From Eccentric to Heroine
by Terry Hogan
There is nothing constant about history. History is reinvented in our own image. It evolves and is rewritten to fit our need for comfort; to fit our need for heroes. This can be a disconcerting realization. But it is one we must come to accept and, as they say, “live with it”.
One historical character has been the beneficiary of the need to rewrite history. His/her name is Albert D. J. Cashier/ Jennie Hodgers. She was one of those few women who became a man in order to fight in the Civil War. Their reasons varied, depending upon their circumstances. In some cases, it was to go to war with a loved one. In Albert’s/Jennie’s case, it may have been a personal preference to be seen as a man, or it may have been a practical economic advantage gained by being male. Whatever the reason, it was a hard secret to keep over a lifetime.
She was once considered eccentric and an oddity. However, with the increased acceptance of “gender bending”, there seems to be an increasing need for historic figures to somehow legitimize it all. Albert/Jennie has gone from an eccentric figure to a heroine and tourist attraction. Such is the flexibility of history.
Jennie is now a hero/heroine. She can be found all over the Internet. She had a play made about her, titled “Going from Hero to Heroine” which was reviewed by the New York Times on September 30, 1998. She is the subject of several books. She was recently featured on National Public Radio. The piece can be heard on the Internet at www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyID=104452266. If you listen to it, you may recognize Rodney Davis, a retired professor of history at Knox College. In one of those quirky coincidences, Rodney Davis’s great grandfather was Jennie’s/Albert’s commanding officer. The piece was done by Linda Paul.
Jennie/Albert is so “hot” that even Jesse Jackson, Jr., Illinois Congressman, has an article reprinted on his homepage that ends with “Paid for and maintained by Jesse Jackson, Jr. for Congress” (www.jessejacksonjr.org/query/creadpr.cgi?id=4531). I don’t want to even think about what voting niche Jackson was going after. Perhaps it was the cross-dressing, right-wing, Irish militia vote?
So why am I writing about this? She is one of Illinois’ own. She fought with Company G of the 95th Illinois Regiment. The unit was recruited in Rockford, Illinois. And Jennie is buried in Saunemin, Illinois. Saunemin is due east of Galesburg, a little east of I-55. Saunemin is a sleepy little town that took a while to warm up to the idea of a civil war cross-dresser becoming a celebrity. But Saunemin sees folks arriving to visit her grave which has two stones, one for Albert Cashier and one for Jennie Hodgers. Saunemin is now working hard to restore the small one-room house that she lived in. Jennie is becoming a tourist attraction and a source of income for a town that needs it.
So what do we really know about Jennie? Not a lot for certain. It appears that she was fairly flexible when it came to talking about herself. Considering her circumstances in the 1860s, it is not too surprising, I guess. The general consensus is that she was Jennie Irene Hodgers. She was born in or near 1844 in Clogher Head, Ireland. She is reported to have been the daughter of Patrick and Sallie Hodgers.
There are different versions of how she came to America. Apparently most of them came from Jennie. In any event, it is known that she was living in Belvidere, Illinois in 1862, where she enlisted on August 3rd. Dressed as a male, she filled out the paperwork at the recruiting location and then left as Albert Cashier.
The North, like the South, was interested in warm bodies that could see reasonably well; could walk; could talk; and appeared to be at least near normal intelligence. There was no physical exam. Her 5 feet height did not create interest or concern, as far as can be determined.
Jennie arrived at Rockford on September 3, 1862 and reported to Camp Fuller. Her army training had begun. Jennie was now Private Albert Cashier. I can only speculate that cleanliness was not a big issue and there were no open group bathing or bathroom facilities.
On November 2nd, Jennie/Albert left for Columbus Kentucky with her unit. The unit was part of Illinois’s own U.S. Grant’s command. It became part of the First Brigade, 6th Division of the 13th Army Corps. It has been reported that over the next three years, the 95th Illinois Infantry traveled an estimated 9,960 miles, mostly on foot. The unit saw battle in several places, including Vicksburg and the Red River Campaign.
