Jennie's Secret: A Soldier's Story | WBEZ
Skip to main content


Jennie's Secret: A Soldier's Story

For decades the tiny town of Saunemin, in central Illinois, has been trying to decide if it should restore the house of one of its most celebrated veterans. Hundreds of women posed as men and fought during the Civil War. Some were killed, and many were discovered. But Jennie Hodgers, who passed herself off as Albert Cashier, may have served longer than any other woman soldier. Hodger's story is a point of pride for some in Saunemin, and consternation for others.

Albert D.J. Cashier was the shortest soldier in the 95th Illinois Infantry. In one of the few existing photographs of Cashier during the war, you can faintly detect the outline of breasts under her uniform. But that's if you're looking for it. And the military apparently was not:

DAVIS: Uh, they didn't conduct physical exams in those days the way the military does now. What they were looking for was warm bodies,  people who could stand up straight who obviously could see and could hear and hopefully could speak English so they could follow orders. Rodney Davis is a retired professor of history at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. He taught American history, including the Civil War, and knows all about the exceptional story of Albert Cashier. And in one of those real life twists, that seems too lucky to be true, years ago Davis found some papers in an old family trunk that belonged to his great grandfather, CW Ives. To his astonishment he discovered that his own great grandfather was the commanding officer to Albert DJ Cashier.

DAVIS: CW Ives was her first sergeant.. His first sergeanhowt, ever you wanna do it...His/her first sergeant…And they were together for at least two years. So, uh, they got to know each other rather well.

Jennie Hodgers, masquerading as Albert Cashier, marched thousands of miles. She was at the Siege of Vicksburg and surrender of Mobile. Her regiment took part in more than 40 skirmishes and battles. Hundreds of her fellow soldiers died from wounds and disease but…

DAVIS: Albert Cashier seems to have been in from the beginning to the end. She uh, she stuck it out. Commander CW Ives once described Albert Cashier as quote a fearless boy. But there's evidence that during the war, at least one fellow soldier had problems with Cashier.


CRAWFORD: Hi, how are you? Come in PAUL: Hi. Wow! (laughter) That's Frank Crawford. He has a Civil War collection of museum quality, here at his house.

CRAWFORD: These are all original Civil War muskets that were used at the time. That's a Spencer rifle. Crawford's on the Board of Directors of Illinois' Boone County Historical Society. He has almost 200 letters that a Samuel Pepper wrote home to his wife during the Civil War. For awhile, Pepper was a tent-mate of Cashier's and they ran an informal laundering service for other soldiers. Here's Frank Crawford reading from one of Peppers' letters:

CRAWFORD: We got along with the washing very well as he is a good washer woman..

Later in that letter, Pepper talks of Albert Cashier becoming outraged when Pepper didn't collect all the debts they were owed. And he complains to his wife that Cashier or "Chub,' as he calls him, uses vulgar language -- and selfishly squeezes to the middle spot of the tent on cold nights.

CRAWFORD: Chub would squeeze in between me and Lyman, never taking his turn on the outside. He and Lyman were soon at swords point with each other, but a word by me would soon drop the angry talk.

Almost 50 years after the Civil War ended, U.S. Pension Bureau officials discovered that Albert Cashier was actually a woman, and they launched a fraud investigation. It seemed impossible to believe that a frail, little woman drawing a veteran's pension could actually have fought throughout the civil war. Rodney Davis, the retired professor, says his great-grandfather was one of several former comrades who successfully rallied to Jenny's defense. Her status as a Union army veteran, to them, trumped her identity as a woman.

DAVIS: Their regard for her, I think, was not going to be altered a bit by the fact that it was discovered that she was play-acting. She demonstrated that she was as good as they were. She was as brave as they were, as effective a soldier. And they remembered that. After her gender was discovered, Jennie Hodgers told different stories to different people about why she had started her life as a man. For instance, she said she had come to the United States from Ireland as a stowaway and had to dress as a cabin boy on the ship. She told another person that she posed as a man so that she could follow her lover into the war. Rodney Davis says that on a visit to Jennie Hodgers late in her life, his great-grandfather also asked for an explanation.

DAVIS: And according to Ive's interview in the Omaha Bee, Cashier replied: 'Lots of boys enlisted under the wrong name. So did I. The country needed men and I wanted excitement. I worked on an Illinois farm as a man the year before the war. I wasn't discovered. I thought I'd try my luck in the service.'

To get an idea why Jennie Hodgers may have subjected herself to the rigors of war, you need to know a little about the U.S. job market in 1861.

BLANTON: Well, a private in the Union Army made $13 a month, which was easily double what a woman would make as a laundress, or a seamstress, or even a maid. Deanne Blanton is co-author of They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War. She's a senior military archivist at the National Archives and has documented hundreds of women who masqueraded as men during the war. She says many joined for patriotic and economic reasons.
BLANTON: But once they were in the pants and earning more money and spending their money they seemed to greatly enjoy the freedom that came with being perceived as a man. Women at the time of the Civil War couldn't vote. If they were married, they couldn't own property in their own name. They mostly depended on men to survive. In return, they were supposed to devote their time and talents entirely to husbands, children and their extended families. That was the Victorian ideal. An ideal, Blanton says, that was mostly aimed at middle and upper class women. And they're not the ones who went off to war.
BLANTON: The women who went to war who disguised themselves as men and carried a gun were overwhelmingly working class women, immigrant women, poor women, urban women and yeoman farm girls.

