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Seafaring Women

By Dr. Linda Grant de Pauw
Excerpted with permission of the author from "Seafaring Women"
Press, 20 Granada Road, Pasadena, MD, 21122, 410-437-5379, fax 425-940-3470

THERE IS A PERSISTENT MYTH that war has always been an all-male affair and that women in combat zones, whatever their activities, were "civilians" and not "warriors." This becomes a confusing distinction in practice, because men and women under fire often do the same things. It is particularly confusing in the case of naval warfare, because at sea everyone aboard - male or female, gunner, carpenter, or nurse - is quite literally in the same boat. When a ship is fired upon, everyone aboard is at war. This chapter deals with women on warships.

In the past, some of the women aboard warships were civilians; others had an official rating. When ships saw action, some women in both categories were assets and others liabilities. Exactly the same thing may be said of the males aboard.

The history of naval warfare usually focuses on admirals and captains. In recent times women have not been in the high command except in the irregular warfare waged by privateers and revolutionaries. In ancient times, however, when the ruler of a nation decided who should command, queens and other women of exalted status could decide to direct operations at sea themselves. Women commanders figured in two of the most famous sea battles of ancient times - the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C. and the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.

In the fifth century B.C., Persia was at war with Greece, with the Persian king Xerxes leading the invasion. Artemisia, the queen of Caria in southwestern Asia Minor, brought five ships to assist in this effort; other rulers brought more, but hers were among the fastest and best equipped in the fleet. Her squadron demonstrated its capabilities during three days of fighting, during which a Greek scouting galley was captured. She was a cautious commander, however, and she advised King Xerxes not to engage the Greek fleet. Artemisia was a queen, but not a feminist, and she spoke as an admiral. "Spare your ships," the Greek historian Herodotus quotes her as saying, "and fight no battle on sea; for the enemy's men are as much better than your men on sea as men are than women." She was the only one of Xerxes' advisors to take this position, however. The Persian force engaged the Greeks at Salamis and were thoroughly defeated. Only Artemisia was able to save her ship and she was the only senior officer to survive. Xerxes, watching from the shore, exclaimed in astonishment that the men had behaved like women and the women had displayed the courage of men.

If Artemisia was an able commander frustrated by a less perceptive superior, Cleopatra was just the opposite. In 3I B.C., the Roman fleet of Octavian faced the combined fleets of Anthony and Cleopatra off the coast of Egypt. The advice of the admirals was not to risk a sea fight, but as Xerxes had done, Cleopatra overruled the voices counseling caution. On the day of battle, she went out with the fleet in her own galley, a splendid craft, bright with paint and gilding, carrying purple sails, and flying flags and streamers in the wind. The opposing fleets appeared to be evenly matched until, for some reason, Cleopatra's nerve broke, and she ordered her galley to flee. Assuming that the queen's ship's leaving signaled a general retreat, all sixty Egyptian ships followed her. The battle was lost by default, and with the battle the war was lost too.

Artemisia and Cleopatra are the only women mentioned in books on great sea battles. Other women have exercised command at sea, but on a humbler scale. Although the outcome of a war and the course of history did not depend on the performance of their ships, they are, perhaps, a bit more inspiring than these two great women admirals, because they had their share of victories. They did not command the fleets of great nations, but those of private navies, which, except for their political orientation, resemble the pirate fleets of Madame Ching and other outlaws. On sea as on land, women are far more likely to rise to command in war in units peripheral to the central military organization.

There was a lot of peripheral fighting during the Middle Ages, and anyone who owned a ship and was willing to risk it could get into a war. Grace O'Malley, the great Irish pirate, occasionally used her fleets for political purposes. Another was Jane de Belleville, a French noblewoman, who supported the English invasion of Brittany in I345 because her husband had been executed by the French as an English spy. Seeking personal revenge, which incidentally benefited the English, she sold her jewels, bought and outfitted three ships, and then cruised along the coast of Normandy, attacking French vessels and ravaging the countryside. This fine lady was often seen standing amid the ruins of a Norman village with a sword in one hand and a flaming torch in the other, ready to burn to the ground every building still standing.

The activities of privateers were recognized as an important supplement to the operations of regular navies well into the nineteenth century. Privateers were licensed by their governments to attack enemy shipping, and women were occasionally found either in command or in the crew. Fanny Campbell was among the first captains to take private craft into service against the British during the American Revolution. Some months before the war began, this young woman from Lynn, Massachusetts, went to sea disguised as a man, serving as second officer on an English merchant brig, the Constance. Her reasons for this had nothing to do with either politics or trade but were entirely personal. She had recently learned that her childhood sweetheart, William Lovell, was in jail in Cuba; he had escaped from a pirate ship, which had captured the ship he served, and was himself charged with piracy. Fanny Campbell signed on aboard the Constance with the idea of taking straightforward Yankee-style action to free her man.

Of course, the captain of the Constance knew nothing of this, and in any event he would not have been likely to divert his course to assist in a jail break. Fortunately for Campbell's plans, however, neither the captain nor his first mate was at all popular with the crew. Indeed there was some suspicion, which Campbell encouraged, that the captain meant to take his entire crew to England, where they would be impressed into the British Navy. Campbell led a successful mutiny and was confirmed as commander of the stolen brig. That automatically meant that she and the entire crew had become pirates.

Several days later, the Constance encountered a British bark, the George. The captain of the George sensed something wrong about the Constance, concluded she was a pirate, and, feeling confident of the George's superior firepower, attacked her. The engagement had an unexpected conclusion, however; the George became a prize of the Constance, and they sailed on to Cuba together.

The rescue attempt was a success; not only William Lovell but ten other jailed Americans were freed. Fanny Campbell had a happy reunion with her sweetheart, but no one else was told that the officer everyone called "Captain Channing" was not quite the man they thought he was. Back at sea, the Constance and the George soon took another prize, a British merchant ship that had interesting news: formal war had begun between England and America. Therefore Campbell's ships had an opportunity to escape the stigma of piracy by becoming legitimate privateers in the American cause. All but four members of the crews of the Constance and the George readily agreed to become honest men again, even if they would be considered traitors to Great Britain should the war go the wrong way. Fanny Campbell now commanded a pair of private warships, which the next day captured a British sloop-of-war.

The Constance and the George sailed back to Massachusetts, putting in at Marblehead because British troops had occupied Boston. While the legal papers commissioning them as privateers were being drawn up, Fanny Campbell and William Lovell went home to Lynn and were married. William Lovell continued to privateer throughout the war, but Fanny Campbell began to raise what would eventually be a very large family. None of the children was anxious to publicize their mother's part in naval warfare.

Some years after Fanny Campbell retired from the sea, another woman commanded the French privateer La Baugourt, which operated against English shipping in the West Indies. But even on privateers, the odds were against women giving orders; they mostly took them. Why did women embark on privateers? Some probably enlisted of their own free will, as women did on other ships, either disguising themselves as men or finding a captain to whom sex was no barrier. Deborah Sampson, the American woman who is best known for having served in uniform in Washington's army during the Revolution, considered enlisting on a privateer before settling on the infantry. She had some conversation with the captain of a cruiser in a tavern in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He offered her a place as his "waiter" and even advanced her some money. But she asked around and decided not to sail with him after all, for "she was informed that, although he used much plausibility on the shore, it was changed to austerity at sea."

Some women were coerced into the service. The Duke, a British privateer operating in the Pacific in the early years of the eighteenth century, had on board several black women, most likely slaves, who served as cooks. The captain seemed to be perfectly satisfied with their cooking, although one of the women was whipped "to make her modest and well behaved."

