By: Caroline Draper ’22, a History major.
The following work was created for FYS 101: Queer Popular Culture.
Brief description: “Written as a part of the First Year Seminar ‘Queer Pop Culture,’ this essay looks at a century’s worth of media portrayals of the story of Albert D.J. Cashier, a veteran of the American Civil War remembered for challenging 19thcentury gender norms.”
The Civility of Albert Cashier, a musical which debuted in Chicago in 2017, tells the story of a Civil War veteran who was revealed years after the war’s end to be female. This tale is particularly potent when paired with recent controversy surrounding the service of transgender individuals in the armed forces of the United States. The show is based on a true story, that of Albert Cashier, an Irish-American soldier that fought for an Illinois regiment of the Union Army in the Civil War. In 1914, when Cashier was an elderly man living in Illinois, it was discovered that the esteemed veteran was female-bodied, and had nevertheless spent more than half a century living as a man.[i]The Civility of Albert Cashier is only the most recent interpretation of this story which has been widely told over the last century. Cashier was also one of many soldiers discussed in the book They Fought Like Demons, a study of women soldiers in the Civil War published in 2002. Unlike the musical, this book tells Cashier’s story as that of a woman who disguised herself as a man in order to free herself from the restraints Victorian America placed on women. Long before either of these works were created, Cashier’s story could be read in newspaper articles published after his sex was discovered in 1914. With headlines such as “Played Man All Her Life” and “Posed as Man 60 Years”, these articles also portray Cashier as a woman.
In the presence of so many variations on this same story, each with its own interpretation of Cashier’s gender, one is left wondering about the truth of the matter. As one writer phrases it, was Albert Cashier a “woman warrior, insane Civil War veteran, or transman?”.[ii] Pressing as it may be, this question is impossible to answer conclusively, because it endeavors to place a label on Cashier’s gender identity. Gender identity, as defined by the American Psychological Association, is an “inherent sense of being a boy, a man, or male; a girl, a woman, or female; or an alternative gender”; it is a perception of the self which can be determined only by the individual in question.[iii] In the absence of any personal account by Cashier on the subject of his gender identity, one cannot effectively label it. What this paper endeavors to do is therefore not to label Cashier’s gender identity, but rather, to analyze how recent interpretations of Cashier’s story have been shaped by modern discourses surrounding gender in comparison to how he was viewed by his contemporaries.
The Life of Albert D.J. Cashier
Albert Cashier’s early life is difficult to trace. Records of his birth and his whereabouts as a child are scarce, and the accounts of his past he gave later in life are very inconsistent and contradictory. Researchers have observed he was “reticent about [his] life prior to the war and usually refused to talk about [his] family”.[iv] It is known that before he assumed a masculine identity, Albert Cashier’s name was Jennie Hodgers.[v] It is believed that he was born in Ireland around 1844 and moved to America as a child. Cashier once told the story that his family had emigrated to New York when he was a child, and that it was there his step-father had dressed him in boy’s clothes so that he could get a job at a nearby factory.[vi] Cashier told many stories about his past and the reasons for which he assumed a masculine identity. Of those, the above is perhaps the most probable.
Whatever his reasons for becoming Albert Cashier, it is clear that by the start of the Civil War the young Irish immigrant had moved to Illinois and left behind any trace of Jennie Hodgers. A record for the enlistment of “Cashire [sic], Albert DJ” in the 95th Illinois Infantry appears on August 6, 1862, describing the enlisted soldier as nineteen years of age, five feet three inches tall with auburn hair, blue eyes, and a light complexion.[vii] According to these records, Cashier served three years in the Union Army, and was discharged on August 7, 1865, three months after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. Once free from the service, Cashier returned to Illinois, and in 1869 settled in the small town of Saunemin, where he lived and worked for the next several decades as a handyman and farm laborer.[viii]
In 1911, Cashier was helping his employer, Illinois state senator Ira Lish, when the senator accidentally backed over him in his car, breaking his leg near the hip. It was as he was treated for a broken thigh that, after fifty years, Cashier’s sex was discovered.[ix] Cashier’s neighbors agreed to keep this discovery a secret and, as he was nearing the age of seventy and left disabled by the accident, arranged for him to be moved to the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home, a nursing home for veterans in Quincy, Illinois. Doctors and staff at the soldiers’ home were instructed to keep Cashier’s sex a secret and appear to have stayed true to this promise for much of the time he was there.[x]
They Fought Like Demons and Women’s Visibility