Jennie Hodgers was part of this group. She was an immigrant from Clogher Head, Ireland who couldn't read or write. By the end of the war she needed to make some tough decisions about her identity. If she stayed "Albert Cashier" it was more likely she'd find work, keep the friends she made during the war, and be part of a respected community of Civil War veterans.
BLANTON: She can have a bank account. She can vote in elections – and she did, by the way, or if she goes back and puts on a dress and tells everyone that she's ‘Jennie' -- she has just lost her entire life.

Jennie's decision? To continue her life as a man. A few years after the war, posing as Albert Cashier, she made her way to Saunemin, Illinois. She worked many jobs including a stint as a farmhand and the town lamplighter.

Ambi: squeaky door..ambi of talk, laughter

Today Saunemin is a pretty sleepy place. Just a grain elevator, a few other businesses and The Tap -- the only restaurant and bar along the main strip of town.

MAN'S VOICE: You got spaghetti tonight?
WAITRESS: No, only on Tuesdays.

Some townspeople think that re-building the old Cashier house could give a tourism boost to this little town. Others are skeptical, says life-long resident, William Baker.

BAKER: It's the sight of an old building. I mean, it's not too pretty. I've seen it. I know what it is. It was a hatchery, part of the hatchery here in town years ago. And I think that's one of the things that people are a little bit disturbed about.

SCHULZ: Okay, Albert Cashier. I first encountered that name probably when I was in grade school.. kind of learned about this rather odd woman that pretended to be a man in order to fight in the Civil War.
Jim Schulz lives out in the country--that's the farmland surrounding Saumenin. He and his wife Dina say they don't have any say in what should be done with the old Cashier house since they don't pay taxes in Saunemin, but they've heard talk around town.

DINA: Some people, I think, are looking toward this that it's going to bring us a certain amount of tourism. And other people, I think frankly, would rather everybody not know we had a cross-dresser in Saunemin.

JIM: I wouldn't like to think that's what puts us on the map. But maybe it is.
O'DONNELL: The town was not especially proud of Albert.

Cheryl O'Donnell is a church secretary and Albert Cashier proponent.

ambi: keys rattling

O'DONNELL: I've never been in here.

Ambi: Metal overhead doors opening

She's brought me to a storage building where Albert's old house is stacked in pieces.
O'DONNELL: Oh, my goodness, it really is in parts. But it's do-able. It's still do-able. Through the years the house has been moved to many spots and in one close call, it was almost burned down, deliberately, for a practice drill at the Saunemin fire station.

O'DONNELL: Oh, my goodness, smells like a shop out on the farm. But an uptick in tourist interest has helped convince the town that the house needs to be saved. The village board has some big plans to finally reconstruct the old house and put it close to the spot where Albert used to live.

ambi: Memorial Day music 

It's Memorial Day 2008 and Cheryl O'Donnell and I have come to the cemetery where Jennie Hodgers is buried. Because Jennie worked so hard to guard her secret, O'Donnell sometimes feels a little guilty.
O'DONNELL: I'm wondering if she's somewhere chastising me for... for bringing her into the spotlight.
Ambi: military command before reading of the roster

Many in town have gathered for a reading of the names: veterans from Saunemin who have served in America's wars.

MAN'S VOICE: I'll now read the roster. Civil War. E. Brown, John H. Berne, Albert DJ Cashier...

It's not Jennie Hodgers' name that's read on Memorial Day, because it's Albert the town remembers. And it wasn't Jennie the doctors sent to an insane asylum at the end of her life – it was Albert's name on the commitment papers.

Ambi: Drum roll…National anthem begins
Here's what happened: Late in her life Jennie Hodgers was still living, undetected, as Albert Cashier in Saunemin. But at age 67, when she was hit by a car, she was sent to live at a Soldier's and Sailors' Home for disabled war vets. A couple of people there knew her secret, but remarkably, it was a few years before it slipped out and made it into newspapers around the country. That's when the Pension Bureau launched its fraud investigation. At about the same time, Cashier had become confused and noisy. Her condition was what today we'd probably call “dementia.” But back then, as was typical, she was deemed “insane” and dispatched to an asylum. The sanity hearings are public records. No mention is made of Albert Cashier being a woman. The evidence presented is strictly related to senility. It's impossible to know if Jenny's history posing as a man, contributed to the state's decision to declare her insane. What we do know is that once she got to the asylum, the identity she had chosen, was ignored -- or as they may have seen it -- “corrected.” She was placed in the women's ward and forced to wear skirts. Here's Cheryl O'Donnell:

O'DONNELL: It was so devastating to her that she would take pins and pin the skirt together between the legs to make them look like pants.. And when she did that they were very awkward, cuz they were so baggy.. and she fell.. And the fall resulted in an infection.. And she never, ever recovered from the infection.. That was the cause of the death.
Ambi: Gun salute

In the end, Jennie Hodgers did get rid of that dreaded, cumbersome skirt. Albert Cashier's comrades made sure that she was buried in her soldier's uniform – and that she received a proper military funeral.

ambi: Taps

The town of Saunemin has poured a foundation in almost the exact spot where Hodgers' old house used to sit, and landscaping for the site has begun. Money is short and the going is slow. But optimists in Saunemin say that in a year or two visitors should be able to come to Jennie Hodgers' gravesite—and to her old house to hear all about her remarkable, and in many ways, complicated life.

Jennie's Secret was produced by Linda Paul with help from Jay Allison and the public radio website, Transom with support from the Open Studio Project funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.