Frances Clayton

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Frances Clayton in uniform. From the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society

Frances Louisa Clayton, also recorded as Frances Clalin, was an American woman who disguised herself as a man to fight for the Union Army in the American Civil War. Under the alias Jack Williams, she enlisted in a Missouri regiment along with her husband, and fought in several battles. She left the army soon after her husband died at Stones River.[1][2]

Newspaper reports indicate that Clayton served in both cavalry and artillery units. Her story became known and widely circulated after her service, though each account contains contradictory information about her life and service. Several photographs of Clayton, including images of her in uniform, are known to exist. However, little else is known of her life.[3]

Frances Clalin wearing a dress
Frances Clayton in women's clothing, photographed by Samuel Masury ca. 1865. From the Library of Congress.

Biography[edit]

Clayton and her husband were from Minnesota.[4] Her husband's name is not clear; one newspaper story gives it as Frank Clayton, apparently a confusion of Frances' own name, while other sources name him John or Elmer.[5] Following the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, the Claytons decided to enlist in the Union Army, with Frances disguising herself as a man named Jack Williams.[6]

By most accounts, they enlisted in a Missouri unit, despite being from Minnesota.[6] Clayton is said to have fought in 18 battles.[2] Sources from after the war record her as serving in both cavalry and artillery units, and indicate that she was wounded in battle; according to her subsequent statements this occurred at the Battle of Fort Donelson.[6] The same accounts describe her as a "very tall, masculine looking woman bronzed by exposure".[7] She was further able to convincingly pass as a man through her "masculine stride in walking" and "erect and soldierly carriage", as well as by adopting male vices such as drinking, smoking, chewing tobacco, swearing, and gambling.[8] In the service, she became an "accomplished horse-man" and a "capital swordsman".[9] In December 1862, she fought in the Battle of Stones River, where her husband was killed during a charge.[10] The news stories reported that she did not stop fighting, and stepped over his body to continue the charge.[6]

Clayton's story only became known after her service, and was reported in several newspaper stories, though these accounts all contain contradictory information.[6] According to these stories, Clayton was discharged in Louisville in 1863, shortly after her husband's death. She told reporters that she was never discovered as a woman. Sources say, however, that her discharge resulted from her being medically examined after a bullet wound to the hip.[10] She attempted to return to Minnesota before going back to the military to collect her and her husband's back pay, but her train was ambushed by Confederate guerrillas who took her money and papers. Thereafter, she traveled from Missouri to Minnesota, to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and finally to Quincy, Illinois, where a collection was held to help her on her trip. The last known report describes her heading to Washington, D.C..[6]

Several photographs of Frances Clayton are known to exist. Two were taken in Boston and are now in the possession of the Boston Public Library. One shows Clayton in women's clothing, while the other depicts her in uniform.[10][2][11][12] Unlike other women of the Civil War, Clayton was described by newspapers as tall and masculine-looking. She frequently took part in soldierly past-times such as drinking, smoking, or chewing tobacco.[10]

Legacy[edit]

Clayton and her story served as inspiration to Beth Gilleland, who produced a 1996 play Civil Ceremony.[10]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Blanton, DeAnne; Cook, Lauren M. (2002). They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War. LSU Press. p. 10. ISBN 0807128066. 
  2. ^ a b c Tsui, Bonnie (2006). She Went to the Field: Women Soldiers of the Civil War. Rowan & Littlefield. p. 66. ISBN 1461748496. 
  3. ^ Blanton, DeAnne; Cook, Lauren M. (2002). They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War. LSU Press. pp. 149–150. ISBN 0807128066. 
  4. ^ Blanton, DeAnne; Cook, Lauren M. (2002). They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War. LSU Press. p. 150. ISBN 0807128066. 
  5. ^ Pride, Mike (February 21, 2016). "The unbelievable life of Frances Clayton". Concord Monitor. Retrieved September 7, 2016. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f Blanton, DeAnne; Cook, Lauren M. (2002). They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War. LSU Press. pp. 150–151. ISBN 0807128066. 
  7. ^ Blanton, DeAnne; Cook, Lauren M. (2002). They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War. LSU Press. p. 48. ISBN 0807128066. 
  8. ^ Blanton, DeAnne; Cook, Lauren M. (2002). They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War. LSU Press. pp. 52, 55. ISBN 0807128066. 
  9. ^ Blanton, DeAnne; Cook, Lauren M. (2002). They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War. LSU Press. pp. 55, 58. ISBN 0807128066. 
  10. ^ a b c d e Tsui, Bonnie (2006). She Went to the Field: Women Soldiers of the Civil War. Guilford: Two Dot. p. 66. ISBN 9780762743841. 
  11. ^ "Frances L. Clalin 4 mo. heavy artillery Co. I, 13 mo. Cavalry Co. A. 22 months". Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. Library of Congress. Retrieved March 11, 2016. 
  12. ^ "Miss F. L. Clayton, 4th Mis. Arty [i.e. Missouri Artillery]". Library of Congress. Retrieved March 11, 2016. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]