Masquerading as Men: Female Soldiers in the Mexican-American War

Mexican-American War recruits.

Were there women among them? Mexican-American War recruits. F & S. Palmer, 1846. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

Did women enlist in the Mexican-American War? Last week I blogged about Eliza Allen Billings. She wrote a bestselling book about fighting in the war disguised as a man. Most historians, however, dismiss her story as fictional.

But that doesn’t mean other women didn’t successfully masquerade as men. There were several female soldiers in the Mexican-American War, and it was often love that drove them to enlist.

Here are their stories.

 Hoosier heroine: What state can beat this?

Although one Indiana newspaper called her a heroine, this unnamed woman lasted only 13 days before the army discovered her secret. Dressed as a man, she enlisted in Company K of the 2nd Indiana Infantry. That a company hailed from Evansville and served under Captain William Walker.

The Hoosier volunteers rendezvoused in Camp Whitcomb in New Albany, Indiana, on June 7, 1846. There, U.S. Army officers received them and mustered them into service. The army had really no excuse for mustering in a female. Its own regulations required a doctor to conduct a physical examination of every recruit and the recruits were required to strip naked. But under pressure to muster troops in quickly, many physicians did shoddy work. History records one volunteer company that was examined fully clothed.

Somehow our Hoosier heroine slipped through. The U.S. Army inspected her and her company and mustered them all in. But before her company left by steamboat for the next rendezvous point in New Orleans, she got caught.

A handkerchief betrays her

At least four newspapers tell the story.* On June 20, one man in Company K lost his handkerchief. When men sat down to mess, he noticed it stuffed in his comrade’s “bosom.” He snatched his handkerchief back and made a shocking discovery. His comrade’s bosom was, er, a little different from his own bosom.

Company K confronted the Hoosier heroine. She broke down and told her story:

[W]ith tears in her eyes, and the deepest and apparently most sincere manner, she stated that she was poor and friendless: that her father was a soldier in General Taylor’s army on the Rio Grande and that she knew of no other way of getting to her father than by joining the army which was to be ordered to the place where he was stationed…. She says she is a resident of Tennessee and gave the names of her parents and many of their neighbors.**       

 Her company sends her home

Our heroine then left for Louisville.  Her company raised a subscription to take her further downstream by steamboat. And with the current of the Ohio River, the rest of her story got lost to history. If anyone wants to track her down, this site has a list of the names of Captain Walker’s company. Her male pseudonym might be among them. And her muster roll card just might list her true name along with the explanation for her discharge.

The Hoosier heroine could consider herself lucky. Captain Walker and many members of her company were killed in February 1847 at the Battle of Buena Vista in Mexico.

Even though this woman’s audacity strained against the boundaries of acceptable behavior for women in the 1840s, Indiana seemed proud of her. The Indiana Democrat called her actions “heroism.” The Indiana State Sentinel dubbed her a “heroine.” It went on to ask with beaming pride, “What state can beat this?”

Camp Whitcomb, where one of the female soldiers in the Mexican-American War was discovered.

Historical Marker for Camp Whitcomb in New Albany, Indiana, where the Hoosier Heroine was discovered. Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Bureau.

Bill Newcom: Discovered to be a disguised woman

As it turns out, at least two other states can. Their female soldiers in the Mexican-American War managed to stay undiscovered much longer. Missouri was one of them.

Elizabeth Caroline Newcom followed her lover, Lieutenant Amandus V. Schnabel, into the war. She enlisted in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in September 1847. Under the name Bill Newcom, Elizabeth joined Company D of the Missouri Mounted Volunteers. Her battalion protected the Sante Fe Trail. Although she performed the duties of a soldier for at least half a year, her battalion never saw battle. By May 1848, Elizabeth was pregnant. Schnabel urged her to desert by jumping a supply train headed east. But the army caught her and discharged her. Her muster roll card lists the reason for discharge: “Discovered to be a disguised woman.” You can view her muster roll card here.

Elizabeth’s boyfriend, Lt. Schnabel, then had to face court martial charges. The army dismissed him for having deprived the country of a good and competent soldier.

Shelby Harriel, a historian who specializes in female soldiers of the Civil War, tracked Elizabeth’s life after her discharge. Elizabeth married someone else in 1853. She also managed to score a major financial success that eluded other female soldiers in the Mexican-American War: Elizabeth applied for a land grant owing volunteers who had participated in the war. President Franklin Pierce approved both her land grant and back pay.

Battle of Buena Vista.

Battle of Buena Vista. Many of the Hoosier Heroine’s company members died here. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

Alabama: disguised as a brother

Alabama is another state that contributed to the list of female soldiers in the Mexican-American War. One volunteer from Mobile didn’t want to leave his brother at home alone. He asked if he could bring him along, even though he was frail. The captain agreed. The “brother” didn’t enlist, but lived among the soldiers and followed the camp. He stayed to himself and avoided rough physical activity.

After rumors circulated that the relationship between the two was more than fraternal, the captain requested a physical examination by the battalion physician. He discovered the brother was a woman. The army ordered her to leave camp and her company subjected her “older brother” to ridicule.

            These female soldiers in the Mexican-American War had various reasons for joining the army. With which woman’s story do you identify the most?


* Special thanks to Shelby Harriel for discovering the article in the Baltimore Sun. She maintains a fascinating website about female soldiers in the Civil War that’s well worth a visit.

** Indiana Democrat, June 22, 1846, cited in Perry, 65.

Literature on point:

The Civil War – Captain Walker and His Company, Chapter XVII, Military History, Genealogy Trails History Group (website).

A Female Soldier.” Highland messenger (Asheville, N.C.) July 24, 1846.

“A Female Soldier.” Baltimore Sun, June 30, 1846.

