Sunday, 24 June 2007

Tor in the rebel cavalry

Some readers query the part in Rising Fire where my heroine, Tor, disguises herself as a man and fights in the cavalry. She’d never get away with it, they say.

Throughout history, hundreds of women have dressed as men and enlisted in the army or navy, usually in order to follow their lover/husband. Some have become famous, like Doctor Barry, who had a long and successful medical career, including work in the Crimean war. In a society where only men became doctors, and only men wore trousers, her sex was never questioned.

This is an excerpt from a book, published while she was still alive and passing as a man, by the Count of Las Cases. The Count wrote that on 20th January 1817:

"I received a visit from one of the captains of our station at St Helena. Knowing the state of my son's health, he brought a medical gentleman along with him. This was a mark of attention on his part, but the introduction occasioned for some moments, a curious misunderstanding. I mistook the Captain's medical friend for his son or nephew. The grave Doctor, who was presented to me was a boy of 18, with the form, the manners and the voice of a woman. But Mr Barry (such was his name) was described to be an absolute phenomenon. I was informed that he had obtained his diploma at the age of 13, after the most rigid examination, and that he had performed extraordinary cures at the Cape."

People see what they expect to see.

I can’t resist mentioning Black Agnes, who fought like a man but without pretending to be one. In 1334, she successfully held her besieged castle at Dunbar for over five months. After each assault on her fortress, her maids dusted the merlons and crenels (the top of the battlements), making a joke of the siege. How this must have annoyed her attackers.

Then, less than a century ago, there was the English war reporter Dorothy Lawrence (see photo on the right) who secretly posed as a man to become a soldier during the First World War.

I’m going to stop here. There’s a lot on the internet, for anyone who is interested to learn more.


  1. Reminds me of when I wanted to dress like a girl during the Vietnam war.

  2. I'm sure you'd have looked lovely, in a scary sort of way...

  3. I have another story of a woman fighting alongside men and not being detected.
    'Albert D.J. Cashier was the shortest soldier in the 95th Illinois Infantry. In one of the few existing photographs of Cashier during the Civil War, you can faintly detect the outline of breasts under his uniform.

    'But that's if you're looking for it. And the military apparently was not. "They didn't conduct physical exams in those days, the way the military does now," says Rodney Davis, a retired professor of history at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. "What they were looking for was warm bodies."'

    Here's the link:

  4. Fascinating, Norm - it had never occurred to me that larger wages could be one reason for a woman enlisting as a man. And I can entirely see that once one had had the freedom of living as a man, one would not want to give it up.

    I do wonder a little how they managed some things, though...

  5. The southeastern seaboard of the US where most of the US civil war took place is densely wooded. Most of the major battles took place on farms because they could see each other. Even Gettysburg, which had some of its skirmishing occur on the hills, happened mostly on the open corn fields.

    Such dense woods would give her the cover she needed for some of those 'things' she needed to deal with. Just as Tor needs cover for her private moments.

    It is these little touches that allow our reader to lose herself in the story.

    - Norm

  6. It's a relief to know that! (Of course, forestry is your area of expertise.)

    Afghanistan wouldn't be very convenient.