Published in 2002, They Fought Like Demons is a nonfiction book which provides an extensive study of women soldiers in the American Civil War. As the book illustrates, Cashier’s situation was by no means unique in terms of his military service. Coauthors DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook discuss more than two hundred and forty cases of women that fought in the Civil War. Within this research, Cashier’s story is discussed at great length, indeed at greater length than some others, because it is a more commonly known case of a female soldier from this time. As with each of the soldiers discussed in They Fought Like Demons, Cashier is referred to with feminine pronouns and regarded as a woman that disguised herself as a man in order to join the army. Of Cashier’s reasons for continuing to present as a man after his term of service was up the book states, “she undoubtedly recognized that she would find many more employment opportunities if the world continued to perceive her as a man”, suggesting Cashier’s motivation for maintaining a masculine identity was out of economic interests.[xi]
This book, along with its remarkable stories of women soldiers, has a fascinating story behind its writing. Lauren Cook, who coauthored the book with DeAnne Blanton, was inspired to document the stories of these women after battling sex discrimination herself as a woman in the world of Civil War reenactment. Cook was for many years an avid participant in Civil War reenactments and had trained to play the role of a soldier in such events.[xii] To properly portray the role, she would go to such lengths as “binding her breasts, wearing her hair short and occasionally using charcoal to give her face a five o’clock shadow”.[xiii] This hobby sparked controversy in 1989, when Cook was confronted by a park ranger at Antietam National Battlefield and told she would not be allowed to participate in the reenactment scheduled for that day if she continued to dress as a soldier, as she was a woman and this would be historically inaccurate.[xiv] Cook responded by suing the National Parks Service for sex discrimination, and in 1993 a U.S. District Court ruled in her favor. The National Park Service was banned from excluding participants from living history exhibitions on account of sex, and precedent was established for women such as Cook who wish to participate in the combat portion of Civil War reenactments.[xv] Cook, however, wanted to make more than a legal argument for women in Civil War reenactment. When she first filed her suit, a spokesperson for Antietam National Battlefield is quoted in the New York Times as saying, “If you’re going to portray anything here at Antietam, you have to portray an accurate picture”.[xvi] What Cook wanted to prove was not just that she had been the victim of sex discrimination, but that this justification of that discrimination as a matter of historical accuracy was completely unfounded. Thus, she began researching the hundreds of women who fought in the Civil War disguised as men.[xvii]
That Cook had this motivation for bringing to light the overlooked stories of women soldiers is not to say that her book is in anyway unreliable or inaccurate. Indeed, much of the factual evidence on Cashier’s life presented in this paper was collected from They Fought Like Demons. As phrased in a Smithsonian article on Cook’s work, “Lauren Cook Burgess wasn’t interested in historical revisionism, which implies an ideological reworking with distinctly political overtones. She just wanted to set the record straight”.[xviii] However, the case of Albert Cashier is one which is particularly ambiguous and open to interpretation when it comes to the issue of gender. Whether Cashier should be considered a man or a woman, or something else entirely is unclear, and in writing about Cashier’s story, it is necessary for an author to make certain decisions about how to frame gender, such as what pronouns to use. In this sense Cook chose to portray Cashier as a woman, using feminine pronouns and discussing his story as that of a woman disguised as a man. This framing of Cashier’s gender should be understood as a choice which was influenced by Cook’s personal reasons for writing.
The Civility of Albert Cashier and Transgender Military Service
On June 30, 2016, the U.S. Department of Defense lifted a ban which had previously prevented transgender Americans from serving openly in the armed forces. This was an important victory for the transgender movement. It not only allowed trans individuals to serve in the military, but also gave trans service members access to health care which supported the medical aspects of their transition.[xix] This victory was short lived, however, as barely a year passed before transgender military service came under fire from the Trump administration. On July 26, 2017, President Trump stated in a series of tweets, “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military”.[xx] Several lawsuits were filed challenging the constitutionality of the Trump Administration’s new policy, resulting in several court injunctions preventing its enforcement. As of May 8, 2018, the fate of the policy was yet to be determined, though it was not being actively enforced.[xxi]
The Civility of Albert Cashier, a production which tells the story of Albert Cashier through the medium of musical theater,debuted in September of 2017, fifteen months after the trans military ban was initially lifted and two months after President Trump announced his intentions to reinstate it. Just as They Fought Like Demons was shaped by discourse surrounding sex discrimination and Lauren Cook’s personal experiences, The Civility of Albert Cashier draws on the political discourse about transgender military service which has become widely popular in the last two years.