Lisa Tendrich Frank, ed., An Encyclopedia of Women at War (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2013) s.v. “Newcom, Elizabeth.”

Shelby Harriel, “They fought in the Mexican War, too!” (blog post, July 1, 2015)

A Heroine.Indiana State Sentinel, July 2, 1846

James M. McCaffrey, Army of Manifest Destiny: The American Soldier in the Mexican War: 1846-1848 (New York University Press, 1992)

Oran Perry, ed., Indiana in the Mexican War (Indianapolis: William B. Burford, 1908).

Spence Tucker et al., eds., The Encyclopedia of the Mexican-American War (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2013) s.v. “Women, U.S.”




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Eliza Allen Billings: A Female Soldier in the Mexican-American War?

Eliza Allen Billings as a soldier.

Eliza Allen Billings as a soldier, from her 1851 book (public domain).

What could induce a woman in 1846 to trade her needlepoint for a rifle? The Mexican-American War began and several women, disguised as men, enlisted. Women’s places in society were restrictive back then. The gentle sex played supporting roles and stayed in the background. Nevertheless, history records women pushing against societal constraints by shedding their dresses and donning a soldier’s uniform.

In most cases, it was love that induced them to do it. They followed a man into the war.

Passing the physical exam

And in most cases, the U.S. Army caught them at the outset — during the physical exams required for enlistment. Military regulations required the volunteers to strip naked for the exam. This step allowed the army doctor to check for deformities hidden by clothing. They also checked for the telltale tattoos “D” or “HD,” signifying a deserter or habitual drunkard. But in the rush of getting the volunteers off to war, doctors didn’t always comply. In one case, the physicians examined an entire regiment fully clothed. [McCaffrey, 23-24]

And that’s how a few women slipped through.

The most famous enlisted woman in the war might have well been fictional, but I’ll start with her. In the next post, I’ll introduce some of the other women who served in the war … and whose stories are accepted.

How Eliza Allen Billings enlisted

Eliza Allen Billings

Eliza Allen Billings, Historical and Public Figures Collection (New York Public Library Archives) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Eliza Allen Billings, a purported female soldier of the Mexican-American War, wrote a bestselling book about her experiences after the war, but most historians doubt her existence. Billings might be a pseudonym and the story a fictional adventure.

Eliza Allen, a 20-year-old from a wealthy family in Eastport, Maine, fell in love with William Billings, a Canadian immigrant and day laborer beneath her class. When her parents forbid them to see each other again, he volunteered for the Mexican-American War. Eliza, in her grief, found inspiration in two women who’d previously fought in American wars – Deborah Sampson in the Revolutionary War and Lucy Brewer in the War of 1812. She sheared her hair, donned men’s clothing, and negotiated an enlistment under the name George Mead without a physical examination.

The lovers reunite

Eliza Allen Billings, wounded at Cerro Gordo.

Eliza and William, wounded at Cerro Gordo. From Eliza’s book (public domain).

Unfortunately, Eliza didn’t make it into William’s company, which was now full. She couldn’t find William, even after they arrived in Mexico, but she knew he was there. They served under General Winfield Scott and survived the Siege of Veracruz, but both were wounded at Cerro Gordo. It was in the hospital at Cerro Gordo where she found William again. The two recuperated together and spent the rest of the war together. But Eliza maintained her cover. William never recognized his lover, and in fact, told “George” of his undying love for Eliza.

After the war, William and “George” followed the gold rush to California, traveling by ship around Cape Horn. Eliza still maintained her cover. The two struck it rich at a Californian stream (40 thousand dollars worth of gold!) and returned to the East Coast, where to William’s great surprise, Eliza revealed herself. Eliza’s parents, so relieved at the return of their daughter, now allowed them to wed.

The premise of this little bestseller was that parents should not interfere in their children’s choices of partners. But one’s fantasy has to do quite a bit of gymnastics to accept the idea that William, despite a couple of years of intimate life with “George,” never recognized his lover. Nevertheless, the book was such a success Eliza Allen Billings published a sequel in 1856, a brief biography of her mother.

Did Eliza Allen Billings really exist?

Historians have not been able to document William’s or Eliza’s existence. Recently, Shelby Harriel, an expert on female soldiers in the Civil War, made an attempt to track down the couple’s muster roll cards. There are no cards for a William Billings or George Mead among the Maine volunteers. She did find a record of a William Billings getting married in Eastport, Maine on Sept. 4, 1848, directly following the war. But his spouse was a Francis E. Richardson, not Eliza Allen. And according to the narrative, William and Eliza would have been in California at that time anyway. To be doubly certain, one would have to check Canadian records, since it’s possible the couple moved to William’s native land.

Eliza Allen Billings might not have been real, but other female soldiers in the war were. I’ll introduce them in the next post.

Despite its feminist streak, Eliza’s book became a bestseller. Why do you think people liked this story?

Literature on Point:

Eliza Allen Billings, The Female Volunteer; or, The Life and Wonderful Adventures of Miss Eliza Allen, a Young Lady of Eastport, Maine (Philadelphia, D. Rulison, 1851)

Eliza Allen Billings, The nobleman’s daughter, being an authentic and affecting narrative of the life and trials of Mrs. Sarah E. Allen, mother of Eliza Allen, the brave volunteer of Mexico … Written by Eliza Allen, author of the “Female volunteer.” (Philadelphia, D. Rulison, 1856)

James M. McCaffrey, Army of Manifest Destiny: The American Soldier in the Mexican War: 1846-1848 (New York University Press, 1992)

Shelby Harriel, “They fought in the Mexican War, too!” (blog post, July 1, 2015)

Spence Tucker et al., eds., The Encyclopedia of the Mexican-American War (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2013) s.v. “Billings, Eliza Allen,” “Women, U.S.”




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