Mary Anne Talbot, of whose career more will be said later, enlisted on a French ship, supposing it to be a legitimate trading vessel. It turned out to be privateering against the English, and Talbot was beaten when she refused to fight against her own people. She was rescued from this service when the privateer was taken by a British warship, and Talbot became part of a regular navy crew.

Sarah Bishop of Long Island, New York, was the victim of a British raiding party in I778. Rape had become an everyday event in the war zones; when Bishop was taken aboard a British privateer, she became a member of the crew with certain additional duties. Although she handled the wheel and stood watches, she was also expected to be a communal sex object. Eventually she and the captain of the privateer came to an understanding, after which she was strictly the captain's woman. The captain was killed, however, in an engagement with an American privateer, and it was another six months before Bishop found an opportunity to escape. Two years after her capture, Sarah Bishop slipped over the side of the ship and swam ashore at Stamford, Connecticut. Her experience had been so traumatic that she could not bear to return to normal human society. She made her way to Ridgefield, Connecticut, and climbed to a rocky cave, where she lived the rest of her life as a hermit.

Bishop had become a seagoing prostitute against her will. The women who volunteered to practice the world's oldest profession at sea found the opportunities greater and the pay better in the regular navy.

In the great days of fighting sail, the regular navy was overwhelmingly a man's world. Although the army and sometimes the marines had women's branches of the service, made up of wives who drew pay and rations and traveled with their men, there was no such provision for the navy. A fair number of navy wives went with their men in spite of the rules, but it was much more difficult for a sailor to have a normal family life than for a man in any other military occupation.

Even today, sea duty puts a strain on families; but while modern sailors rarely stay away more than a few months and have frequent opportunities to send letters and even to make phone calls home, eighteenth-century sailors could be totally cut off from their loved ones for as long as five years at a time. Both officers and ordinary sailors suffered from separation, but it was harder on the sailors. Not only were officers more likely to be allowed to bring their families to sea, they were also the only men aboard certain to have shore leave in port. British sailors of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were impressed, that is, forced, into service. Consequently, officers expected them to desert at the slightest opportunity. To prevent their desertion, sailors were confined aboard ship even in port.

Naval officers, like other members of the ruling class ashore, firmly believed that poor people did not share their capacity for delicate emotions. Modesty, self-respect, and affection were not attributed to the lower orders. It did not occur to those in authority that a seaman might want to go ashore to check on his old mother, or to be sure his sister got the money he wanted her to have from his wages, or have any other selfless thoughts. They even doubted that marriage bonds could be sacred to poor people. They recognized only one need in a sailor who had been a year or more at sea - raw sex. That they would provide, and the circumstances under which they provided it well illustrate the contempt they had for the poor of both sexes.

"I am now happily laid up in matrimonial harbour, blest in a wife and several children," wrote one old sailor who had done his time in the Royal Navy, "and my constant prayer to heaven is, that my daughters may never set foot on board of a man-of-war." One might expect a common sailor to be insensitive to the indignities forced on the poor women of certain seaside towns by the arrangements that were not merely tolerated but actually encouraged by the Royal Navy. But this one was not. "These poor unfortunates are taken to market like cattle," William Robinson, using the pseudonym Jack Nastyface, wrote with feeling in 1836, "and, whilst this system is observed, it cannot with truth be said, that the slave-trade is abolished in England." The lawful wives and daughters of sailors were, in the eyes of officers, virtually indistinguishable from common prostitutes, and when a man-of-war put into port the "needs" of the men were met by bringing females aboard by the boatload.

Women were not physically forced aboard His Majesty's ships, but there was a taint of compulsion about the operation. One had to board the boats to visit a husband or lover and get a badly needed part of his pay. For poor, unattached women, prostitution was usually the best-paying occupation available when jobs were scarce and prices high. Neither wives nor prostitutes had money to pay their way out to the ships in the harbor, so they had to go out together as cargo on what were called bumboats. A wife too proud to mix with prostitutes would have to stay on shore. The owners of these boats sold many items intended to tempt newly paid sailors to part with their cash, like tobacco, candies, and articles of clothing; but their hottest selling item was women. For each one chosen by a sailor, the boatman would collect a "fare" - usually about three shillings.

A woman whose fare was not paid by her sailor husband or some newly attracted sailor lover had to be taken ashore again and was a dead loss to the carrier. Consequently, the boatman inspected the women carefully before permitting them to board. He "surveys them from stem to stern . . . and carefully culls out the best looking, and the most dashingly dressed; and, in making up his complement for a load, it often happens that he refuses to take some of them, observing, (very politely) and usually with some vulgar oath; to one, that she is too old; to another, that she is too ugly; and that he shall not be able to sell them; and he'll be d-d if he has any notion of having his trouble for nothing." Having made it to the side of the ship, a woman wishing to visit still had to pass inspection by the officers. It was common for a lieutenant to look over the boatload of females, just as he would a cargo of foodstuffs, and, to protect the reputation of the ship, permit only goodlooking, well-dressed, and carefully painted women to mount the ladder. Finally, before a sailor was permitted to take a woman below - whether his wife, fianc6e, daughter, or brand-new "friend" - she had to be examined by the assistant surgeon to be sure she was not infected with venereal disease.

A man-of-war always carried a much larger crew in proportion to her size than other ships did; often five or six hundred men were aboard when the bumboats loaded with women came alongside. In a few minutes, the number of bodies aboard would double. Indeed, women might actually outnumber the men. "It is frequently the case that men take two prostitutes on board at a time," sniffed a disapproving officer. And sometimes a sailor paid his shillings for both a wife and a daughter to visit. In any event, a warship in port usually had hundreds of women aboard - more or fewer according to its size; the Royal George, by no means the largest ship of the time, had three hundred females aboard when she sank in Portsmouth Harbor in 1782.

It is surprising that the ships did not sink more often because the women's boarding was the signal for the beginning of a wild party during which virtually all shipboard discipline broke down. First of all, the women supplemented prostitution with bootlegging. At sea, the consumption of alcohol was tightly rationed, and the bumboat owners were not permitted to sell it to sailors in port. But the women took advantage of their voluminous skirts to conceal containers filled with gin, rum, or brandy. The marines were supposed to prevent this smuggling, but it was an impossible task.

A pressed sailor serving aboard the Salvador del Mundo recalled how the wife of a newly pressed man was caught carrying rum when she visited the ship before it sailed from Plymouth. As the ship's corporal helped her up the ladder from the bumboat, he "took it into his head that the calves of her legs, at which he had been taking an unmannerly peep, were rather more bulky than chaste statuary required. 'I am afraid, my good woman,' said he, 'that your legs are somewhat dropsical; will you allow me the honour of performing a cure?' " He then took out his knife and slit her stocking. "The point of the knife gently pierced the skin, not of the leg, but of the bladder that was snugly secured there . . . Colour and smell bore ample testimony that the blood of the sugar cane had been shed."

The carousing hat followed offended the more squeamish officers, but appears to have been thoroughly enjoyed by the participants. Sailors dancing with their guests were a popular subject with shipboard artists. Certainly, had they been given a choice, they would have preferred to have their party ashore, but as they were not free to choose they did the best they could, accepting the crowding and lack of privacy as unavoidable.