The producers of the musical never expressly describe Cashier as transgender, however they are also careful not to label him as a woman. On the show’s official web page, a description of the musical states “we don’t know how Albert identified. All we know is that they were born female and lived as Albert”.[xxii] It is left to the audience to interpret Cashier’s gender themselves. Combined with the timing of the show’s debut, this ambiguous framing of Cashier’s gender has led The Civility of Albert Cashier to become invariably linked to trans issues.
Connection to the trans community was further strengthened by the choice to cast Dani Shay, a nonbinary trans singer, in the lead role of Young Albert. Shay came out as trans shortly before the musical’s debut in a video posted to YouTube, taking the opportunity also to share his belief that “if [Albert Cashier] were alive today, he would almost certainly be considered transgender”.[xxiii]
Reviews of the show also reveal its importance to the transgender movement. Some quite strongly assert Cashier was transgender, such as Chris Jones’s review for the Chicago Tribune, which is entitled “Civility of Albert Cashier: A Timely Musical About a Trans Soldier” and opens with discussion of the Trump Administration’s trans military ban.[xxiv] Others, such as James Bommer’s review in the Chicago Theater Review, take the producer’s approach of avoiding labels, while still recognizing the importance of this story in relation to trans issues.[xxv] What remains universal across these reviews and their varying opinions of the musical, is a mention of the connection between this story and the transgender community.
Albert Cashier as Viewed by His Contemporaries
On March 1913, two years after he first arrived at the soldiers’ home in Quincy, Albert Cashier was declared insane by the state of Illinois. One year later, he was committed to an asylum at Watertown State Hospital with symptoms of dementia.[xxvi] These decisions were not expressly due to Cashier’s unique gender presentation, but rather because increasing senility rendered him “too ill . . . to be properly cared for at [the soldiers’ home]”.[xxvii] It is curious, however, that the staff at the soldiers’ home began proceedings to move Cashier to an asylum around the same time his story began to spread to the public.[xxviii]
By early 1914, Cashier’s sex was public knowledge, and his story had been widely publicized across the United States. This publicity caught the attention of the Bureau of Pensions, an extension of the Department of the Interior, from whom he had been collecting a veteran’s pension since 1890.[xxix] The bureau appointed a special examiner to investigate Cashier’s case, suspicious that he may have stolen the identity of a deceased soldier in order to claim a pension to which he was not entitled. In the course of this investigation, several of Cashier’s comrades from the Illinois 95th Infantry were interviewed, as was Leroy Scott, another veteran and patient of the soldiers home who had been charged with looking after Cashier in his last year at the soldiers’ home, and two women from the Chesbro family, for whom Cashier had worked many years and formed a close friendship.
The soldiers of the Illinois 95th unanimously reported that the elderly female now held in the state asylum was indeed the same soldier that had served alongside them in the war, though they had never known or suspected that he was female. The Chesbro sisters and Mr. Scott, though they had not known Cashier until after the Civil War, were in agreement with the soldier’s assessment, believing that he had indeed served.[xxx] Given this evidence, a board of review for the pension bureau concluded on February 10, 1915 “the evidence already secured in this case shows beyond any possible doubt that the pensioner is the person who rendered the service on account of which the pension has been allowed. . . Identity may be accepted”[xxxi]. Thanks to the testimonies of his comrades, neighbors, and friends, Cashier was able to continue collecting his pension for the remainder of his life.
