Turtle Bunbury

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Published: Irish Daily Mail, 1 September 2017.

Mississippi, 1863. The men of G-Company in the 95th Illinois Voluntary Infantry must have cheered loudly as ‘Little Al’ Cashier clambered up the tree, pulled off the tattered, gun-shot Union flag and hoisted a new one. Or maybe they held back their applause until he was down again, safely out of sight of the Confederate snipers. Either way, all were agreed that Little Al was as courageous a soldier as any of them, despite his feminine mannerisms, his diminutive stature and his tendency to spend a lot of downtime hanging out on his own.

A third of G-Company were dead by the end of the US Civil War, killed in action or prey to the virulent diseases that swept the lines. Far fewer were still alive in 1913, nearly fifty years later, when word reached them that Little Al had been incarcerated in a state psychiatric institution. That might have been shocking enough but an infinitely greater surprise was in store; it transpired that Private Albert Cashier was an Irish woman from County Louth.

In a week in which Donald Trump has ordered the US military to no longer accept transgender individuals as recruits it seems a fitting time to acknowledge the extraordinary life and times of Jennie Hodgers.

Born in Clogherhead, Co Louth, in about 1843, she was reputedly the daughter of Patrick Hodgers, a coachman and horse trader, and his wife, Sallie.[i]

Further details about her early life are unknown but it is assumed that she was illiterate; she signed all identified documents with an ‘X’. Nor do we know when she emigrated to America; it is rumoured she arrived as a stowaway, quite possibly direct from the port in Drogheda. One theory holds that she went to work at an all-male shoe factory in Belvidere, Illinois, which was run by an uncle and that it was from this point that she began identifying herself as Albert Cashier.

By the summer of 1862, the US Civil War was underway and Congress authorised the drafting of a new militia for the Union Army. Over 144,000 Irish answered the call, including twenty-year-old Jennie Hodgers who went into the recruiting depot at Belvidere on 6 August 1862 and enlisted in the 95th Illinois under the name of Albert J. D. Cashier.

Nobody suspected a thing; Captain Elliot Bush, her company commander, merely noted that the five-foot-three private was the smallest of the new recruits.

Jennie was one of at least 400 women who dressed in the baggy clothes of a soldier and went to war. She is also believed to be the only one who survived the entire war, undiscovered, and who consequently went on to receive a military pension.

The motives for these women-soldiers were manifold. For some it was money; the army offered a reasonable salary and the prospect of a pension if you completed your service. Others fought for the pure adrenalin rush while several joined in order to stay close to their husbands and sons.

Jennie’s motives for reinventing herself are unknown although several of her neighbours in later life maintained that she had been following a sweetheart who was subsequently killed.

Little Al Cashier, as her comrades nicknamed her, managed to keep her secret for fifty years. Surviving testimonies from her fellow soldiers in G-Company after the truth came out reveal that they just thought of ‘him’ as aloof and a little feminine but, above anything else, fill of ‘military bearing and reckless daring.’

It was Charles W. Ives, her company sergeant, who recalled how Little Al hoisted the Union flag despite the high risk of being shot by a sniper. On another occasion, the blue-eyed, auburn-haired Louth woman leapt onto a fallen tree-trunk and began jeering at her Confederate opponents on the other side of the battlefield.

She often sat apart from the others, puffing on a pipe. On account of her short stature, she wasn’t able to carry as much as the men but her fellow soldiers never failed to help her out, in return for which she looked after the laundry and mending clothes.

This is territory that will familiar to any who have read Sebastian Barry’s ‘Days Without End’. Presently in the frame for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, Barry’s masterpiece follows the adventures of Sligo-born Thomas McNulty whose youthful career as a cross-dressing entertainer is complicated by the outbreak of the US Civil War, in which he serves in the Union army.

By the time she mustered out of the army on 17 August 1865, Jennie Hodgers had travelled nearly 10,000 miles, including 1,800 on foot. She had also seen action in forty different battles and skirmishes fought in states such as Mississippi, Louisiana, Missouri and Tennessee. This included the Red River Campaign, the Battle of Atlanta and the Battle of Guntown, Mississippi, in which Captain Bush and many other members of her regiment were killed.

She also served at the Siege of Vicksburg where she was briefly captured by a Confederate soldier but somehow managed to grab his gun, knock him down and scarper back to her own lines When Vicksburg fell, she was one of the first to victoriously march into the Mississippi city. Private Albert Cashier’s name is among 36,325 Illinois soldiers immortalized on the bronze plaques at the elaborate Illinois victory monument in Vicksburg; the other 36,324, of course, were men.