Those who did their courting and their partying in more pleasant surroundings could afford to disapprove. "The whole of the shocking, disgraceful transactions of the lower deck it is impossible to describe," wrote an officer, "the dirt, filth, and stench; the disgusting conversation; the indecent, beastly conduct, and horrible scenes; the blasphemy and swearing; the riots, quarrels, and fightings, which often take place, where hundreds of men and women are huddled together in one room, as it were; and where, in bed (each man being allowed only sixteen inches breadth for his hammock), they are squeezed between the next hammocks, and must be witness of each other's actions; can only be imagined by those who have seen all this . . . Let those who have never seen a ship of war, picture to themselves a very large and low room (hardly capable of holding the men) with five hundred women of the vilest description, shut up in it, and giving way to every excess of debauchery that the grossest passions of human nature can lead them to; and they see the deck of a seventy-four gun ship upon the night of her arrival in port."

The party, however, lasted longer than a single night, for the women would remain aboard until the ship was ready to sail. The chaplain of the Assistance, who was more understanding of the conditions forced on the crew, described the state of the ship prior to a Mediterranean cruise: "Hither many of our seamen's wives follow their husbands, and several other young women accompany their sweethearts . . . so that our ship was . . . well furnished but ill-manned, few of them being well able to keep watch had there been occasion. You would have wondered to see here a man and a woman creep into a hammock, the woman's legs to the hams hanging over the sides or out of the end of it." Somehow, the captain had to work the presence of these guests into his shipboard routines.

The day began with the boatswain's mates rousing the men with the shout, "Show a leg! Out or down!" A smooth leg or a woman's stocking identified a female, who would be left to sleep. The possessor of a hairy leg, however, had to hit the deck or the lashings of the hammock would be cut, tumbling him down. The officers would then do what they could to get the sailors to perform the tasks that must be done even in port - maintaining the ship, exercising at the guns, and getting ready for the coming voyage. The wives might spend the day mending their husbands' clothing., but most of the women had no useful work to do and passed the time drinking and fighting. On the larger ships, an attempt was made to prevent the women from distracting the crew during working hours by confining the visitors to a compartment under the lower gun deck in which the surgeon treated the wounded during battle. Such crowded quarters led to short tempers, and frequently the female battles were so loud that the marines had to go below to break them up. The sailors came to call the surgeon's station the "cockpit," after the cockpits on land in which fighting cocks fought to the death for the amusement of spectators. When the marines identified major combatants by their scratched faces and torn clothing, the offenders were sent ashore on a bumboat.

Of course, most of this activity was strictly against regulations. Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty's Service at Sea specifically stated "that no women be ever permitted to be on board but such as are really the wives of the men they come to; and the ship not to be too much pestered even with them. " In 1817 even wives were forbidden to live on board, but the regulations were a dead letter for most of the century. Navy reforms in the years 1860-1870 were supposed to banish women from warships. Although occasional violations continued, officers no longer condoned them openly, as they had in earlier years. When impressment ended and men could be allowed shore leave, there was less need for visiting privileges in port.

Eventually the ship would be ready to sail, and it was time to say good-by. The sailors and their women did their best to keep up their spirits on what was a sadder occasion for some than for others. Perhaps one or two dozen new marriages had been contracted during the days in port, and even those men who were not married and had no such thing in mind regretted leaving the relatively free life at anchor for the austerity of life at sea. As the women went over the side, salutes might be fired and the ship's band play such tunes as "Loath to Depart" or "Maids, Where Are Your Hearts?" Some sailors might hand their ladies a bunch of onions, suggesting they would not cry at parting without their aid. But many tears were sincere enough. Some of the women would walk overland to the next port of call if the ship was scheduled to stop at another home port before heading out to sea, hoping for a last visit before their men went back to war. All women dependent on a husband's pay would wonder if he would live to reach home again or if this was a final parting that might force them to take up the life of the prostitutes with whom they were rowed back to land. A few women, however, had no need to say good-by. Seaman John Wetherell recalled that the captains with whom he sailed in the early years of the nineteenth century issued orders "to send all the girls on shore except one woman to each mess, and the married women certainly to have the preference." Competition for this limited number of slots was fierce, and as the shiploads of weeping women pulled away, one of the lucky few might run aloft into the rigging and wave her petticoat triumphantly.

Captains were not supposed to take any women to sea without permission from the admiralty or from a senior officer. But many captains, accustomed to enjoying absolute authority at sea, ignored this restriction. There was a bit of inconvenience, of course, in that the women could not be listed on the official records as women carried legitimately could be, and there would have to be fudging with the rations to feed them.

Captains appear to have dealt with this problem calmly enough; but it is frustrating to historians because the women's names appear in the documents only when some unusual event made it impossible to ignore their presence. Some attention had to be paid, for instance, when a female body was discovered sewed up in a hammock in the bread room of a man-of-war. And it was impossible not to take official notice when a midshipman aboard H.M.S. Alexander murdered his mother in the presence of his wife and several other women. He stabbed her right through her corset stays, they testified at his court-martial. Any attempt to discover the identities of the women who went to sea with the acquiescence of the captain, their exact numbers, or their duties is frustrated by this erratic documentation. The best that can be done is to trace an outline, admitting that the most vivid details in the surviving record may well be exceptional.

Who were the women who sailed on warships? Some testimony suggests that they were nothing but whores. One officer described his experience on two ships to which he was posted in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Nine women were aboard the first. The captain and first lieutenant mustered them for inspection on the forecastle every Sunday, but that appears to have been the only discipline imposed on them. Two or three of the women were so unmanageable that the captain put them off aboard a passing brig, to be carried back to England. Most of the other women, declared this witness, were completely promiscuous: "Of one, I recollect its being stated that she admitted nineteen men to her embraces in one night." This officer's next assignment offered him no better opinion of his female shipmates, who behaved at sea as they did in port, "being almost continually drunk, spirits being given them by the officers, mates, and midshipmen, in payment for their occasional visits."

Prostitutes, however, do not appear to have constituted a significant percentage of women on warships if only because, whatever his personal morals, a captain recognized that the relaxed discipline that worked in port would be dangerous at sea, especially in wartime. Prostitutes were put off when the ship left harbor, and those females remaining - excluding for the moment those who sailed disguised as men - fell into one of three categories: passengers, captain's servants, and women of the army who were wives of marines or soldiers in transport.

Officially approved passengers are recorded in ships' records. Well-connected people of both sexes could gain approval for their passage in a warship. In I798 Captain Horatio Nelson carried both the queen of Sicily and Lady Hamilton, together with their distinguished husbands, as passengers aboard H.M.S. Vanguard. At the same time Captain Thomas Fremantle had the British ambassador, Sir Gilbert Elliot, and a family named Wynne aboard H.M.S. Inconstant. In due course, Miss Betsey Wynne became the wife of Captain Fremantle, and Lady Emma Hamilton became the mistress of Captain Nelson - but not during their voyages.

Captains sometimes chose to take their wives or other female relatives to sea, although we are not likely to learn of this from official records unless some unusual event occurred. Anne Chamberlayne, for example, is remembered only because she refused to obey the orders of her brother, captain of the Griffin, when he told her to go below during a fleet action. She remained on deck for six hours - some sources say she participated in the fighting - and only when the battle was won did she go below to the more womanly work of assisting the surgeon in the cockpit. Had she gone below in the first place, no record would have mentioned her presence.

Another captain kindly offered his sister, Mary Skinner, passage aboard the Princess Royal so she could marry the man who was waiting for her in the United States. She and her maid passed the time sewing up her silk wedding dress - until halfway across the Atlantic, the Princess Royal was attacked by the French privateer L'Aventurier. The British ship suffered heavy casualties and the cockpit was soon overflowing. Miss Skinner and her maid first made themselves useful by setting up an additional ward for the wounded in the bread room. When the ship ran short of cloth for the bags in which gunpowder was wrapped prior to being rammed down the gun barrels, they cut up the wedding dress, recognizing that, for the moment, war must come before love and leaving a story worth repeating.

