Jennie Hodgers aka Albert Cashier - Pioneering Soldier Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Jennie Hodgers aka Albert Cashier - Pioneering Soldier

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Jennie Hodgers was born in Ireland on 25 December, 1843, and went on to become Albert Cashier, who served as a soldier in the Union Army during the American Civil War.

It is not known what Albert's gender identity actually was, whether a man with a female body, or a woman taking on the role of a man in order to earn money and status, or something else. In this Entry, we will use the pronouns she/her to refer to Jennie Hodgers and he/him/his to refer to Albert Cashier - he made efforts to keep his previous identity hidden after he was discharged from the army.

Birth of Albert Cashier

Jennie Hodgers was born in County Louth, Ireland, on 25 December, 1843. Not much is known about her life, but it may have been that she was encouraged to dress as a boy by her stepfather in order to earn money. Her mother Sallie died, and Jennie travelled to America, possibly in pursuit of her boyfriend. In Illinois she lived and worked as a man, earning money as a labourer in a factory and on farms.

Soldiers were needed to serve in the Union Army, which was engaged in the American Civil War, and good wages were on offer. So it was that on 6 August, 1862, Albert D J Cashier came to enlist into Company G of the 95th Illinois Infantry unit.

Soldier and Handyman

Albert enlisted for a term of three years. Although he was the smallest member of the unit, by all accounts he was a good soldier. He couldn't lift as much as his fellow men, but made up for it by doing more of the laundry work. He fought in many battles, including Vicksburg and Mobile. He used his size as an advantage when he was able to climb a tree to hoist a flag while at risk of enemy fire. Aiming to boost the morale of the troops, he escaped injury and achieved the objective.

He served his full term successfully and was discharged in 1865, gaining entitlement to a military pension. He initially worked with a comrade from the 95th Infantry, but from 1869 he worked as a general handyman in Saunemin, Illinois. He lived with the Chesbro family and then in a hardware store until the Chesbros arranged for a cabin to be built for him in 1885. For more than 40 years he lived his life, fitting into the community and keeping in touch with his comrades through the veterans' organisation The Grand Army of the Republic.

Albert was examined by a nurse in 1910 when he fell ill, but the nurse did not disclose his sex to anyone other than the Lannon family, who were his neighbours and friends. In 1911, Albert was working for the former Senator of Illinois, Ira Lish. Lish's car accidentally ran Albert over, breaking his leg. Albert was taken to hospital and the doctor discovered his sex, but again the information was not disclosed. No longer able to work because of the injury, Albert applied for his pension and moved into the Soldiers and Sailors Home in Quincy, Illinois.

It was in 1913 that he began to develop dementia, so he was moved to the Watertown State Hospital for the Insane. There his sex was discovered again. He was forced to wear a skirt and his story was published in the press. He was even accused of fraud for claiming a military pension, but his comrades attested that he did serve his term, so he was acquitted and continued to receive his pension.

His comrades were not convinced about the merits of the Hospital's treatment of Albert, and tried to have him moved back to the Soldiers and Sailors Home, but to no avail. In 1915, Albert tripped on the skirt he was wearing and fell down some stairs, breaking his hip. He died on 10 October that year, aged 71. His comrades arranged a military funeral, and he was buried in his uniform. The headstone bore the name of Albert D J Cashier.

Speculation

Since Albert's death, there has been much speculation about him and his life. It is known that hundreds of women disguised themselves as men to enlist in the army during the Civil War because of the money and opportunities it offered at a time when women had few rights. However, most of them did not evade discovery during their term of service, and most of them lived as women again once they had left the military. Albert Cashier is celebrated as the only woman known to have served the full term of service and to have taken up the military pension.

Modern speculation has centred around whether Albert would have identified as transgender if the term had been available to him at the time, or whether the military service had affected his mental health, or whether he was a woman taking advantage of masculinity in a male-dominated world.

There is some evidence to suggest that a woman who was not transgender so identified with the prevailing definition of what a woman was, and was comfortable with having a female body, would not have been able to live as a man for so many years without ill effect. For example, the John/Joan case from the 1970s, where a boy was brought up as a girl following damage to his male anatomy, demonstrated that he knew he was a boy all along as he chose to become a boy again at the age of 14, even though it involved him undergoing several operations. Also, in the 2006 book Self-Made Man, author Norah Vincent was glad to return to being a masculine woman after spending just a year living as a man, as it affected her mental health badly. And of course, many transgender people who are in circumstances where they are unable to be themselves experience distress and discomfort every day.

In relation to Albert Cashier, the only way to know how he really felt about his life was if he had ever said so. He was interviewed in 1913 but told conflicting stories about his early life and how he came to America, so his true feelings do not appear to have been captured.

Legacy

In spite of the speculation surrounding him, Albert's life and work did provide potentially useful evidence that people born with a female body had the ability to serve in the military and do other 'traditionally male' jobs. He features in books about women serving in the military, such as They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M Cook from 2002. He is also the subject of the fictionalised biography My Last Skirt by Lynda Durrant from 2006. In 2017, a musical about his life was staged, starring non-binary actor Dani Shay as Albert. His cabin and final resting place are tourist attractions in Saunemin. And the modern world in which women have much more equality of opportunity, and transgender people have much more recognition and acceptance, is still influenced in some small way by Albert Cashier's story.

Image courtesy of National Park Service


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