Women at War


Alexandria, Virginia. -- On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the guns of World War I fell silent. An armistice in 1918 ended the fighting until a final peace treaty could be negotiated months later.

Shirley Millard, an American nurse working near the front lines in France, described in her diary how Armistice Day was announced in the hospital wards:

"Charley [a paralyzed American sergeant] died this morning. I held his hand as he went and could not keep back the tears. Near the end he saw me crying and patted my hand with his two living fingers to comfort me. I cannot describe that boy's sweetness. He took part of my heart with him. Everybody around the place was in tears.

"Just after he went, someone came into the ward and said: 'Armistice! The staff cars have just passed by the gate on their way to Senlis to sign an armistice!'

"What a time and place to come in shouting about an armistice! I said: 'Sh! Sh!' There is no armistice for Charley or for any of the others in that ward."

There was no armistice for Shirley Millard, either. While the rest of the hospital staff celebrated with champagne, she struggled to compose a letter to Charley's mother. "Can't seem to pull myself together," reads her diary.

Americans now celebrate November 11 as Veterans Day. It is a time to remember the Charleys and the Shirleys who bore the wounds of our nation's warfare.

Women are too often overlooked in this remembrance. Yes, enlisted women now play a part in Veterans Day parades, but we forget that American women were significantly involved in combat long before they could officially serve in the armed forces.

Some women actually disguised themselves as men to fight for their country. Deborah Sampson, an indentured servant from Massachusetts, enlisted in the Continental Army in 1781 under the pseudonym Robert Shurtleff. She served for nearly three years and was twice wounded in battle before a doctor discovered her secret. Sampson's husband received a military pension as her "widow" when she died, the only man in the Revolutionary War to do so.

Far more significant in that war were the thousands of women known as "camp followers." They traveled with the revolutionary army, cooking and cleaning for the soldiers -- many of whom were their husbands. These women would run to the trenches under heavy fire so that the soldiers could have food and hot coffee. George Washington himself once asked camp follower Sarah Osborn if she was "not afraid of the cannonballs." She replied: "It would not do for the men to fight and starve, too."

During the Civil War, women also dressed as men to serve in combat. More prominent were the multitudes of women who, like Shirley Millard, witnessed the horrors of combat. Kate Cumming, a Confederate nurse, saw men "mutilated in every imaginable way" after Shiloh -- a battle in which more Americans died than in all previous U.S. wars combined.

These women served as "volunteers," receiving no pay and certainly no recognition as "soldiers." In today's military, they could have enlisted as nurses and earned veterans benefits. But their sacrifice then was no less real and no less deserving of honor.

In America, war has seldom been solely a man's endeavor -- even excluding the multitudes of women who fought on the home front. Rather, women have often been present at or near the front lines, bleeding and being bled upon. And while the vast majority of officially recognized American veterans have been men, it does them no dishonor to say that women took part in their struggle.

Valor is not a virtue limited to the male of the species, nor has it ever been. Today women like Shannon Faulkner -- who fights for her constitutional right to be admitted to the all-male Citadel, a state-supported military college in South Carolina -- seek to take their place alongside Deborah Sampson, Sarah Osborn and Shirley Millard. On Veterans Day, we should remember them all.

Linda R. Monk is the editor of "Ordinary Americans: U.S. History Through the Eyes of Everyday People," which tells the stories of Shirley Millard and almost 200 other Americans.

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