A captain might permit other officers to bring women relatives aboard as passengers, and a good many appear to have extended the privilege to warrant officers and well-behaved seamen who requested it. When William Richardson was given permission to go ashore to say good-by to his wife before the Tromp sailed on a passage to the West Indies in 1800, he discovered that his wife "had fixed her mind to go with me, as it was reported the voyage would be short . . . I gave my consent, especially as the captain's the master's and boatswain's were going with them; the serjeant of marines and six other men's wives had leave to go." The boatswain also brought his daughter and the captain's wife her maid. Both the captain's wife and the master's were pregnant, and the captain's wife bore a son at sea. The master's wife, however, died of yellow fever.

In view of present-day concern about "problems relating to female sexuality," which many assume makes assigning women to combat ships unthinkable, there is something refreshing about the complacency with which the facts of life were faced in the great age of fighting sail, the period early in the nineteenth century when the British Navy fought for and maintained supremacy at sea over all other navies of the world.

The birth of a child was not normally recorded unless the child's mother was entitled to draw a ration, but occasionally an interesting occurrence would force the baby's presence on someone's attention. "This day the surgeon informed me that a woman on board had been labouring in childbirth for twelve hours," Captain W. N. Glascock recorded in an early nineteenth-century log, "and if I could see my way to permit the firing of a broadside to leeward, nature would be assisted by the shock. I complied with the request, and she was delivered of a fine male child." The spaces between the broadside guns were a preferred location for a woman in labor and gave rise to the saying "son of a gun."

Of course, that was inconvenient during battle. During action on "the Glorious First of June" in 1794, one of the proudest victories of the British Navy in the Napoleonic Wars, Mrs. Daniel McKenzie, of H.M.S. Tremendous, went into labor prematurely and delivered her son in the bread room. The infant was named Daniel Tremendous McKenzie. Four years later the birth of a child during another great victory, the Battle of the Nile, was laconically recorded by a sailor: "The women behaved as well as the men . . . There was some of the women wounded, and one woman belonging to Leith died of her wounds. One woman bore a son in the heat of the action; she belonged to Edinburgh."

What did women do on British warships besides have babies? Well, some worked as domestic servants with an official navy rating. It was a captain's privilege to appoint a certain number of "Captain's Servants," usually four per hundred of the ship's company, to sew, help with the laundry, and attend to other persona needs of the officers. Often these were children. The cabin boy might be a youngster being groomed for a career at sea, and other boys too immature to be appointed as midshipmen might serve as captain's servants until they had grown enough to be promoted.

The captain filled other vacancies for servants from the wives of the standing officers - the gunner, boatswain, carpenter, and perhaps the cook. As late as World War 1, a woman was carried on a ship's books with the rating "Captain's Servant." Kathleen Dyer served for two and a half years aboard H.M.S. Calypso. "Owing to some foolish quibble on the part of the Admiralty," wrote a correspondent to the Mariner's Mirror, "Miss Dyer was refused the Naval War and Victory medals, though they were awarded to all other ranks and ratings serving in the ship during the period."

Such "quibbling" is found repeatedly in the history of women in the military services. For instance, Daniel Tremendous McKenzie was awarded the Naval General Service medal, with his rating recorded as "Baby," in recognition of his presence on the Glorious First of June, but the admiralty ruled against allowing the medal to any of the women, because it would leave the naval office "exposed to innumerable applications of the same nature. "

When a ship saw action, all women aboard appear to have been put to useful work. Nancy Perriam, one of the few navy women to have left a written record, gives a rare glimpse into women's activity while the ship was under fire. She served with her husband aboard H.M.S. Orion, and her function was "to make and mend the captain's clothes." On February 14, 1797, she recalled, she had begun work on a flannel shirt when she heard the rumble of guns. Battle had been joined with a French ship off Cape St. Vincent. She immediately put down her sewing and began carrying gunpowder instead. When she was no longer needed at that post, she went down to the cockpit to help the surgeon. A year later, she followed the same pattern at the Battle of the Nile. A seaman at that battle who was assigned to a station below decks later stated, "I saw little of this action. Any information we got was from the boys and women who carried the powder . . . I was much indebted to the Gunner's wife, who gave her husband and me a drink of wine now and then, which lessened our fatigue much." As before, Nancy Perriam ended up in the cockpit. She especially remembered the bravery of a young midshipman, whose arm was taken out of its socket. "The boy bore the operations without a murmur," she wrote, "and when it was over turned to me and said, 'Have I not borne it like a man?' Having said this he immediately expired."

Carrying powder and nursing may have been the usual assignments of British navy women during battle, but some took a more active role. Admiral Rodney, it is said, once observed a woman serving with a gun crew on the main deck of his flagship. When asked what she was doing there, she explained that her husband had been wounded and sent down to the cockpit and she was taking his place. "Do you think, your honour," she added boldly, "I am afraid of the French?" The admiral decided to overlook the irregularity, if it was one, and gave the woman a gift of ten guineas.

When a woman served beyond the call of duty, a special gift was her only possible reward. Wives did not claim wages or a share of prize money, although they presumably enjoyed part of their husbands' share. Some peculiar methods were employed when it became necessary to pay a woman for her work. The strangest, perhaps, was to rate as an "Able Seaman" a woman who had been hired to serve as lady's maid to several princesses embarked as passengers. This was done by special order of Sir George Cockburn, a Lord of the Admiralty, to whom it seemed the easiest way out of the difficulty.

A problem also arose when a woman was widowed. Unlisted in the muster book, she could not draw rations in her own right. Captain Thomas Foley of the Goliath got around that great injustice after three seamen's wives and one marine's wife were widowed by suddenly adding their names to the muster book. From August 3 to November 30, 1798, Sarah Bates, Ann Taylor, Elizabeth Moore, and Mary French appear on the record for the first time, "victualled at two-thirds allowance, per Captain's order, in consideration of their assistance in dressing and attending on the wounded, being widows of men slain in fight with the enemy on i st August, I798." Their names were dropped from the list four months later, while the ship was still at sea, with the notation, "their further assistance not being required." Obviously, the ration had been intended as pay for services, not charity. Presumably the four were not tossed overboard after their official rationing stopped, and they must have been fed somehow. They were probably allowed to share with their husbands' former messmates, as they had done as wives.

A few other glimpses of women working on navy ships survive. A British official traveling aboard H.M.S. Diamond Rock in 1804-1805 helped pass the time at sea by sketching his surroundings. In one of his pictures, a woman, whose presence is nowhere else recorded, stands in the foreground feeding the livestock.

Admiral George Vernon Jackson remembered that when he was a midshipman serving aboard the Lapwing in 1801, the ship ran aground. "Whilst occupied in getting the ship off the Shoal," he recalled, "it was amusing to see how some women - forty or fifty in number - who were on board exerted themselves at the ropes." Another sea emergency focused a spotlight on otherwise invisible females. The Horatio ran onto a needle rock off Guernsey and began to leak badly. The captain headed for port, racing against the water rushing into the hold. Later he praised the ship's women, who "rendered essential service in thrumming the sail," that is, roughing up its surface and making it more absorbent by working in short bits of rope yam. The sail was then lowered over the hole in the ship's bottom to slow the leak.

Of course, women were not always an asset during an emergency. James Gardner recalled the time a fire broke out aboard the Orestes when he was serving on her. The blaze began in the cabin directly above the powder magazine; candles had ignited the curtains. Before it was brought under control, the fire "occasioned the utmost terrors among the ship's company . . . It was ludicrous to see the captain with a speaking trumpet exerting himself to keep order, and the carpenter's wife catching him round the legs, and while he was calling for Water she was screaming out Fire."