After three years and 11 days pretending to be a man, Jennie chose to continue that way after the war. She presumably understood that the opportunities for woman in nineteenth century America were somewhat skimpy; for starters, their salaries were always at least half that of a man. By 1868, she had moved from Belvidere to the small village of Saunemin, Illinois, south-west of Chicago, where she worked as a general handyman, gardener, lamplighter and, later, chauffeur. As a man, she could open a bank account and vote, long before women had such a privilege. She worked closely with the Cheesbro family, whose support enabled her to build a small timber house; a replica now stands on the site, built with the assistance of some Irishmen, and is an increasingly popular tourist destination.

She also joined the Grand Army of the Republic, the largest organization of Union Veterans, which enabled her to reunite with her comrades from the 95th, which she frequently did in ensuing decades. As one Saunemin citizen recalled: ‘On Decoration Day [Private Cashier] always wore his uniform and led the parade, proudly carrying the big flag as slight as he was. He was in his glory when he did that.’

Another neighbour appears to have been a little charier: ‘Many times he came to our place to stay a while, and he could rock my baby daughter to sleep better than we could. He would go uptown and bring her the most beautiful things, such as dress goods. We always wondered where he got such a feminine taste.’

In 1911, Jennie was fixing a car for former State Senator Ira M. Lish when the latter accidentally drove over her and fractured her leg. Jennie was taken to the Soldier and Sailor’s Home in Quincy, Illinois, where the truth of her sex was revealed. Both the senator and Dr Leroy Scott, the doctor at the home, agreed to keep it quiet but slowly it leaked out and by 1913 her extraordinary story had been disclosed to the world, including the Irish press.

The news caused much astonishment among the surviving members of her battalion. They had frequently mocked Private Cashier for his lack of facial hair and his compact height but none appear to have suspected the truth. More importantly, they were unanimous in their support of her, hailing her courage throughout the war and applying so much pressure that the Bureau of Pensions concluded that there was no option but to continue paying her $12 a month pension.

Sadly Jennie’s mind was in decline by then, presumably triggered by the trauma of the accident and the global fascination in her remarkable secret. In March 1914, the County Court diagnosed her with advanced dementia and sent her to reside at the Watertown State Hospital. She was placed in a female ward and ordered to wear a dress.

When old Sergeant Ives visited, he remarked: ‘I left Cashier a fearless boy of 22…when I went to Watertown, I found… a frail woman of 70, broken because, on discovery, she was compelled to put on skirts’.

A correspondent for the Hartford Republican described ‘her face as a face for a painter to dwell on; half a century of sun and wind had bronzed that face, sowed it with freckles and seamed it with a thousand wrinkles.’

Jennie died aged 72 on 10 October 1915. She was given a funeral with full military honours in East Moline before her body was shipped back to Saunemin where she was buried in a space the Cheesbro family had reserved for her in their plot.

The headstone reads: “Albert D J Cashier, Co. G 95 ILL. Inf, Civil War. Born Jennie Hodgers in Clogher Head, Ireland 1843 - 1915.”

Although the Irish press reported on her death, no Irish Hodgers appear to have stepped forward as her relatives – despite a notice in the Drogheda Argus (1915) that read: ‘If there are any friends of the old lady still about Clogherhead, they should forward the particulars of their relationship to [Mr J. E. Andrews, Superintendent of the Soldiers and Sailors Home, Illinois], as she left considerable property and money behind her.’[ii]





Genealogy Search: http://www.mc-research.com/County_Louth/Emigrants/Hodgers/Hodgers-Cashier.htm

Damian Shiels, ‘The Irish in the American Civil War’ (The History Press, 2013) http://irishamericancivilwar.com

"The Little Soldier of the 95th"- Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society Winter Issue 1958.

Wood, Wales W. A History of the Ninety-Fifth Regiment Illinois Infantry Volunteers. xvi-xvii. Boone County Historical Society. 1993.

NB: I did not have time myself but I would also suggest someone look at the Elliot N. and Henry M. Bush papers, 1863-1864 held Manuscripts Division, William L. Clements Library at the
University of Michigan. The Bush brothers were captains, in succession, of Albert Cashier’s company. See https://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/clementsmss/umich-wcl-M-2422bus?view=text

With thanks to Steven Pearce, Luke Torris, Damian Shiels, Bryan Rogers and Ros Dee.

[i] Luke Torris of the Annagassan Historical Society advised me in August 2017 that he had scanned over 170 Catholic baptism records for pre-1900 Hodgers, including twenty for Clogherhead, but found nothing of interest that began with “J”. In 1842 there was a Bridget, in 1843 a Mary and in 1846 an Anne, all born to Denis and Catherine Hodgers in Clogherhead. As Luke said, she may have been Church of Ireland, or other. The 1901 census yields five Hodgers families living in Castlebellingham, 18km north of Clogherhead, and another in Dundalk.

[ii] Published in “Clogherhead through the years” by Paddy Hodgins (retired harbourmaster in Clogherhead), p. 50-51.