Monday, September 10, 2012
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Betty Carlson Kay thrills the audience with tales of women in the war

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[September 10, 2012]  MOUNT PULASKI -- Betty Carlson Kay was a special guest at the Mount Pulaski Fall Festival this year. On Saturday afternoon she presented "first-person" skits about women who played roles on the Union side of the Civil War.

Of the three presentations, the most entertaining and peculiar was the story of Albert Cashier. Yes, Albert, and yes, the story is still about a woman.

Jenny Hodgers was a feisty, independent young girl born in Ireland. As she grew up, she longed to go to America. But her family had no such ambition.

She came to a point in her life when she decided that if she were to go, she would have to go alone. Realizing that a very young lady traveling across the ocean on a ship would face certain danger, she decided to travel the ocean as a boy. She cut off her hair, put on clothing belonging to her brother and became a stowaway on a ship to Boston.

When she arrived in Boston, the reality of being a young female in a large city struck her, and she realized once again that her ruse as a male was the safest way for her to survive in the land she had longed to be a part of.

So, Albert lived in Boston, found work as a cashier and lived there for a while. When she started hearing whispers that there were fortunes to be found in the West, she decided that she, too, would make the long journey west. Still living her life as a male, she traveled as far as Illinois. She made her way to Belleview and settled in there, got a job and lived her life.

However, being a man as she was, she soon came under scrutiny from town folk, as all their sons had joined the Union Army and "Albert" was lagging behind, not doing his patriotic duty.

It seemed Jenny aka Albert had no choice but to enlist, and that she did. Albert Cashier joined the Illinois 95th Infantry in the second year of the Civil War. Because there was such a push to get soldiers, much of the physical exam was ignored during enlistment.

Kay, telling the story in first person, explained: "They checked my hands to see if I had enough fingers to shoot the gun; they checked my teeth to see if they could pull open the powder bags; and they checked my feet to see if I could march long distances. They didn't look at anything in between."

Albert Cashier served in the 95th infantry for the entirety of the war. Being a female she was naturally smaller than the other soldiers, and many reckoned her to be a child of about 12 years old. But in her words, she was "feisty."

Because she was small and agile, she was often sent to scout the enemy troops. On one such occasion she was captured, but when her captor fell asleep on the job, she popped him in the ear with the butt of his own rifle and ran back to her troop.

After the war Cashier returned to Illinois and wandered the state, looking for a place to call home. She ended up in Saunemin, a small community north of Bloomington and Pontiac.

Throughout her life, Jenny remained Albert. She found work in her new home and daily wore her blue soldier coat, which was a great source of pride for her. She also voted in every election, long before any other woman gained that right.

As she grew older and less capable of hard labor, she was given the job as the town's lamplighter. She lit the torches at dusk and would make the rounds at the end of the evening, putting them all out again.

There was also a very wealthy man in town who looked after Albert and promised there would always be work at his mansion, even if it was only picking up sticks.

That same man was the first in the area to own a horseless carriage. Kay explained that even though he was quite good at driving the automobile forward, he wasn‘t all that good in reverse. One day while attempting to back up the vehicle, he backed over Cashier, breaking Albert's leg in multiple places.

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The VFW hall in Mount Pulaski filled with laughter as a very animated Kay recounted the event.

As the driver cried out, "Call for the doctor," I screamed "NO! Don't call the doctor!" But it went unheeded. When the doctor arrived, Jenny was found out.

Kay went on to explain that in her elder years, Jenny resided in a veterans home and received her pension as a veteran.

Kay said, no doubt there would have been those in Saunemin who whispered about Jenny and the decisions she'd made, but the town on the whole loved and respected her and her service to the Union.

When Jenny died in 1915 she was brought back to Saunemin for burial with full military rites. She was buried as Albert Cashier. Later her tombstone would be corrected to show both of her identities. Today the stone can be seen at the cemetery in Saunemin, and it reads: "Albert D. J. Cashier, Co. G, 95 Ill Inf Civil War, Born Jennie Hodgers, in Clogher Head, Ireland, 1843-1915."

Kay also recounted, again in first person, five years in the life of "Mother Bickerdyke." Bickerdyke was a young widow and mother living in Galesburg during the Civil War.

She was nominated by members of her church to travel to Cairo with a load of food and supplies for the soldiers. The trip was to take two weeks at the most, but when she arrived, the need of her service led her to stay with her infantry until the war was over.

Bikerdyke recounted the day when Gen. William Sherman heard a complaint against her from his soldiers. He said if anyone wanted to complain about Mother Bickerdyke, they would have to go to President Lincoln, as he exclaimed, "She ranks me."

Bickerdyke stayed with the Union soldiers and accompanied Sherman on his march to the sea. She was also allowed a place of honor in the victory parade in Washington, D.C., after the war, riding on a horse decorated with flowers, alongside Sherman.

The third presentation, again given in first person, was a brief documentary on Julie Dent Grant, who was born and raised on a Missouri plantation where slaves were commonplace. When she married Ulysses S. Grant, they lived for a time in Missouri, and she was given four slaves as a wedding gift. When the couple moved to Illinois, a free state, she brought only one with her and referred to her as the maid.

Later Grant would become a leader among leaders in the Union Army. Julia Dent Grant was in the audience with her husband on the day of the victory parade in Washington, where she witnessed Mother Bickerdyke riding on a decorated horse at Sherman's side.

Betty Carlson Kay is a retired teacher. She taught in the Springfield school system for 34 years. Today she lives in Jacksonville with her husband, who pastors a church there. After retiring she took up writing books on the Lincolns and the Civil War. She travels about putting on these presentations as a means of promoting her books.

Her books are written in short segments and are age-appropriate for kids of junior high school age and up as well as adults.


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