The commander of the British Mediterranean fleet in 1796 was disturbed by what he felt was excessive consumption of water by women, and he threatened to enforce the rule against women going to sea if they continued to waste water on such nonessentials as washing. "There being reasons to apprehend that a number of women have been clandestinely brought from England to several ships . . . the respective Captains are required by the Admiral to admonish those ladies upon the waste of water, and other disorders committed by them, and to make known to all, that on the first proof of water being obtained for washing from the scuttlebutt or otherwise, under false pretences, every woman in the fleet who has not been admitted under the authority of the Admiralty or the Commander-in-Chief, will be shipped for England by the first convoy."

A year later women were still doing their laundry and Admiral Jervis was still threatening. "It will become my indispensable duty to land all the women in the squadron at Gibraltar, unless this alarming evil is immediately corrected." A decade later women still sailed with the Mediterranean fleet.

Some women were regularly named in the supernumerary list of the muster books of British warships because they were a recognized part of the military establishment. The wives of soldiers, including soldiers serving temporarily as marines, were entitled by law to draw a two-thirds ration for themselves and a half ration for each of their children when they traveled with their husbands.

Sometimes, if ships sailed in convoy, the wives traveled together on a separate vessel. One such ship was captured by the French off Gibraltar in 1782. An officer recalling the engagement felt the English had come off well enough, "with the baggage and the soldiers' wives, the only loss sustained." Officers' wives also traveled in separate ships on occasion; the Americans captured two boatloads in the first three months of 1778.

Baroness Frederika von Riedesel, wife of the German general who commanded the Hessians during the American Revolution, traveled to America in a merchant ship specially hired for the purpose in a convoy guarded by several men-of-war. She embarked on the Blonde with her children and a number of servants and probably had as pleasant a crossing as was possible for anyone in the eighteenth century. She planned everything in advance, being especially careful to have enough food taken aboard because she had heard dreadful stories of ships running so short of provisions that officers had to eat the same rations as common soldiers or sailors. A good cook was aboard, and the baroness recorded that "every day we had four and often five and six dishes that were right well prepared." Several of the ship's officers' families were aboard, and the baroness shared her meals with them. She took the unavoidable hardships with good spirit. When seasickness struck the children and servants, she recruited a fifer and three drummers from among the soldiers aboard and had them all dance on the deck. There were storms when the "ship staggered so dreadfully" that she "often fell down," and it was frequently foggy and cold. But when the weather was calm, they paid visits to the other ships; and when the Blonde passed close to the Henry, which carried the German troops, the baroness accepted their cheers and held up the children for the troops to see. On the later trip home, aboard the Little Seal after the war was lost, the baroness still had her composure. She described an accident when part of the stern to which their private latrine was attached was torn away and sank. "This tore away our little Necessary," she wrote, "and it was very fortunate that no one was in it at the time."

The wives of ordinary soldiers were usually illiterate, and the conditions under which they traveled were far less comfortable, but they probably resembled the general's wife in a cheerful determination to make the best of it. And because their homes ashore were a corner of the army barracks screened off with a blanket and the food the same poor provisions allowed the men, they were used to roughing it. Yet officers, and other literate passengers, described the harsh conditions that an army in transport had to endure, often for many months. "It was always hot and in rough weather the stench was appalling," wrote a Royal Engineer subaltern of a voyage to India. "It was bad enough to pay a short visit to the troop decks. To stay down there every night and all night must have been hell. I pitied the rank and file, but men were tough in those days." So were women.

Little is known about the exact arrangements aboard transport ships before the end of the nineteenth century. It is unlikely that women and children had a separate berthing area. A description written in i8go declares, "The women on board had no privacy - all sleeping in a sort of long room or cabin in bunks in two tiers . . . There were very few bathrooms, all of them on the upper deck, and these had to be shared by all the officers and their wives. To reach the bathrooms we had to walk through two or three inches of very dirty water, as that deck - on which some horses were stalled - was also being swabbed down." The common soldiers and their families, however, had no bathing facilities. An observer on a troopship bound for China in 1841 wrote, "No one can picture the indescribable misery of the women and children . . . Dirty, haggard, and wretchedly dressed, they looked like slaves let loose." Nevertheless, this writer continued, "They had considered themselves fortunate in the miserable privilege of being included in the percentage of six women to every hundred men. Had they been left at home, they and their children would probably have been in a state of starvation. "

Both officers and soldiers were discouraged from marrying. In the 186os the standing orders of the 52nd Light Infantry read, "The regiment cannot furnish employment for more than a few women, consequently any increase of numbers diminishes the means of existence of those already belonging to the regiment. The small quantity of accommodation in barracks, the difficulty of procuring lodgings, the frequency of moving, and inconveniences attending marches and embarkations, are to be urged as dissuasives against imprudent marriages. "

When a British regiment was shipped overseas and the limit of six wives per hundred men was enforced, which women would be permitted to accompany their husbands was decided by lot. Those told they must stay behind did not always accept the verdict as final. In the confusion of getting under way, some women went aboard, taking their children, and attempted to conceal themselves until it was too late to put them ashore. They were usually caught.

Another method, employed by a soldier with the Rifle Brigade embarking for the Crimean War, was to help his woman cut her hair short, get her a uniform, and put her in the ranks as the troops were boarded. The rifleman's wife got to the top of the gangway before she was identified and put ashore. Nevertheless, she and her husband had the right idea; the surest way for an unauthorized woman to go to sea on a warship was in male disguise. Surprisingly large numbers did exactly that.

Evidence concerning disguised women who served aboard warships, either as sailors or marines, exists only for those who were somehow unmasked by someone who believed the discovery worth recording. Thus two categories of such women are beyond recovery for historians: those who sailed with the connivance of other sailors or officers - a stowaway wife or "pretty cabin boy" for the captain, whose presence was taken for granted and so never written about; and those who performed their duties at sea so well that no one who lived with them in the crowded dark forecastle ever became suspicious of them and who never had occasion in later life to reveal the secret themselves.

That a woman could live in close quarters with men without revealing her sex is hard for many people to believe. Nevertheless, there is clear evidence that numerous women did so successfully. Tall, muscular, small-breasted women who entered the service with beardless boys in their early teens seem to have required only the appropriate clothing and self-assurance to carry off the masquerade. Because so many escaped detection for years, it is a safe assumption that many others were never discovered. As the history of the pirate Mary Read suggests, even a woman with a full bosom could disguise her sex successfully. In the age of fighting sail, such women had careers at sea. One "William Brown," for instance, was able to prove eleven years of service aboard the Queen Charlotte to the satisfaction of authorities in 18 I 5. "William Brown" was a black woman who for many years held the rating of "Captain of the Maintop" in a British warship, an assignment given only to the most skilled and agile sailors. Another woman "Tom Bowling" - had to give her background when she was brought before an English magistrate for a petty crime. She had been a boatswain's mate aboard a man-of-war for over twenty years and was drawing a pension for her service.

When records show the discovery of a woman posing as a man, they usually announce that she was therefore discharged from the service. Certainly regulations forbade enlisting women as regular sailors. Indeed, one early record describes how a New York woman who enlisted as a seaman was punished, when her sex was discovered, by being dropped three times from the yardarm and then being tarred and feathered. Yet occasional evidence of females being retained in the service after discovery, both in America and abroad, suggests that there was a certain tolerance for such seamen. We have, for instance, Nellie Bowden, whose rating on the ship's books changes abruptly from "Ship's Boy" to "Domestic" as the female first name is added. Another example is found in the record of a court-martial in which one of the witnesses was "a little female tar, Elizabeth Bowden, who has been on board the Hazard these eight months. She appeared in court in a long jacket and blue trousers."