Typically in cold weather, soldiers slept three in a tent. It was crowded but it helped to keep warm. Despite this, none of her fellow soldiers apparently detected her secret.
After the war, she was mustered out. She was still Albert. She remained Albert in civilian life. For a single woman, it provided the opportunity for greater independence and better pay. That may have been the motivation. Or perhaps she just preferred it based on personal preference. She traveled around Illinois for awhile but settled in Saunemin. She worked at various jobs including a farmhand and the town lamplighter. Joshua Chesebro, a farmer whom she worked for, built her a one-room house that still stands today, although it had quite a life of moving about. It has now been returned to Saunemin which apparently intends to restore it.
Albert accomplished some amazing things. Albert applied for, and received, a pension, despite the pension requiring a physical exam. Somehow, the pension was issued in 1907, but Albert’s secret was either somehow un-noted, or it was concluded to be irrelevant. Both options seem implausible for that era. But nevertheless, Albert began to receive a pension of $8 a month.
Ironically, what Albert was able to hide in the Civil War become known in civilian life. Albert became ill in 1910. A nurse was summoned to examine Albert. The nurse’s examination revealed that Albert did not quite have all the right shapes and all the right parts to be considered a male.
Albert also ran into problems with an Illinois Senator named Ira M. Lish. While Albert was working for Senator Lish, he backed over him, while driving the only car in town. Albert was then 67 years old. In 1911, Albert became a resident of the Illinois Soldier’s and Sailor’s Home in Quincy. Albert was forced to go there as he was no longer able to take care of his own needs and he had no apparent relatives. For reasons not at all clear (unless perhaps Senator Lish intervened?), the Home administrators decided to maintain Albert’s secret. But it could not be maintained. Two male nurses discovered Albert’s atypical physiology when they used force to give Albert a bath.
Albert’s final years were not happy. The Pension Bureau began an investigation whether Jennie was really Albert who fought with the 95th Illinois Infantry. About the same time, Albert/Jennie suffered dementia and she was sent to the women’s ward of an asylum. She was forced to wear dresses, which she would try to pin up like men’s pants. She fell repeatedly as a result, and died in the asylum on October 15, 1915.
Albert/Jennie, however, was buried in her soldier’s uniform, with a complete military funeral. She has the civil war military marker to prove it. Her markers can be found at the Sunny Slope Cemetery at Saunemin, Illinois.
She may have been born as Jennie, but she was buried as Albert, a civil war veteran who served his country for three long years.
It is just another story about one of Illinois’s own.
NPR Public Radio www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104452266
“Women in the Civil War- Jennie Irene Hodgers/ Albert Cashier”, www.geocities.com/civil_warcontinues/JennieIHodgers.html
“When Jennie Comes Marchin’ Home” www.lib.niu.edu/1994/ihy940230.html
“Vicksburg, Only by Accident…” National Park Service, Vicksburg National Military Park
“Jennie Came Marching Home” by Mike Conklin, Chicago Tribune, Sept. 5, 2001 www.jessejacksonjr.org/query/creadpr.cgi?id=4531
“Jennie’s Secret: A Soldier’s Story”. Chicago Public Radio. www.chicagopublicradio.org/Content.aspx?audioID=34370
“Civil War Women”. August 2, 2007. civilwarwomen.blogspot.com/2007/08/jennie-hodgers.html
“Theater Review; Going from Hero to Heroine”. Anita Gates. September 30, 1988. The New York Times www.nytimes.com/1998/09/30/theater/theater-review-going-from-hero-to-heroine.html
“87 years ago: Jennie Hodgers: Army Vet”. Edward T. O’Donnell. Irish Echo on line. May 27-June 2, 2009. www.irishecho.com/newspaper/story.cfm?id=11809
“Also Known as Albert D. J. Cashier: The Jennie Hodgers Story, or How one Young Irish Girl Joined the Union Army During the Civil War”. By Lon P. Dawson. www.compassrose.org/books/jennie.html
Joel Pounds, 2009. Personal Communications. Email suggesting Albert Cashier as a suitable subject for a story in Backtracking.