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Mike Pride: The unbelievable life of Frances Clayton



For the Monitor
Last modified: Sunday, February 21, 2016
Let’s start with a short, intriguing newspaper story. Scott Preston Hardy of Concord shared it with me from his collection of scrapbooked Civil War clippings, mainly from Concord papers. This clipping came from a page of stories dated July 1-2, 1864. Here it is:

“A FEMALE SOLDIER – A woman was found on the street last night at a late hour, with no means to procure lodgings. Officer Rand provided for her at the station house. She gave her name as Mrs. Frank Claton, 30 years of age, and said that her residence was in Minnesota. – From her statements it appears that in disguise she served 22 months in a Western regiment, and also received several wounds in battle. Her husband was a member of the same company to which she belonged, and was killed last summer. On the discovery of the sex of the distinguished soldier she was of course dismissed from service. She seems to be of a ‘roving disposition’ and left on the Boston train this morning.”

It is believed that a few hundred women fought in the Civil War. Because doing so required them to conceal their gender, the numbers cannot be verified and the stories are difficult to tell with confidence and proper documentation.

Details in the Concord newspaper story make the identity of “Mrs. Frank Claton” clear. They also add a bit to the skimpy and shaky record of her life during the Civil War. You can read a lot about her on the web, but there are many discrepancies and scant sourcing.

Her maiden name was possibly Frances Louisa Clalin, although Clalin could be a variation of Clayton, as the name is spelled Clatin in at least one important instance. She was from the Midwest, most likely Ohio, and married a man named either John or Elmer Clayton. The Claytons might have had a farm in Minnesota. When the war began, the stories go, Frances posed as Jack Williams, a man, as she and her husband joined heavy artillery and/or cavalry units in Missouri.

Most of the web stories about Frances include colorful details. Many newspapers chronicled her war exploits based on interviews with her, but the details differed from story to story. It is hard to know whether her inconsistency or reporter error is to blame.

A short narrative of a consensus of these stories goes like this: Frances was wounded three times in battle during 22 months of service. After her husband’s death at Stones River (or Murfreesboro) in Tennessee on Dec. 31, 1862, she disclosed her gender and left the service.

I searched the web for the original stories from which these details were gleaned but found only one secondhand contemporary reference and a few fuller ones in annotated histories. I found no record of an Elmer or John Clayton or a John or Jack Williams from a Missouri cavalry or artillery unit that fought at Stones River. Other accounts had the couple fighting at Fort Donelson, but I couldn’t verify that either. Nor could I find proof of Mr. Clayton’s death or Mrs. Clayton’s wounds.

War stories

A book titled She Went to War: Women Soldiers in the Civil War includes this paragraph about Frances Clayton: “According to many accounts, Frances Clayton (also recorded as Frances Clalin) enlisted in 1861 with her husband, John, in St. Paul, Minnesota. They fought together for the Union in eighteen battles, until she was wounded and John was killed at Stones River in December 1862. Elizabeth Leonard writes that ‘Clayton was hospitalized with a bullet in the hip, and an examination led to a discovery of her sex and her eventual discharge.’ In a pamphlet used by famous woman’s suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt in her efforts to win women the vote, D.R. Livermore wrote this about Clayton: ‘She was wounded three times while fighting bravely for her country, and was once taken prisoner. Could not such a woman defend her vote?’ ”

Carrie Chapman Catt was born in 1859, and her suffrage activity began long after the Civil War. The quote from her pamphlet is from her 1897 monograph “Ballots and Bullets.” It adds a detail mentioned in no other account I found (and thus doubtful): Frances’s capture in battle. It also gives an alternative story of Clayton’s departure from the service. After her husband’s death in battle, Catt wrote, Clayton “concluded to retire from active service, and on informing her commander that she was a woman, received her honorable discharge.” It’s nice to think she was honorably discharged, but it seems unlikely to me.

Bonnie Tsui, the author of She Went to War, goes on to say that Civil Ceremony, a 1996 play, was based on Frances Clayton’s wartime exploits. A reviewer of the play wrote that despite the horrors of war Clayton looked back on her service as the best time of her life. That’s the stage character talking. Whether Clayton would have bought it no one knows.

Manly vices

A 2002 book, They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War, gives the most thorough and scholarly account of Clayton. Its authors, DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook, found several of the newspaper accounts based on interviews with her and did their best to piece them together despite their contradictions. They also put Clayton’s picture on the dust jacket of their book.