One can imagine a situation in which a "sister" might be taken for granted in the "brotherhood" of sailors. If she had been aboard for a while, doing her work, proving herself a satisfactory messmate, the discovery that she was a female might be a matter of interest, but nothing one wanted to make a fuss about; an "incest taboo" would protect the sister from attracting any unwanted sexual attentions. The ways in which the sex of a female sailor was discovered - or even more significant, the occasions on which it was kept a secret - suggest a certain amount of deliberate blindness.

Perhaps the easiest discovery ever made was that of Jeanette Colin, who abandoned ship at Trafalgar, with the rest of the crew of the French ship Achille when the powder magazine was about to blow up. She went into the water stark naked, was pulled out by the British schooner Pickle, then transferred as a prisoner of war to the Revenge. Although the fighting was still going on, the introduction of a naked lady onto the deck of the Revenge naturally attracted some attention, and there was a good bit of scurrying around to make her decent again. The first lieutenant provided a needle and thread, the purser a clean shirt and a large silk handkerchief, someone else a bit of fancy sprigged muslin, which was booty from a Spanish prize, and others collected sheets and curtains from their cots. The chaplain donated a pair of shoes. Jeanette Colin then told her story, which was a typical one. When the French fleet sailed from Cadiz, she said, according to a sailor aboard the Revenge who heard her, "all the females were ordered to go on shore; she was married, and to quit her husband could not endure the thought; she was therefore resolved to share his glory or his death. No time was lost in carrying her plan into execution; for, having rigged herself out in a suit of sailor's clothes, thus disguised, she entered on board, and went in the same ship with him, as a seaman. In this state she remained, doing duty, during the engagement, when, whilst fighting by the side of her husband, a ball killed him on the spot. " As a widow, she had no further reason to remain a sailor and gratefully accepted passage to Gibraltar on the English ship. The number of women in male dress who were serving aboard the Achille when she went down will never be known; one other was picked up by the Britannia.

It seems clear that most women who volunteered for service aboard a warship did it because of a man. Indeed, the pattern was frequent enough to have become a standard theme of folk songs. In some verses, the woman did not consult with her lover before she

Put on a jolly sailor's dress
And daubed her hands with tar
To cross the raging sea
On board a man-of-war.

Sometimes, both in story and in fact, the man was not pleased to find his lady love at his side. Women might follow a man not only for love, but also out of hate. Deserted wives and lovers, determined to have their rights from a man known to have enlisted on a warship or in a regiment being shipped abroad, would contrive to take passage in the same way. A woman too poor to pay her traveling expenses might find this the most practical method.

Some women wronged by a man drifted into a permanent career at sea. This appears to be the case with Mary Anne Talbot, who published a long and detailed memoir of her life. Like all old sailors' reminiscences, it must be taken with a grain of salt, but there is supporting evidence for most of the main details. She first went to sea in male clothing in 1792 as a servant to an officer whose regiment had been ordered to the West Indies. Later, when the regiment was ordered to Flanders, she served under the officer as a drummer. She later claimed that her service was against her will, that the officer was a villain who had seduced her and kept her with him by force. In any event, she deserted from the regiment in 1793, disguised herself as a sailor, and enlisted on a French ship that turned out to be a privateer. Talbot served as a regular member of the crew, but because she refused to fight against her own people, she said, she was severely beaten.

Eventually the privateer was taken by the English warship Queen Charlotte. Talbot convinced the admiral that she was on the privateer innocently and so was sent aboard the Brunswick, where she carried powder for the guns and was eventually promoted to principal cabin boy. On the Brunswick she was wounded in action in the Glorious First of June - grapeshot breaking the bone near her ankle and lodging in the thigh just above her knee. Although she was treated for these injuries by the surgeon in the cockpit and later in a hospital ashore, when she was healed she enlisted as a midshipman on board the Vesuvius. Either the doctors had not discovered her sex or they did not care. Once in her career she deliberately revealed her sex, after she was seized by a press gang and preferred not to embark. She eventually retired from the sea, collecting a pension of twenty pounds a year. She joined a theater company for a while, performing male and female roles.

Avoiding a press gang was the motivation for another woman to interrupt a naval career by voluntarily confessing her sex. In I759 a woman aged about twenty and dressed in sailors' clothing was seized by the press in Plymouth. When she was put with other forced recruits into the town jail to prevent her escape, she confessed to being female. Her name was Hannah Whitney, she told the authorities, and she had been serving aboard British warships for five years. They would never have discovered her sex, she told them smugly, if they had not put her in a common jail. The press, then, was forced to release her. Whether she reenlisted at some time and place of her own choosing is unknown.

Perhaps the most incredible story of concealment, in which the woman revealed her sex only when she applied for a pension, is that of Hannah Snell. She enlisted in military service to find the husband who had left her penniless and pregnant. The child died soon after birth, and in I743 "James Gray" enlisted in the army. Military discipline was severe in those days, and when charged by a sergeant with neglect of duty, the new recruit was sentenced to receive six hundred lashes. Did anyone notice anything unusual about "James Gray" when the recent mother was stripped to the waist for punishment? If so, it made very little difference; the officers interceded, but only after "James Gray" had taken five hundred lashes. At this point, however, Hannah Snell deserted; a month later she signed up with a regiment of marines.

The regiment embarked aboard the Swallow, and here her work seemed to give satisfaction. The officers were pleased at the new private's skill at washing, mending, and cooking, and they also praised her courage when the marines saw action. At the siege of Pondicherry, Hannah Snell was one of the first invasion group that crossed the river, with water chest-deep, under fire from French batteries. She was on guard duty in the picket ground for seven nights in succession, and then spent two weeks in the trenches. Eventually she was put out of action by wounds - six bullets in her right leg, five in the left, and one in her abdomen. Once again, one wonders about military surgeons, for it appears that Snell kept the abdominal wound secret from them, allowing only her legs to be treated, and took care of the most serious injury herself with the help of a black woman of the army to whom she confessed her sex.

After a stay in the hospital, she was assigned to the Tartar Pink, where she performed the duties of a sailor, and then to the Eltham. Aboard the latter she ran into trouble again when she was suspected of stealing a shirt; she spent five days confined in irons and then was given five lashes. Otherwise, she got on well with her shipmates. They teased her a bit about not having a beard, calling her "Miss Molly Gray," but they were soon convinced she was a regular guy, and "James Gray" became known aboard as "Hearty jemmy."

Hannah Snell retired from the sea in I750 and her history soon became common knowledge. As Mary Anne Talbot would do later, Snell supplemented a government pension by going on the stage. She had a good singing voice and was engaged to play the roles of various military and naval heroes, and to perform the manual and platoon exercises with a musket for the amusement of landlubbers who had never before seen a female marine. Later she found a still easier way to capitalize on her notoriety by opening a tavern. The signboard carried a portrait of her in uniform, under which was inscribed, "The Widow in Masquerade, or the Female Warrior."

The history of the United States Navy does not begin until the last decades of the eighteenth century. Sea warfare during the War for American Independence was mostly in the hands of America's allies, France and Spain, or of privateers, like John Paul Jones, and hastily assembled state navies.

American seafarers, however, drew from the British traditions, and the sporadic appearance of women on fighting ships continues in the naval history of the new nation. There were women aboard the galleys of the Pennsylvania Navy in I776; we know because they were treated for "the itch" by a Quaker woman in New Jersey. And we know that Mary Pricely served as a nurse aboard the Maryland Navy's ship Defence during 1777 because she was paid for her services by the Maryland Council of Safety, although, as was customary, her name does not appear on the ship's muster roll. And we know that John Paul Jones sailed with a woman aboard at least once - when he captured the Drake and his prisoners included the cook's wife.