Years later, these testimonies offer researchers valuable insight into how Cashier was viewed by his contemporaries. Interestingly, most of those who had known Cashier personally appear not to have changed in their opinions of him after the revelation of his sex. Indeed, the depositions given by his comrades use a mix of pronouns to refer to Cashier, sometimes switching between masculine and feminine forms within a single person’s account, suggesting a certain indifference regarding gender. Throughout his incarceration at the asylum, Cashier was visited by several of these former comrades. Blanton and Cook describe these men as “very protective and solicitous” of their comrade and note that what seemed more important to them was the way he was treated at the asylum.[xxxii] They were particularly upset to see that Cashier was forced to wear a dress against his wishes, something they considered a great humiliation to someone as fearless as the Albert Cashier they remembered from the war.[xxxiii] What seems to have shaped the perceptions of Cashier in his own time, especially in regard to his comrades, is not an issue of gender, but rather the distinction he had earned as a soldier in the Civil War. Speaking of the way Cashier was viewed by his comrades, historian Rodney Davis writes “wartime comradeship was paramount; the issue of gender was utterly secondary”.[xxxiv]
Albert Cashier died on October 10,
1915 at the age of seventy-one. On the occasion of his death, the same comrades
who had stood by him in battles of the Civil War and in his tumultuous last
years of life made sure that Cashier received a proper burial. He was laid to
rest with full military honors—dressed in his soldier’s uniform, with the
American flag draped over his coffin.[xxxv]
Located in Sunnyslope Cemetery in Saunemin, Illinois, his headstone reads
“Albert D.J. Cashier, Co. G, 95 Ill. Inf.”.[xxxvi]
There is no way for modern historians to
determine what Cashier’s gender identity was, and to endeavor to do so would be
wrong. It can and should be acknowledged that his story is one with which trans
people can identify. As illustrated by the reception of The Civility of Albert Cashier, Cashier’s story translates well
into the recent discourse surrounding the transgender community with its moving
tale of a soldier who served their country and was honored for their service
regardless of gender. Similarly, this story can be used to display the great
disparity between treatment of men and women in the Victorian era. It draws
attention to the fact that women were denied many of the privileges extended to
men, the right to serve openly in the military being just one of these.
However, it is also important to understand that to those who knew him
personally Albert D.J. Cashier was not defined by the implications of his
choice to live his life as a man. Instead, he was honored as a veteran who had
valiantly served his country in a time of war.
[i] DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook, They Fought Like Demons: Woman Soldiers in the American Civil War (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2002), 170-71.
[ii] Amy Benck, “Albert D. J. Cashier: Woman Warrior, Insane Civil War Veteran, or Transman?” Outhistory.org, accessed December 10, 2018, http://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/tgi-bios/albert-cashier.
[iii] “Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming People,” American Psychologist 70, no. 9 (2015): 862, doi:10.1037/a0039906.
[iv] Blanton and Cook, They Fought Like Demons, 174.
[v] Blanton and Cook, They Fought Like Demons, 16; Rodney O. Davis, “Private Albert Cashier as Regarded by His/Her Comrades,” Illinois Historical Journal 82, no. 2 (1989): 109.
[vi] Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Benefits Administration, “Approved Pension File for Private Albert D. J. Cashier, Company G, 95th Illinois Infantry Regiment,” U.S. National Archives Research Catalog, 39-40, accessed December 12, 2018, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/36605129.
[vii] Illinois State Archives, comp., “Illinois Civil War Muster and Descriptive Rolls Detail Report,” Illinois Civil War Muster and Descriptive Rolls, accessed November 14, 2018, https://www.ilsos.gov/isaveterans/civilMusterSearch.do?key=41902.
[viii] Blanton and Cook, They Fought Like Demons, 170.
[ix] Blanton and Cook, They Fought Like Demons, 171; Jason Cromwell, Transmen and FTMs: Identities, Bodies, Genders, and Sexualities (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 78.
[x] Blanton and Cook, They Fought Like Demons, 171-72; Davis, “Private Albert Cashier as Regarded by His/Her Comrades”, 109.
[xi] Blanton and Cook, They Fought Like Demons, 170.
[xii] “Woman Sues Over Exclusion From Park’s Civil War Events,” New York Times, February 25, 1991, accessed December 10, 2018, https://washcoll.idm.oclc.org/docview/427987181?accountid=14892.
[xiii] Eugene L. Meyer, “Woman Wins Fight Over Civil War ‘Battle’ Garb,” Los Angeles Times, March 18, 1993, accessed December 10, 2018, http://articles.latimes.com/1993-03-18/news/mn-12369_1_civil-war-generals.
[xv] Meyer, “Woman Wins Fight Over Civil War ‘Battle’ Garb
[xvi] “Woman Sues Over Exclusion From Park’s Civil War Events”
[xvii] Eugene L. Meyer, “The Soldier Left a Portrait and Her Eyewitness Account,” Smithsonian 24, no. 10 (January 1994):https://washcoll.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=9401037709&site=eds-live.
[xviii] Meyer, “The Soldier Left a Portrait and Her Eyewitness Account”
[xix] “Transgender Military Service,” Human Rights Campaign, accessed December 10, 2018, http://www.hrc.org/resources/transgender-military-service/.
[xx] Jeremy Diamond, “Trump to Reinstate US Military Ban on Transgender People,” CNN, July 27, 2017, accessed December 10, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2017/07/26/politics/trump-military-transgender/index.html.
