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"THERE IS SOMETHING MIGHTY QUEER ABOUT THIS ARRANGEMENT" (CIVIL WAR--WOMEN.) William Henry Austin. Letter describing a meeting with female soldier Sarah Rosetta Wakeman. Autograph Letter Signed "W.H. Austin" to his sister Ada Caroline Austin Martin (1834-1923) of Harpursville, Broome County, NY. 4 pages, 9 3/4 x 7 3/4 inches, on one folding sheet; minimal wear. With a possibly mismatched stamped envelope bearing a Washington postmark, and modern transcript. Camp Briggs, Alexandria, VA, 22 February 1864
Sarah Rosetta Wakeman (1843-1864) was one of the very few women to serve in the Union Army, enlisting under the name Lyons Wakeman in the 153rd New York Infantry. Her regiment spent most of its time in tedious garrison duty at Alexandria, VA, but was ordered south for the Red River Campaign in February 1864. There she survived the Battle of Pleasant Hill, but died of illness in New Orleans the following June. She was buried as Lyons Wakeman, and her story did not become generally known until the discovery of her letters in 1976.
Offered here is a letter by Sergeant William Henry Austin (1840-1914) of the 109th New York Infantry, who knew Wakeman from childhood, and was one of the few soldiers who knew her enlistment story. He was nonetheless surprised to meet her by chance in Alexandria. "When I was going to the depot in Alex[andria] I stopped at the Soldier Rest. Who should I meet there but Rosetta Wakeman? Her reg was stopping there, at that time were en route for Texas. She was looking fine. Sports an insipid moustache, highly colored, presents quite a soldier's appearance. There is something mighty queer about this arrangement. There is rottenness in Denmark somewhere (mum about this). She wanted to know all about my interview with her father. I told her what I felt disposed and what I didn't, kept to myself. Hardly think she will ever get back to New York again."
The Austins were from Harpursville, a village in Colesville Township in Broome County--a town bordering the Wakeman family farm in Afton in Chenango County, NY. The two families lived no more than a few miles away, and knew each other well.
Austin is mentioned several times in Wakeman's letters home to her parents, as published in the 1994 compilation, "An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman," pages 43-49, 57, and 65 (copy included with the lot). On 20 September 1863, she wrote her parents: "Can you find out what company Henry Austin is in, and where to direct a letter to him? I have been gone one year and I haven't seen a man nor a woman that I ever seen before I left home." On 13 October 1863, she mentions a prior meeting with Austin at his camp near Georgetown: "I got a man to row me across the river to the island and then I found Henry Austin and Perry Wilder. They knew me just as soon as they see me. You better believe I had a good visit with them." Finally, the same meeting Austin described is mentioned in her letter of 2 March 1864: "I saw Henry Austin in Alexandria, Va. and bid him good-by for the last time." A photograph of Austin appears on page 57 of the book.
We have not yet seen any other letters referencing the women soldiers of the Union Army. This is quite a rare discovery.
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