Nevertheless, American naval practices came to diverge from those of the British. The most important difference was that the United States did not use force to recruit sailors for military service. Therefore, sailors could be allowed shore leave and there was no need for the system of shipboard prostitution that was so notorious a part of life on a British man-of-war in port. That is not to say that there were no prostitutes in American ports. A sailor arriving in New York aboard the Ontario in 18I7 wrote, "Scarcely had our anchor gone from the bow, before the ship was surrounded by land sharks and bad women; the latter, however, were not permitted to come aboard." Sailors who were not overly inhibited by moral scruples could visit the bad women during liberty hours. More significant, sailors who wanted to indulge in the deeper pleasures of holy matrimony could visit their homes and children. Since the United States did not maintain fleets on distant stations, visits home were, if not frequent, at least less infrequent than those of British sailors. Furthermore, an American Navy man need not fear that he would be immediately posted to a new ship every time he reached port, without any chance to visit home. Finally, if a sailor wanted family life, he was free, in the United States, to leave the navy after his tour and enlist on a fishing vessel that was at sea for shorter periods. If he could accumulate enough capital, he could even become master of his own ship and take his family along when he went to sea.

Officers and petty and warrant officers in the American Navy continued to follow the British traditions governing wives at sea. When a squadron of warships was sent to the Mediterranean in 1803, Commodore Richard Valentine Morris, aboard the frigate Chesapeake, was accompanied by his wife, an infant son, and a black lady's maid. The regulations stated - echoing those of Great Britain - that no woman could go to sea without the permission of the Navy Department or the commander of the squadron. As Commodore, Morris obviously felt entitled to grant such permission. Nor was he stingy with it, for he allowed other men to bring their wives aboard. While cruising the Mediterranean, the wife of James Low, captain of the forecastle, went into labor. The familiar home remedy was applied: Chesapeake fired a broadside, and into the world came a new little son-of-a-gun. One of the midshipmen, Melancthon Taylor Woolsey, was asked to stand as godfather, and the baby was named for him. In return, the midshipman arranged for a "handsome collation of wine & fruit" to follow the infant's christening. The new mother was unwell, so the wife of the gunner, Mrs. Hayes, stood in for her. This signal honor for Mrs. Hayes suddenly brought a few other women into the glare of the historical record, for Midshipman Henry Wadsworth recorded in his journal, "The other Ladies of the Bay - The Forward most part of the Birth Deck [sic] - viz. Mrs. Watson: the Boatswain's wife, Mrs. Myres the Carpenter's Lady - with Mrs. Crosby the corporal's lady; got drunk in their own Quarters out of pure spite - not being invited to celebrate the Christening of Melancthon Woolsey Low."

During the next two decades, several courts-martial arose from the presence of women aboard American Navy ships. In each case the woman's bad character was more at issue than her gender. One has the distinct impression that if they had not made enemies aboard nobody would have said anything about their presence. The first case was initiated by a letter to the Navy Department, from the master's mate of a gunboat commanded by Lieutenant John B. Nicholson, complaining about the woman Nicholson had taken aboard at Norfolk. "We are all hands liked to famished to death for want of water on the passage [to Cuba] in consequence of her having expended about one gallon per day washing her face and hands three or four times per day," he wrote. It was not safe to complain to the captain about this female; she was able to use her influence to have men flogged and disrated and did so. "There was never peace nor quietness after she came on board," the mate told the gentlemen of the Navy Department, "and I expect that I shall have to quit the navy in consequence of her which I must say I am very sorry of it, and I think the gun boats have come to a very high pitch when they are commanded by Common Prostitutes . . ." Lieutenant Nicholson was tried in November 1809 and found guilty of "absolutely unmorally and Scandalously Keeping a prostitute of the vilest class on board his vessel to the destruction of discipline and the dishonor of an officer." Nicholson was cashiered.

Meanwhile, two midshipmen, Thomas C. Magruder and William Peters, who commanded gunboats, had also taken female companions aboard. They went unnoticed by higher authority until the following spring, when Commodore David Porter received an anonymous letter. What seems to have disturbed Porter most was the charge that the midshipmen had cruelly mistreated the crew "at the instigation of the said prostitute." The court-martial on these cases found that charge not proved, and, indeed, concluded that the chief witness, Purser Steward Berryman, was guilty of perjury and sentenced him to be confined in wrist irons aboard Peters's vessel for thirty-nine days. The mere presence of prostitutes was a trivial matter; the midshipmen got off with a reprimand. The defense offered by Midshipman Peters suggests the attitudes of the time. Avoiding the central issue, namely, the unsavory reputation of his female guest, Peters argued to the court that "occasional indulgence in dalliance with the fair sex need not necessarily be construed as harming the interests of the Navy or demoralizing its men." And, "as to keeping a woman on board the vessel . . . he urges in excuse or justification Example & Precedent, of those superior in rank and older in service."

The next officer to get into trouble because of a female aboard his ship was Midshipman Robert N. Nichols, whose offense was marrying the woman. Nichols had taken one Hannah Damewood aboard a vessel in the Lake Ontario Squadron commanded by Captain M. T. Woolsey. Woolsey knew Miss Damewood; she had been a servant in his home, and he had fired her because she was "lazy and filthy and supposed to be dishonest." Nichols claimed that he had first asked her aboard to nurse him when he was ill; the court of inquiry did not find reason to question that statement or to believe that Nichols had violated Captain Woolsey's standing order in bringing her aboard the ship: But after recovering from his illness, Nichols had gone before a justice of the peace and married the woman who had been considered unfit to serve as a servant in the captain's home. In doing so, "he has disgraced himself as an officer and a gentleman by his alliance, destroyed his reputation, and placed an unmoveable stigma on his character." That, however, was not grounds for either a court-martial or a divorce; and perhaps the shipboard nurse who had won an honest proposal of marriage did not deserve the bad reputation the captain gave her.

Because American seamen were not forced into military service and American soldiers were not sent overseas, there was far less motive for women to disguise themselves as men to join the navy. Yet there is a memoir, dating from the War of 1812, of a woman who went to sea as a United States Marine aboard the U.S.S. Constitution. Unlike the memoirs of Mary Anne Talbot and Hannah Snell, The Female Marine, or Adventures of Miss Lucy Brewer was published under a pseudonym. "Miss Brewer" carefully disguised her real identity to protect her family, not so much from the knowledge that they had had a daughter in the Marines, which should be nothing to be ashamed of, but from the knowledge that she joined the Marines to escape from a house of prostitution. Because of her desire for anonymity it has been impossible to find evidence definitely confirming - or refuting - the statements presented in the book. "Miss Lucy Brewer" never applied for a government pension, but she must have made a tidy sum from the sale of her book, which went into several printings.

Someone else may have made money too, for another pamphlet, published by Rachel Sperry, adds some details to the Brewer story. Its legitimacy, however, is also impossible to determine. Mrs. Sperry was the proprietor of Lucy Brewer's brothel. She had never been told the real name of the pregnant sixteen-year-old she had taken in, but she immediately recognized both "Lucy" and herself when she read a copy of The Female Marine and wrote her own pamphlet to defend her reputation.