[xxi] “Transgender Military Service”
[xxiv] Chris Jones, “‘CiviliTy of Albert Cashier’: A Timely Musical about a Trans Soldier,” Chicago Tribune, September 7, 2017, accessed December 11, 2018, https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/theater/reviews/ct-ent-albert-cashier-review-0908-story.html.
[xxv] Lawrence Bommer, “Chicago Theater Review: THE CIVILITY OF ALBERT CASHIER,” Stage and Cinema, September 7, 2017, accessed December 10, 2018, https://www.stageandcinema.com/2017/09/07/civility-of-albert-cashier/.
[xxvi] Department of Veterans Affairs, “Approved Pension File for Albert D.J. Cashier”, 41, 88-89.
[xxvii] Blanton and Cook, They Fought Like Demons, 172.
[xxviii] Blanton and Cook, They Fought Like Demons, 172; Cromwell, Transmen and FTMs, 78.
[xxix] Blanton and Cook, They Fought Like Demons, 170-72.
[xxx] Department of Veterans Affairs, “Approved Pension File for Albert D.J. Cashier”, 35-35, 39-42, 100-07.
[xxxi] Department of Veterans Affairs, “Approved Pension File for Albert D.J. Cashier”, 171.
[xxxii] Blanton and Cook, They Fought Like Demons, 173.
[xxxiii] Blanton and Cook, They Fought Like Demons, 173; Davis, “Private Albert Cashier as Regarded by His/Her Comrades”, 112.
[xxxiv] Davis, “Private Albert Cashier as Regarded by His/Her Comrades”, 112.
[xxxv] Blanton and Cook, They Fought Like Demons, 174.
[xxxvi] Cromwell, Transmen and FTMs, 78; Davis, “Private Albert Cashier as Regarded by His/Her Comrades”, 112.
“Albert Cashier – About.” Albert Cashier – Official Site, https://www.albertcashierthemusical.com/about. Accessed 10 Dec. 2018.
American Psychological Association. “Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming People.” American Psychologist, vol. 70, no. 9, 2015, pp. 832–64. Crossref, doi:10.1037/a0039906.
Blanton, DeAnne, and Lauren M. Cook.They Fought like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War. Louisiana State University Press, 2002.
Cromwell, Jason. Transmen and FTMs: Identities, Bodies, Genders, and Sexualities. University of Illinois Press, 1999.
Davis, Rodney O. “Private Albert Cashier as Regarded by His/Her Comrades.” Illinois Historical Journal, vol. 82, no. 2, 1989, pp. 108–12.
Diamond, Jeremy. “Trump to Reinstate US Military Ban on Transgender People.” CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2017/07/26/politics/trump-military-transgender/index.html. Accessed 10 Dec. 2018.
“Illinois Civil War Muster and Descriptive Rolls Database.” Office of the Illinois Secretary of State, https://www.ilsos.gov/isaveterans/civilMusterSearch.do?key=41902. Accessed 14 Nov. 2018.
Meyer, Eugene L. “The Soldier Left a Portrait and Her Eyewitness Account.” Smithsonian, vol. 24, Jan. 1994, pp. 96–104.
Meyer, Eugene L. “Woman Wins Fight Over Civil War ‘Battle’ Garb.” Los Angeles Times, 18 Mar. 1993. LA Times, http://articles.latimes.com/1993-03-18/news/mn-12369_1_civil-war-generals.
Money, John. Gay, Straight, and in-between: The Sexology of Erotic Orientation. Oxford University Press, 1988.
“PLAYED MAN ALL HER LIFE.”New York Times (1857-1922), Mar 29, 1914, pp. 1. ProQuest, https://washcoll.idm.oclc.org/docview/97471731?accountid=14892.
“POSED AS MAN 60 YEARS.”The Washington Post (1877-1922), Mar 29, 1914, pp. 1. ProQuest, https://washcoll.idm.oclc.org/docview/145324042?accountid=14892.
“Transgender Military Service.” Human Rights Campaign, 8 May 2018, http://www.hrc.org/resources/transgender-military-service/.
“Woman Sues Over Exclusion from Park’s Civil War Events.”New York Times (1923-Current file), Feb 25, 1991, pp. 1. ProQuest, https://washcoll.idm.oclc.org/docview/108759607?accountid=14892.
Caroline Draper ’22 is majoring in history with a minor in gender studies. As a student at WAC she is involved with the history club, and works as an interviewer and archival processor for the National Homefront Project, an Oral History Program run through the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience. She aspires to a career in historical research, with a particular interest in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century America and the intersection between our history and issues of gender and sexuality.