“Frances Clayton took up all the manly vices,” they wrote. “To better conceal her sex, she learned to drink, smoke, chew, and swear. She was especially fond of cigars. She even gambled, and a fellow soldier declared that he had played poker with her on a number of occasions.”

Citing an 1863 St. Paul Pioneer story headlined “An Amazon,” Blanton and Cook wrote that Clayton saw her husband die right in front of her at Stones River but did not hesitate to join a bayonet charge a few moments later. “Clayton stepped over his body and charged,” they wrote. (The authors do not question the notion of a cavalry regiment making a bayonet charge.)

After Clayton’s discharge in Louisville in 1863, the book asserts, she began a long journey to try to collect bounty money and back pay she believed she and her husband were owed. Reporters interviewed her along the way. The St. Paul Pioneer called her an “accomplished horse-man.” The Clarion in Princeton, Ind., described her as a “very tall masculine woman bronzed by exposure.” Apparently she told one reporter she had lost her papers and money when a Confederate guerrilla band attacked her train. She told another she had been wounded at Fort Donelson, not Stones River. Blanton and Cook lost her trail when she supposedly headed for Washington. They lamented their inability to clear up which regiment or regiments the Claytons had fought in. “Each newspaper gave conflicting military information,” the authors wrote.

One web account, typical of this hole in the story, says that “Elmer” Clayton gave his wife a men’s suit and false facial hair before the two were mustered into Co. A of the 13th Missouri Cavalry. The 13th Missouri regiment that fought at Fort Donelson was infantry, not cavalry. The 13th Missouri Cavalry regiment did not muster until September 1864.

The third edition of A Chronological Record from the Creation to the Present Time, the Englishman Daniel O’Gorman’s curious 1860s compendium, lists the Missouri Democrat as the source of his version of the Clayton story. The Democrat has Clayton resigning after her husband’s death at Stones River and walking “93 miles, from Lexington to Louisville, bareheaded and barefooted, tracking her way in blood.” Clayton’s story, with many variations, is popular with bloggers. Mainly that is because the most tangible evidence for it is photographic. Both the Library of Congress and the Boston Public Library have Cartes de Visite – the small photographs on cards of the Civil War era – of Clayton. She is in uniform in two, in civilian dress in a third. All the photos were taken by Samuel Masury, an early daguerreotypist in Salem, Mass., who had a photo salon on Washington Street in Boston during the war.

On the back of a photo owned by the Library of Congress this information is penciled: Frances L. Clatin 4 mo heavy artilery Co. I 13 mos cavelry Co A 22 months. This is consistent with Clayton’s claim of having served 22 months, although four months in the artillery and 13 months in the cavalry obviously fall short of 22 months. If Clayton actually served that long, she and her husband must have enlisted in April 1861, right after Fort Sumter.

Oddities

A couple of things about the photographs strike me as odd. For one, they were taken in Boston. No account of Clayton I have read – except the Concord, N.H., story we began with – refers to a Boston connection. Several, like Blanton and Cook, say that when last heard of, she was headed for Washington, D.C.

More important, I think, is that the cavalry uniform Clayton is wearing in the photograph is brand new and without adornment. What could this mean? Had she just bought it? Is the photo from very early in the war? If so, what was the wife of a Minnesota farmer doing in Boston? Had she acquired it after leaving the service or borrowed it for the photo session? Was it a prop in Masury’s studio?

Which brings us back to the Concord newspaper story. Although it omits more than it reveals, it does paint its subject as sleeping on the streets and of a “roving disposition.” She lacked the money for lodging but either already had a train ticket to Boston or enough money to buy one. Or perhaps the city or a good Samaritan bought her a ticket The war story she tells, at least as remembered by the reporter or the cop who told it to him, contains some elements of the accounts of Clayton’s service sloshing around today. She is from Minnesota, served 22 months in a Western regiment (but one, not two), was wounded several times and was booted out when her gender was discovered. The story says her husband was killed “last summer” – the summer of 1863, which does not compute.

The tale of Frances L. Clalin Clayton, a/k/a Private Jack Williams, is the kind of story we want to believe. People striving for colorblind, gender-neutral treatment are heroes of the American experiment. But census, pension and war records and many more reliable corroborating sources are available. Someone with more time than I have should dig into these and see if more can’t be verified about Clayton. I don’t suggest this is easy, but history is not served by repeating secondary sources as though they were true, especially when the story they tell is muddled in its details.



(Mike Pride is the Monitor’s editor emeritus and the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes. This article originally appeared on Pride’s blog, our-war.com.)