The Brewer story is a lively one. Pregnant and deserted by her lover, Lucy had walked forty miles from her home in a Massachusetts town to Boston rather than disgrace her parents. She claimed Mrs. Sperry tricked her; Mrs. Sperry said Lucy knew exactly what she was doing when she accepted an offer of employment. At any rate, after her baby was born - and soon died - she was one of the "naughty ladies" in Mrs. Sperry's stable. There she met a young lieutenant from the Constitution who suggested to her that by dressing in men's clothing she could leave Mrs. Sperry's house without fear of prosecution or jail and that the disguise would also give her the freedom to travel and find adventure. He told her about Deborah Sampson, whose experiences in the army during the American Revolution, disguised as a male, were described in the popular book The Female Review. "From this moment," Brewer wrote, "I became dissatisfied with my situation in life I felt now no other disposition than in disguise to visit other parts of the country, and to pursue a course of life less immoral and destructive to my peace and happiness in this life."

Brewer describes how she bought sailors' clothing, bandaged her breasts, and put on a pair of tight underpants. Thus disguised she presented herself as a new recruit, avoiding a physical examination by an "artful stratagem." The stratagem, according to Mrs. Sperry, was the direct intervention of the lieutenant, who introduced the prospective Marine as his cousin. Rank had its privileges, and Lucy Brewer was enlisted. In fact, there may have been connivance in enabling the lieutenant to smuggle a woman aboard. Women were not supposed to be recruited, but then neither were free black men, and the Constitution carried a number of black sailors whose courage was commended in official reports. Regulations should never be confused with reality.

Brewer went aboard ignorant of the use of firearms, but, as was the custom, new recruits were drilled on the deck and, she wrote, "I soon learnt to load and discharge with an expertness not surpassed by any in my corps." Perhaps not much expertness was required. It was common for as many as half the Marines aboard a warship to be young recruits, and few were apt to be experienced marksmen.

Brewer first saw action after only seventeen days at sea, when the Constitution engaged the British frigate Guerriere. Brewer described her feelings before battle: "I felt an extreme desire to render myself conspicuous, and to perform that which woman never before achieved." Most of Brewer's descriptions of engagements, like those of other sailors polishing up their memoirs for publication, contain little that is not in the newspaper accounts. She describes the battle with the Guerriere and another famous battle with the Java. On life below decks, she is silent; perhaps she maintained her friendship with the lieutenant. At any rate, there was certainly never any official record of a female being aboard the Constitution during the three years Brewer claimed to have been on active duty. The secret was kept very well.

After the War of 1812, the unofficial practice of taking wives to sea continued. The record of their presence, when it exists, is almost always in private papers, not official records, so it is impossible to say exactly when the last wife embarked with a navy ship on active duty. Susan Dillwyn Conner, the wife of Captain David Conner, was with him when the sloop-of-war John Adams sailed to the Mediterranean in 1834; we know because she kept a journal, which is preserved in the Philadelphia Maritime Museum. As late as 1810, Harriet D. Welles accompanied her husband on a tour of duty aboard the U.S.S. New Orleans. The journal she kept is preserved in the Library of Congress and records her impressions of Navy life and the sights she saw in Shanghai, Yokahama, Chuzenjui, Hong Kong, and Manila. Women who enlisted in the Navy disguised as men also continue to appear occasionally into the present century. For instance, in March 1907, John Wilkinson, a sailor aboard the American battleship Vermont, was discovered to be a female while "he" was taking a bath.

Although their numbers declined as the nineteenth century progressed, women taken to sea aboard Navy ships attained a new high in status as contributing members of their companies during the Civil War. Indeed, during that war, a woman briefly commanded an American warship. Her tenure was irregular, unofficial, unrecognized, and unrewarded; nevertheless, it was definitely a success. The woman was the wife of a warrant officer aboard the Federal brigantine J.P. Ellicott, which was captured by the Confederate privateer Retribution in 1863. The officers and men were all taken aboard the Southern vessel, while a prize crew was put aboard the J.P. Ellicott. No one bothered about the woman, presuming a female to be harmless, and she was left to putter around the galley and serve refreshments. Exploiting the enemy's weaknesses, the woman got the entire prize crew drunk. This should not have been possible. A year earlier, Congress had passed a law stating, "On September i, 1862, the spirit ration shall forever cease and thereafter no distilled spirituous liquor shall be admitted on board vessels of war." Neither liquor nor a woman should have been aboard a United States Navy ship, but in this case it was fortunate that both were. When the Confederates were suitably inebriated, the Yankee woman secured them all below deck, took over the vessel single-handedly, and piloted it into the harbor at St. Thomas, where she surrendered her prisoners - and her command.

What was new during the Civil War, however, was not female courage, ingenuity, or seamanship, for these had frequently been displayed before. The novelty was the acceptance aboard navy ships of women who were neither wives whose work was taken for granted nor females disguised as men, but merely people with a job to do.

The first women to board a commissioned vessel of the U.S. Navy with a job description unrelated to marital status were four members of the Sisters of the Holy Cross and five black women: Sisters Veronica, Calista, Adela, and St. John of the Cross, assisted by Alice Kennedy, Sarah Kinno, Ellen Campbell, Betsy Young, and Dennis Downs. The first of them boarded the hospital ship U.S.S. Red Rover on Christmas Eve 1862, and although it would be nearly half a century before Congress recognized the existence of a Navy Nurse Corps, these nine women were, in effect, its founders. Other women served aboard civilian ships operating as floating hospitals during the war, and since 1730 "washerwomen" had been aboard hospital ships commissioned by the British Navy. But the washerwomen were equivalent to captain's servants, that is, chosen from wives of the crew, and the women who served aboard Sanitary Commission hospital ships were clearly civilians. The status of the women aboard the U.S.S. Red Rover was rather different.

The Sisters of the Holy Cross were not a nursing order. They were no better trained in giving medical care than the average American woman of the time; they learned after they were assigned to the work. What made them valuable as military nurses was that they were part of a disciplined corps that understood military discipline and the chain of command. Until the Navy was ready to integrate women workers into its own hierarchy, some such substitute was needed to avoid anarchy.

The U.S. S. Red Rover was the first hospital ship ever commissioned by the American Navy. Originally built as a barge to carry ice, it was refitted at the time it was restaffed. In addition to a huge icebox, it had bathrooms, a laundry, and an elevator to move patients from lower-deck berths to the operating room on the top deck. This was far more comfortable for both patients and medical personnel than making do in the cockpit, as was necessary in the days when warships were the only Navy ships and had to be self-sustaining, operating without auxiliaries

It took many years for women serving on hospital ships to be recognized as military personnel. Today they are taken for granted. Indeed, the contemporary ban on women serving aboard "combat" vessels in the navy specifically excludes nurses.

When North fought South in the War Between the States, there was relatively little action on the high seas. Yet each side attempted to blockade the ports of the other and captured civilian prizes far from home. Women engaged in respectable businesses, whaling or commerce, might find themselves taken as prisoners of war because their vessel was registered in an "enemy" state. They did not take kindly to having their lives disrupted by what some of them viewed as the childishness of male naval officers. Mrs. Nichols, wife of the captain of a Maine merchant vessel, Delphine, was clearly in a fury when she was forced to transfer herself, her six year-old son, the steward's wife, and all of their baggage aboard the Confederate cruiser Shenandoah, which had "captured" the unarmed Delphine in the middle of the Indian Ocean. "Young man," she said severely to the Confederate captain as soon as she was on deck, "you should be ashamed of yourself, going around sinking ships and barks belonging to honest folk. What would your mother say?"

To Mrs. Nichols, freedom of the seas was the most important of all political principles. The concerns of land were remote from her life on the ocean. Even in wartime, seafaring families of the nineteenth century lived in a world apart.

The MINERVA Center for Studies of Women in War
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