned to serve until 1868, when she was forced to leave due to medical disability.
The First Woman to Receive a Medal of Honor Fought In The Civil War
There has only been one female in U.S. military history who has received the Medal of Honor, the military’s greatest honor, and this occurred in the 1800s, which was not exactly the most progressive of times. Dr. Mary Edwards Walker served as a contract surgeon for the Union Forces and was kept as a POW by the Confederacy. Although she had the award revoked in 1917, the U.S. Armed Forces restored her name to the Medal of Honor Roll in 1977.