Wednesday, July 1, 2015

They Fought in the Mexican War, too!

Even though my blog centers around women who fought during the Civil War, I have occasionally strayed from this focus to highlight women combatants of other conflicts.  See my previous post about female fighters in the American Revolution (HERE)  and, more recently, the women of Waterloo (HERE).  In this post, I am going to discuss the women soldiers who fought in the Mexican War, 1846-1848.

Signed frontpiece of Allen's memoirs; New York Public Library
Eliza Allen Billings wrote about her experiences as "George Mead" in her 1851 autobiography, The Female Volunteer:  Or the Life and Wonderful Adventures of Miss Eliza Allen, A Young Lady of Eastport, Maine.  Eliza fell in love with William Billings who worked for her father, George Allen.  Since the Billings family was poor, he did not approve of the romance and forbade the couple to see each other.  Thinking military service would gain him respect, William enlisted to fight in the Mexican War.  Eliza soon followed him disguised as "George Mead."  Her adventures as a soldier took her to the battlefields of Monterey and  Cerro Gordo where she was wounded but remained undiscovered.  Both mustered out and their adventures continued in the gold fields of California.  Later, Eliza saved William from a shipwreck.  In 1849, both returned to Eastport, Maine having achieved some success in prospecting.  Eliza's parents, relieved to be reunited with their daughter, finally allowed her to marry William.

Some historians believe Allen's memoirs to be mere fiction, the purpose instead " entertain audiences and teach moral lessons."  (Allen had issued a warning in her book to parents who would control who their daughters could or could not love.)   Her existence has yet to be proven.  (Michael R. Hall in The Encyclopedia of the Mexican-American War:  A Political, Social, and Military History, p. 66).

Dorothy Sloan, who deals with rare books, also echoed the beliefs of Eliza's accounts as fiction.  As an aside, Sloan sold a first edition of Allen's memoirs for over $1000 in 2008.   Click (HERE) for more. 

I performed a very cursory search of census records and found a William B. Billings of Eastport, Maine who was married on September 4th, 1848.  But the spouse listed was Francis E. Richardson.  I couldn't find any Mexican War service records for either Billings or "George Mead."  Research continues.

While Eliza Allen's existence is questionable, Elizabeth Caroline Newcom Smith is not.  She enlisted 
From Fold3
at Fort Leavenworth in Co. D, Missouri Mounted Volunteers on September 16th, 1847 at the age of 22.  Newcom's unit was raised to help defend the Santa Fe trail from Indian attacks.  Patriotism appeared to be her motivation to serve.  However, there may have been another factor.  First Lieutenant Amandus Schnabel apparently engaged in a love affair with Newcom and enticed her to enlist as "Bill Newcom."  The relationship resulted in pregnancy while at Fort Mann and the end of Elizabeth's service as well as Schnabel's. He was court martialed in January 1848, for "...defrauding the United States of the service of a good and competent soldier...." and dismissed  (Thomas L. Karnes, "Gilpin's Volunteers on the Santa Fe Trail," Kansas Historical Quarterly, Vol. 30, Spring 1964, No. 1, p. 5).

Schnabel had urged her to desert, but it is not clear whether she did so.  Some historians believe she did leave the unit but returned.  It would seem that Newcom's service continued after initial discovery since some documents list her discharge after Schnabel's court martial.   According to the Evansville Weekly Journal from January 14th, 1848, she was discharged November 28th, 1847.  However, the discharge was "...irregular, and that some difficulty might grow out of it."  Therefore, Lieutenant O'Hara was ordered to locate and return her to Fort Mann in Kansas.   Upon her arrival, she informed officials of her enlistment, which resulted in the arrest of the Schnabel brothers for "...making a false muster roll, without a surgeon's examination."  Meanwhile, Newcom remained at the fort and continued to dress in her uniform.   The article also mentions that a German newspaper printed a letter purportedly written by Schnabel to Newcom.  However, it never reached her and a corporal in Co. E was arrested for attempting to deliver it.   The newspaper writer concludes by posing a question to readers, "Can this be taken as a fair sample of the state of morals in this branch of our army?"  However, there was no mention of Newcom being pregnant, which isn't surprising given the mores of the times.

After the war, Newcom married someone other than Schnabel and in 1853, filed a claim in Platte County, Missouri for 160 acres of bounty land and back pay.  In a petition to Congress, she claimed that she "...enlisted from the best of motives, that of serving her country" and that she "....served her Government faithfully and honestly..."  It was in this petition where it was noted that her discharge was in May 1848, while her service records indicate she was sent to Fort Leavenworth on May 14th  and discharged on October 1st, 1848:  "discovered to be a disguised woman." The discrepancy in the various dates is puzzling.  However, a fellow soldier, George W. Graham, substantiated Newcom's claims in a sworn affidavit.   In February 1854, a report was issued to the Committee on Military Affairs detailing her petition which claimed her services were " useful to the government as if she had been a man, and regularly enlisted as such." Congress agreed and passed the bill granting her land and back pay.  President Franklin Pierce then signed it.  (Brad D. Lookingbill, Congressional Series of United States Public Documents, Vol. 706 and American Military History:  A Documentary Reader, p. 128-131)

An anonymous woman's account was a lot less detailed as Newcom's.  All that is reported of her is that she had a "frail constitution, and forsook the company of all other men besides her brother."  A physical examination by a surgeon revealed her secret, and she was sent home.  (Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park)

On the other side was a woman known as Dos Amades, the daughter of a former governor of Nueva Leon.  Commanding a company of lancers while in uniform, she led a deadly charge at Monterrey worthy of praise from her foes.  "There's an example of heroism worthy (of) the old days!" noted Captain William Seaton Henry. She survived the war and returned to her family.  (Robert W. Johannsen, To the Halls of Montezuma:  The Mexican War in the American  Imagination, p. 137; Times-Picyaune, December 11th, 1846; Carolina Watchman December 11th, 1846)

For more details on these women, more sources, and information on a woman serving in an Indiana unit, click (HERE) and (HERE).   Thanks to Ann Marie Ackermann for sharing her research!  She has a great blog that contains a lot of fascinating topics, mostly focusing on true crime.

Until next

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