Thursday, January 2, 2014

On This Date in Minnesota History: January 2

January 2, 1863 – Jack Williams was discharged from the Union Army on this date after being wounded during the Battle of Stone River in Murfreesbo, Tenn., and discovered while in the hospital to be a woman.1

Williams was in fact Frances Clalin Clayton, a farm wife from Minnesota and mother of three, who along with her husband Elmer Clayton had enlisted in a Missouri regiment to fight in the American Civil War. 

Clalin as as a soldier and in female dress

According to a St. Paul Daily Press article dated May 26, 1863, Frances’ husband wanted to join the army, and she was determined to go with him (there is no mention of who took care of their children). “Elmer Clayton procured her a suit of men’s clothes, a false mustache and goatee, and the two were mustered in Co. A. 13th Missouri Cavalry.”A disguise was necessary as “both the Union and Confederate armies forbade the enlistment of women.”4

“It was not that hard for Clalin to convincingly play the part of Jack Williams. She was tall and masculine, and had tan skin. She had also worked on perfecting manly activities such as smoking, drinking, chewing tobacco, swearing and gambling. Clalin was quite fond of cigars as well. By doing these things, Clalin increased her manly character so that she would fit in and others wouldn't see past her disguise.

Clalin was also reported to be a good ‘horse-man’ and ‘swordsman’, and the way she carried herself in stride was soldierly, erect, and masculine. She was well trained and knew her duties well, but was also a respected person who commanded attention in the way she acted. It was said of Clalin in one report that she did her duties at all times and was considered to be a fighting man.”

Frances and ”Elmer served side-by-side until he died during the Battle of Stones River (or Murfreesboro) on December 31, 1862. He was only a few feet in front of Frances at the time, but some sources say that she didn't stop fighting - she stepped over his body and charged when the commands came.”5

“After being discharged Clalin tried to get back to Minnesota to collect the bounty owed her and Elmer, as well as to get some of his belongings. It’s also speculated that she wanted to reenlist, but was unable to. Her train was attacked by a Confederate guerrilla party and she was robbed of her papers and money. She then went from Missouri to Minnesota, to Grand Rapids, Michigan and on to Quincy, Illinois. In Quincy a fund was created to aid her quest for payment by former soldiers and friends. Frances was last reported to be headed for Washington, DC.”5


A Curious Incident—A St. Paul Girl in Rosecran’s Army…[Mr.] Clayton determined to join the army and his wife avowed her intention of accompanying him. He procured her a suit of men’s clothes, a false mustache and goatee, and the two were mustered in Co. A. 13th Missouri Cavalry…She was in the battle of Shiloh, and was twice wounded…and again, at the battle of Murfeesburo, in which her husband was killed on the third day. She saw him fall, being in a skirmish, rode three times past the body before she had the opportunity of picking him up…She arrived in the city on Sunday morning…She says there are a number of women in the service. She could recognize them, though the men could not…She avows that she is not afraid of anything that lives. We believe it.

St Paul Daily Press, May 26, 1863. This is one of several description of Frances Clayton, a Minnesota woman said to have served in a Virginia, Ohio or Minnesota regiment. Historical and current accounts conflict on almost every major point—dizzyingly so.  Was she misquoted?

3Minnesota History Center Civil War Exhibit; March 2–Sept. 8, 2013

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